Kalmiopsis Wilderness, After the 2002 Biscuit Fire


The United States Congress designated the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in 1964 and it now has a total of 179,755 acres. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is part of the 107 million acre National Wilderness Preservation System. This System of lands provides clean air, water, and habitat critical for rare and endangered plants and animals. In wilderness, you can enjoy challenging recreational activities like hiking, backpacking, climbing, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, horse packing, bird watching, stargazing, and extraordinary opportunities for solitude. You play an important role in helping to "secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness" as called for by the Congress of the United States through the Wilderness Act of 1964.

The nearly 500,000 acre Biscuit Fire of 2002 included the entire wilderness area. The environment has changed dramatically and provides a unique opportunity to observe a natural response to fire disturbance through plant succession, erosional and depositional occurrences and changed habitat for flora and fauna. While the lightning-caused fire was a natural event for the wilderness, it did provide damage to the nearly 160 miles of trails and trailhead facilities. Large areas of high fire severity occurred, killing much of the overstory trees in these areas, which has resulted in damage to the trail system over time, with areas that are now largely overgrown with brush or heavily overlaid with downed snags. The trails have always been challenging due to their steepness and narrow rocky surface, but the impacts from the fire includes added challenges, such as large numbers of downed trees, missing trail signs, holes and loose rock on the tread. For now and in the foreseeable future, wilderness users should recognize the need for increased safety awareness when traveling and camping.


Kalmiopsis Wilderness

This nearly 180,000 acre Wilderness includes the headwater basin of the Chetco and North Fork Smith Rivers and a portion of the Illinois River canyon. This is a harsh, rugged area with a unique character. Elevations range from 500 to 5,098 feet (Pearsoll Peak). The area is characterized by deep, rough canyons, sharp rock ridges and clear rushing mountain streams and rivers. Diversity of topography and geology provide excellent habitat for a wide variety of botanical species.

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness is well-known for its diversity of plant life. Much of this diversity results from plant species adapting to life in harsh soils derived from peridotite and serpentinite rocks. Both are rich in heavy metals such as magnesium, iron, chromium and nickel, which in high amounts, can be toxic to most plants. The diversity of plant habitat has been the result of a combination of geologic forces (uplift, folding and faulting), erosional and depositional forces (glaciation, weather, climate and the action of rivers), and periodic fires.

The Kalmiopsis leachiana plant was discovered in 1930 by Lilla Leech in the Gold Basin area. The plant is a relic of the pre-ice age and the oldest member of the Health (Ericaceae) Family. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness was named after this unique endemic shrub. Many a subsequent botanist has invested their heart and soul into further documenting the unique flora in this area, so make sure you ask the staff at Wild Rivers and Gold Beach Ranger Districts for information!

Besides being a place of great botanical interest, the Kalmiopsis Wilderness is also one of the most unusual and complex geological areas of our country. The Kalmiopsis is part of the Klamath Mountain geologic province of northwestern California and southwestern Oregon. The eastern half is part of the Josephine "ultramafic" sheet. "Ultramafic" means that the geology contains high amounts of iron and magnesium. The western half is underlain by the contorted sedimentary rocks of the Dothan formation, and by the igneous intrusive rocks of the Big Craggies. Most of the rocks in this province were formerly parts of the oceanic crust and included serpentine, submarine volcanic flow rocks, intrusive granite-like rocks, and sedimentary rocks such as shale and sandstone.

Illinois River Rafters - Photo by Rene CasteranThe Wild segments of the Illinois, Chetco and North Fork Smith Rivers flow through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, providing clear water, fish habitat and water-based recreation in a remote and primitive setting. Lake environments are limited, primarily to Babyfoot Lake on the eastern boundary and Vulcan Lake on the west. Since these areas are readily accessible from nearby trailheads, they do receive a greater amount of day-use visitation.

General Wilderness Prohibitions

Please follow the requirements outlined below and use Leave No Trace techniques when visiting the Kalmiopsis Wilderness to ensure protection of this unique area.

Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited on all federal lands designated as wilderness. This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters, unless provided for in specific legislation.

