Sunday we had our third article published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, the local daily in our hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming. It talks about our recent travels in California as we get closer to our goal of hiking in all 155 National Forests! Please find the entire article below:
Wilderness experiences in northern California’s Mendocino National Forest
The first shock of dipping my bare foot into the frigid water of the South Fork of Stony Creek temporarily made my brain go blank. I was already a bit cold since the air temperature was in the 40s, but thankfully it was not breezy at the bottom of this steep, forested canyon. My wife, Tiff, held my forearm and in my other hand I grasped a stick I picked up on shore to help balance on the rounded rocks. The creek was only ten feet across, but it was running deep and fast enough that there was no way to hop across it. We made it through quickly together, taking turns moving and providing stabilization, but as we approached the opposite side the burning sensation in my feet was quite unpleasant. As I sat down to put my socks and shoes back on, I was grateful for the steep climb ahead of me so I could warm up on my way to Deafy Glade.
I was in northern California to visit Mendocino National Forest, the second to last stop in my quest to hike in all 155 national forests. Tiff and I rolled into the forest after dark, driving up to 3,000 feet in elevation from the valley and setting up a dispersed campsite. The view looking east the next morning was beautiful, the mountains of the Coast Range lit up by the rising sun. As we drove the winding road to the trailhead, we passed campgrounds full of RVs that were getting ready for a motorcycle event that weekend. Our hike took us far from any road noise, past congregations of lady bugs that numbered in the hundreds as we climbed steeply to 5,300 feet in elevation. The trail continued to the summit of 7,056-foot Snow Mountain, but we already found great views of the Rice Valley and decided to turn around at the 4.5 mile point, just inside the official boundary of the Snow Mountain Wilderness.
Despite its relative proximity to the densely-populated San Francisco Bay area, the Snow Mountain Wilderness feels quite remote. Our drive west of Interstate 5 into Stonyford, California cut through a rural area of the state with more cattle than people. Once we crossed the boundary into Mendicino National Forest we saw even fewer signs of civilization. The 915,532-acre National Forest stretches north-south along the Coast Range covering parts of six counties. There are 18 National Forests in California, the most of any state, but Mendocino is the only one not crossed by a paved highway. It is a wonderful destination for outdoor recreation, both motorized and non-motorized.
We originally scheduled a visit to Mendocino National Forests last summer, but about half the forest was closed due to firefighting efforts and the rest had awful air quality conditions. That wildfire eventually burned more than one-million acres, and this was only two years after the Mendocino Complex Fire burned 284,000 acres, including the entire Snow Mountain Wilderness. Heartbreakingly, a firefighter was killed by falling debris during that incident. Tragedy previously struck here in 1953, when one U.S. Forest Service employee and 14 volunteer firefighters died in the Rattlesnake Fire.
Firefighting annually consumes more than half the Forest Service’s $7-billion budget, especially in western states where forests are naturally evolved to burn periodically. Less than 25 years ago that was not the case, but the agency’s spending drastically shifted over time. We expected a desolate landscape after reading about the recent fires, but about three-quarters of the trees along the Deafy Glade Trail were still alive and showed only minor charring at their bases.
Much of the vegetation in Mendocino National Forest is chaparral, a mix of shrub species that are adapted to a frequent fire return interval. Ceonothus, mountain-mahogany, and manzanita are examples of shrubs that bounce back quickly after burning. Even the native tree species, like Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine and sugar pine, grow thick bark to survive surface fires. Knobcone pine and gray pine adapted serotinous cones that remain on the tree for decades, opening up to release their seeds by the heat of a fire. Unique species like Sargent cypress and the shorter McNab cypress grow on outcrops of serpentine rock where there is less vegetation to carry flames. These trees can tolerate the high magnesium levels in the soil of this bedrock that are toxic to other plants. Both species of cypress can be found growing along Frenzel Creek near Little Stoney Campground.
The Snow Mountain Wilderness covers 60,076 acres entirely within Mendocino National Forest and since 2015 the new Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. There are three other Wilderness areas designated in this national forest: Sanhedrin, Yuki and Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel (which also spreads into Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests). According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, a Wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The law states a Wilderness must be at least 5,000 acres in size and expressly prohibits road building, oil exploration, mining, and logging. It also bans the use of all motorized equipment, in addition to bicycles and hang gliders (which are actually quite popular on Hull Mountain in Mendocino National Forest).
Forty years before passage of the Wilderness Act, the 558,014-acre Gila Wilderness in New Mexico became the world’s first designated Wilderness due to the efforts of forward-thinking people like Forest Service Supervisor Aldo Leopold. Many of the 109-million acres of Wilderness areas in the United States today would not meet his definition of an area “big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip.” While the majority of National Park Service land is Wilderness (nearly 44-million acres), this does not officially include some of its wildest areas, like Yellowstone National Park. About 18% of the Forest Service’s land holdings are designated Wilderness (more than 36-million acres). My travels in national forests took me to some extremely remote mountainous areas like Wyoming’s Fitzpatrick Wilderness, as well as swampy Indian Mounds Wilderness in eastern Texas that is literally bisected by a paved road.
The first Wilderness designated in a U.S. territory was created in 2005 in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, the final destination in my journey to all 155 National Forests. I look forward to sharing my experiences from the only tropical national forest with you in a few weeks.