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Alone at the Top

The rewards of a tough climb up Salmon Mountain



Salmon Mountain is situated on the borders of Humboldt and Siskiyou counties, a stone's throw away from the triple point with Trinity County. At 6,960 feet, its highest point lies within Humboldt's borders. It is a force to be reckoned with and covered in snow most of the year. Its almost alpine environment throws a curveball in the traditional Humboldt geography, making the drive to the actual trailhead longer than the hike itself, and that hike brings its own risks.

After researching its location, I took a deep breath and a big swallow, and made sure I ate something easy on my stomach the night before. The route to the trailhead is as slithery as the centipede I encountered on the trail itself. And after two and a half hours of driving windy roads, I needed all my concentration and a bulletproof gut to make it in one piece, then strap in and begin climbing.

With views of the Klamath and the scenic mountain surroundings, the feelings of the ocean quickly dissipated. Once in the town of Orleans, the bouncing, winding dirt roads lead to the trailhead. With what seems like such a short distance in mileage takes ages straddling potholes and dodging falling rock and downed trees, all while being distracted by deer and bobcats. This is where the homework pays off. With what you might think is a road, turns out to be where you have to go. No amount of Google mapping is enough and no National Forest map can really paint the picture of the route to the trailhead. With a road that seems traveled by more wildlife than cars, you might wonder whether you are going the right direction. But the road dead ends and a sign for the trailhead lifts the worry from your shoulders.

I decided to car camp at the trailhead and set off on the 4-mile trail to the summit for a sunrise bid. I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. with the goal of having the best cup of coffee in my life atop Humboldt's highest peak. It took a bit to peel my eyes open after a restless night of sleep but I got the head lamp on, shoes laced and backpack shouldered. In complete darkness beneath the canopy of trees, I set off.

I knew it was only 4 miles and that I could do that in just over an hour. So I left the trailhead figuring I'd get close just as light was beginning to crest the horizon. As time seemed to crawl, my confidence about whether I was not only going to make it in time faltered. But I kept climbing and eventually saw the dim silhouette of a summit. The trail doesn't technically go directly to the summit, so I took a quick 100-yard dash off trail. With what I assumed was Humboldt's highest peak directly in front of me, I strapped my hiker poles to my pack and began climbing up the mix of shrubs and shale to the summit of Salmon Mountain.

I got to the top just in time to watch the sun glow the distant peak of Mount Shasta. Without a cloud in the sky and the horizon a bright red-orange, I dropped my pack and let out a hoot of joy that echoed around me. Laughing almost hysterically, I held off on the coffee for a minute to shoot some photos of the prettiest sunrise Humboldt has to offer. To the east were the Trinity Alps, Marble Mountains and Mount Shasta; to the west, the fog layered coast of the Pacific. Wildflowers greeted me with their beauty and the silence of it all was the greatest applause I could have ever asked for after summiting Salmon Mountain at sunrise.

Getting There

Take State Route 299 East to Willow Creek. Once in Willow Creek, turn left onto State Route 96 toward the Hoopa Valley Reservation and ultimately Orleans. From Orleans, turn right onto Red Cap Road. When the road forks, veer left onto what is formally known as 10N01 or Salmon Mountain Trail on Google Maps. There will be other forks in the road — always stay left. The road will dead end where you will see a sign for Red Cap Lake and the trailhead to Salmon Mountain. The drive one-way to the trailhead should take anywhere between 2.5-3 hours.

Sean Jansen is a freelance writer and photographer in Humboldt. He prefers he/him pronouns.

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