Kalmiopsis Wilderness

The Metal Mountains

There is no place on Earth like the Kalmiopsis Wilderness; it is a botanist’s dream, a geologist’s classroom, and a hiker’s ultimate challenge.

The mountains of the Kalmiopsis emerged from the ocean floor as result of geological uplift (rather than volcanism) and have been subject to folding and faulting ever since. As a result, the unique soils are packed with heavy metals including nickel, iron, chromium, and magnesium that make life hard for most plant life. To survive in this environment plants have had to evolve and adapt to get by in circumstances that would normally kill most flowering species. More than any other wilderness in the region, the Kalmiopsis is the home of oddball survivors.

The Wilderness derived its name from an unassuming pink-flowered shrub discovered in 1930 by botanist Lilla Leech. Growing nowhere else in the world, Kalmiopsis leachiana is the oldest member of the Heath Family and a pre-ice age relic that thrives in botanical hotspots scattered throughout the wilderness.

The Wild Rivers

One would be hard pressed to name three more wild and scenic rivers than the Illinois, the Chetco and the North Fork Smith. All three boast water of breathtaking clarity and beauty. All three are undammed from their wilderness headwaters to the ocean. All three are remote, spectacular visions of the West before bulldozers, roads, and logging turned our watersheds into commodities.

The Illinois is the most visited of the three mighty Kalmiopsis rivers. The Illinois River Trail is the last and only trail the Forest Service still bothers to maintain in the 180,000 wilderness. It is a challenging, storied and rewarding 3-day backpack that rivals any hike anywhere. The Illinois also gets the most river traffic. It is a highly technical run that draws experienced river rats wanting to experience the challenge of the “Green Wall” rapid.

The North Fork Smith also boasts a world-class river run. Accessible only during spring high flows, the North Fork Smith’s beauty is simply stunning. There are places where carnivorous Darlingtonia plants literally drip down the canyon walls. Words cannot do justice to the secret wonders of the North Fork. 

Most wild of all is the headwaters of the Chetco River. Just getting to the headwaters is a serious adventure for serious hikers. Believe it or not, some adventurers not only hike the brutal 10 miles in, they also bring pack rafts and head to the wild heart of the wild wilderness.

The Burn

Much of the Kalmiopsis was burned in the 2002 Biscuit Fire. The 500,000- acre blaze was (at the time) the largest in Oregon’s recorded history, and it was long overdue. The forests and flowers of the Kalmiopsis evolved not only with metallic soils, but also with the influence of wildfire. Without fire, meadows would disappear, knobcone pines would not propagate, and the botanical diversity of the wilderness would be reduced. The Kalmiopsis is a fire-dependent wilderness.

The Biscuit Fire changed the wilderness tremendously. Forest canopy was lost on thousands of acres, particularly on the east flank of the wilderness where the Forest Service utilized backburn and burnout operations that were designed to burn at high intensity. 

The Hike

The experience of starting at one of the ridgeline trailheads and hiking down into the wild wilderness can be daunting. Burned forests offer little shade, tanoak and brush response make trails hard to find and even harder to follow, and the terrain is almost unimaginably rugged. Much like hardy rare plants that grow out of the harsh soils, or the wild rivers that have carved a path through the rock, hiking the Kalmiopsis requires toughness. Preparation, hardiness and gumption are prerequisites. In a time when most of the world can be driven to, or seen through a computer screen, the Kalmiopsis offers something so rare as to be almost non-existent: wildness on its own terms.

The Threats

There are those who would like the greater Kalmiopsis to go the way of most of the rest of North America. Industrial nickel mines are proposed for the headwaters of the North Fork Smith watershed. Off-road vehicles frequently cause illegal damage to the area’s watersheds and wildlands. And the Forest Service only seems to show interest in the Kalmiopsis and its surrounding roadless areas when it sees an opportunity for “salvage” logging. But the Kalmiopsis has many rough and ready friends who will stand for this most wild of wildlands. Would you like to be one of them?