In a few areas some exceptions allowing the use of motorized equipment or mechanical transport are described in the special regulations in effect for a specific area. Contact the Forest Service office or visit the web sites listed on the 'Links' tab for more specific information.

These general prohibitions have been implemented for all National Forest wildernesses in order to implement the provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Wilderness Act requires management of human-caused impacts and protection of the area's wilderness character to insure that it is "unimpaired for the future use and enjoyment as wilderness." Use of the equipment listed as prohibited in wilderness is inconsistent with the provision in the Wilderness Act which mandates opportunities for solitude or primitive recreation and that wilderness is a place that is in contrast with areas where people and their works are dominant.

Kalmiopsis Wilderness-Specific Regulations

Wilderness managers often need to take action to limit the impacts caused by visitor activities in order to protect the natural conditions of wilderness as required by the Wilderness Act of 1964. Managers typically implement "indirect" types of actions such as information and education measures before selecting more restrictive measures. When regulations are necessary, they are implemented with the specific intent of balancing the need to preserve the character of the wilderness while providing for the use and enjoyment of wilderness.

The following wilderness regulations are in effect for this area. Not all regulations are in effect for every wilderness.

Storing equipment, personal property, or supplies is prohibited.

Pertains only to Illinois River Wild and Scenic corridor within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Prohibits building, maintaining, attending or using an open fire except in a firepan or similar device that will contain the fire and its residue.

Group size restriction: overnight use of the area by a group of more than 12 persons and/or nine saddle or pack animals is prohibited. Note: this does not apply to day-use.

Group size restriction: overnight use of the area by a group of more than 12 persons and/or nine saddle or pack animals is prohibited. Note: this does not apply to day-use.

Mandatory unrestricted free permit required to float, via non-motorized devices, the Wild and Scenic Chetco River. Permit used to monitor use and for health and safety purposes.

Mandatory unrestricted free permit required to float, via non-motorized devices, the Wild and Scenic Illinois River. Permit used to monitor use and for health and safety purposes.

Possessing or storing hay or unprocessed (viable) grain is prohibited.

Possessing or using a wagon, cart, bicycle or other vehicle is prohibited.


NOTE: While trailwork is ongoing on the trails in the Kalmiopsis following the 2002 Biscuit Fire, conditions are ever-changing, and it is always a good idea to ask for current trail statuses. You can do this at the Wild Rivers Ranger District, or the Siskiyou Mountain Club, our valued partners in helping to restore these remote and beautiful trails.

There are several trailheads that provide access from either the Illinois Valley (from Highway 199 near Selma and Cave Junction) and the Oregon Coast (from Highway 101 and the towns of Brookings and Gold Beach).

A mandatory Wilderness Permit is not required, but we do ask that you fill out a voluntary registration card at the trailheads where they are available.

Aside from the lower elevations on either end of the Illinois River Trail, there is little opportunity for recreation in the winter or early spring. Snow blocks the roads to most of the trailhead, which are at higher elevations. The Chetco River has two ford locations that are not safe to attempt until late spring, depending upon winter snow and spring rainfall. The ford on the Illinois River at Collier Bar typically is not feasible until late July or early August.

Prior to being designated, this wilderness had a long history of mining activity, both for gold and chromite. Some gold mining claims still exist, as well as private land within the wilderness. Most of the roads associated with mining activity date to the 1940s and 1950s and are not longer driven; they have become part of the trail system. These routes can become confusing for hikers as they alternate between road and trail sections. The Kalmiopsis Wilderness map shows both roads and trails to aid in your route finding.

Cross Country travel (off trail) is not recommended due to the dense vegetation and steepness of the terrain. The best limited opportunities are found along sparse ridges and along some sections of the rivers and creeks. This sort of activity should only be attempted by the most experienced hikers in good physical condition and with skills in map and compass reading. Additionally, weather conditions can change very quickly in this area, often resulting in gusty winds. Due to the large number of standing dead snags resulting from the 2002 fire, visitors should use great caution if venturing from the trails, particularly when weather conditions are unfavorable. Remember the Leave No Trace principle: When in pristine areas, spread use and camp and travel on durable surfaces to minimize your impact.

Trailheads (Check trail conditions before your visit, please!)
  • Briggs Creek Trailhead*: Illinois River Trail 1161
  • Chetco Pass Trailhead*: Kalmiopis Rim Trail 1124 and Upper Chetco Trail 1102
  • Onion Camp Trailhead: Kalmiopsis Rim Trail 1124
  • Babyfoot Trailhead: Babyfoot Lake Trail 1124A and Babyfoot Rim Trail 1126
  • Baldface Trailhead: Baldface Trail 1215 and Kalmiopis Rim Trail 1124
  • North Fork Smith River Trailhead: North Fork Smith River Trail 1233 and Sourdough Trail 1114
  • Vulcan Lake and Johnson Butte Trailhead: Vulcan Lake Trail 1110A, Johnson Butte Trail 1110 and Gardner Mine Trail 1122
  • Chetco Divide and Vulcan Peak Trailhead: Chetco Divide Trail 1210, Vulcan Peak Trail 1120, and Red Mountain Trail 1105
  • Upper Chetco Trailhead: Upper Chetco Trail 1102
  • Tincup Trailhead: Tincup Trail 1117 and Mislatnah Trail 1119
  • Horse Creek Trailhead: Red Mountain Trail 1105
  • Sourdough Trailhead: Sourdough Trail 1114 and North Fork Smith River Trail 1233
  • Game Lake Trailhead: Pupps Camp Way Trail 1174
  • Oak Flat Trailhead: Illinois River Trail 1161

*Most roads to trailheads are accessible by 2-wheel-drive vehicles, except for: Forest Service Road 087 from McCaleb Ranch on the Illinois River up to Chetco Pass (this is a 4x4 road requiring good clearance) and the last 1 1/2 miles on Forest Service Road 4103 (Illinois River Road) before the trailhead along Briggs Creek.

Pack and Saddle

Although the trails are open to saddle and pack use, many are not well suited for their use. They are narrow, steep rocky, and often brushy trails which receive inconsistent maintenance. Originally, many were never designed with recreation use in mind (many were for access to homesteads, mining claims or used administratively). Only those stock users with adequate experience should consider trips into Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The best wilderness opportunities for equestrian use on the forest occurs within the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

Kalmiopsis leachiana Plant

Kalmiopsis leachiana Plant - Photo by Lee WebbThe Kalmiopsis and Wild Rogue Wilderness map highlights the area of know Kalmiopsis leachiana plant populations. The earliest bloom (about April) occurs at low elevations along the Illinois River Trail, about 2.5 miles from the trailhead in the York Creek Botanical Area and can be done as a day hike. Later blooming (about May-June) occurs at higher elevations at the south east side of Vulcan Lake (day hike), along the Johnson Butte Trail near Dry Butte (day hike), on the Upper Chetco Trail between Slide Creek and Taggards Bar and on the Baily Mountain Trail down to Carter Creek (these last two locations require backpacking).

Hunting and Fishing

Hunting and fishing is possible in the wilderness as long as all Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) regulations are followed. Many restrictions do apply, so check on ODFW regulations. Vulcan Lake is a naturally barren lake and does not support a fish population. Fish do exist in Babyfoot Lake, which occasionally is stocked by the State. Unfortunately some ill-advised and illegal stocking of the lake with non-native bass has occurred in the past and some of these fish have persisted.

Geology and Mining

Much of the area's geology is complex, with unique locations composed of an abrasive, reddish-brown-color igneous rock called peridotite. Serpentinite is a common altered (metamorphosed) form, and appears as a slick-looking glossy rock of greenish color.

The diverse geology and soils yield a wide selection of plants to challenge your botanical knowledge and offer photographic opportunities. (Remember the Leave No Trace guideline: Leave What You Find!)

The Wilderness Act of 1964 does allow mining on valid existing claims, although no new claims can be established today. Some existing primitive roads provide access to these operations. Historic mine sites for gold and chromite can still be found in the form of cabin sites, mine adits and ditches.

Geological Points of Interest: Vulcan Lake, Vulcan Peak and Gardner Mine Trails Brochure.