Independence Day Weekend marked my second three-day weekend of the year. Originally I had planned to be spending this weekend at Westercon in Seattle. However the COVID-19 pandemic postponed that Westercon to next year, so absent any social plans, and given the complete impossibility of making healthy social plans, it was time to head up into the mountains.
The highest points of Del Norte and Humboldt Counties have been on my to-do list for a while. The plan was to spend the first day of the three-day weekend driving up to Bear Mountain (the Del Norte County high point), the second day ascending it, and then the third day hiking up Salmon Mountain (the Humboldt County high point) and driving home. Bear was likely to take all day and as such would not be a good candidate to combine with extensive driving. An extra bonus: routing this way, instead of trying to do Salmon first (likely on Day 1) would mean driving north on US-101 and south on I-5, thereby avoiding bridge tolls.
With this in mind, I packed the usual for a car-camping long weekend and headed up Highway 101 on Friday, July 3. It’s a long drive, reasonably pretty, especially when you get to the redwood sections, but nothing ultra special. The most notable change since the last time I came this way was the Willits Bypass, which opened in 2016. If COVID-19 wasn’t a factor it would have been nice to stop in Eureka or Crescent City, maybe see if there’s any fun bookstores or library sales to check out, but not a good year for that. Past Crescent City I turned onto Highway 199, signed for Grants Pass, and soon turned off that to head into the Smith River National Recreation Area. And that’s where the fun began.
See, the normal driving route to access the trailhead for Bear Mountain involves turning off the highway onto paved forest road 17N05 toward Pierson Cabin. But 17N05 is currently washed out, so the current recommended route involves taking South Fork Road from the highway to Big Flat, then taking 16N02 to Pierson Cabin and proceeding as normal from there. Unfortunately the map I had showed the Big Flat area as a maze of twisty forest roads, all alike, and the route I identified to connect to 16N02 didn’t have the clear connection that I thought existed. As a result, I ended up taking the dirt road 16N03 much much further than I anticipated. The good news is that theoretically this would have actually worked—16N03 eventually terminates at 16N02. The bad news is that 12.5 miles in I was blocked by a large boulder in the middle of the road.
Carefully reversing down the hill until I was able to turn around, I retreated back to (gravel) Big Flat Road and, not seeing any better options, decided to take it north and see if anything else presented itself. Big Flat Road climbs nearly to the top of Gordon Mountain (4160+’) before reaching a junction with the dirt 17N04. I turned right here and eventually connected to 17N05, proceeding further on 17N05 in the hope that maybe I was past the washed-out section, or the washout had been fixed and the Forest Service’s website just hadn’t been updated yet.
Alas, no such luck. The road was closed and blocked a few miles from the trailhead. With night falling, it was time to figure out an alternate plan for the morrow as clearly Bear Mountain wasn’t in the cards for this weekend. (I didn’t have the right road maps on me to try to find yet another route to the trailhead, and adding the extra mileage to what I already expected to be an already grueling ascent just seemed like a recipe for failure.) Opening up the Peakbagger app, I noted that the highest point of Josephine County, Oregon, was a mere thirty air miles away; my vague memories of looking up Grayback Mountain a couple years ago suggested it wouldn’t be excessively difficult. But I was too deep in the forest to have any reception, so actually researching the peak would have to wait.
Saturday, July 4. I woke up at dawn, drove back to Highway 199—this time all on pavement, using 17N05—and proceeded to Grants Pass, passing on my way signs for Oregon Caves National Monument, which I’ll have to check out next time I’m in the area. I stopped for gas, noting with mild dismay that the gas station attendant wasn’t wearing a mask, and downloaded route information about Grayback Mountain. After reviewing it and verifying that it would indeed not be excessively difficult, I turned onto Highway 238 and was on my way.
The drive through rural southwestern Oregon was uneventful, although I did note a depressing number of “Trump/Pence 2020: Keep America Great!” signs. There were a good amount of deer, and after entering the Rogue River National Forest I briefly saw a bear off the side of the road who quickly vanished into the woods. I soon made it to the Lower O’Brien Creek Trailhead (3947′), where I parked—my information suggested that the road to the Upper Trailhead was passable, but unpleasantly rough—and headed up.
The road hike up to the Upper O’Brien Creek Trailhead was boringly monotonous, and the road would in fact have been clearly doable in my Forester. (It was probably nicer than 16N03.) Oh well. Fortunately things improved once I got on trail, and I hiked through (mostly) woods up to 6200′. Here I left the trail and proceeded cross-country up the slopes of the mountain through woods that had been subject to a controlled burn, keeping the bushwacking negligible. The final stretch featured some easy talus-hopping. I topped out on Grayback Mountain (7048′) shortly after noon, three and a half hours after parking; per the summit register, I was the fifteenth party to summit this year. 
Views from the summit were not quite 360° due to trees, but I could make out the Pacific to the west and Mounts Shasta and McLoughlin crowning the distance. In the nearer ground, ridges (that I mostly didn’t recognize, having really never been to this area before) stretched away in all directions.
After enjoying the views, I headed back down the mountain, passing one party of two on the trail, returned to my car, and drove back into California via Ashland, passing over Siskiyou Summit, at 4,310 feet the highest point on I-5. Soon, however, it was time to leave I-5 for the scenic beauty of Highway 96, which parallels the Klamath River. The challenge of this drive is not to get too distracted by the river and not stop too often for pictures. Just before Orleans, I turned off the highway to head back into the national forest, where I camped overnight, free from fireworks or noisy neighbors, at the trailhead for Salmon Mountain.
Salmon Mountain is a straightforward trail hike up to 6400′ feet, with maybe a bit more up-and-down than I’d strictly prefer once it reaches the ridgeline. Unfortunately the trail refuses to commit to staying on (or near) the ridge, forcing one to leave it and trek upwards cross-country. While not difficult, the forest floor is absolutely full of fallen branches that one has to crunch though. Fortunately the crunchiest section is brief. At 6520′ I got near the ridgeline and found a faint use trail that I was able to more or less (honestly, mostly less, but at this point the navigation was super easy) follow up to the 6956′ summit. I was the fourteenth party of the year to reach the top and sign the summit register.
There are views in all directions except for some tree-obstruction to the north, but the most striking views are to the east, with an immediate sharp drop, followed by ridges upon ridges crowned by a distant Shasta. Meanwhile, to the southeast lie the striking Trinity Alps, topped by Thompson Peak and its snowfield. 
On the way back I stopped to check out an interesting rock formation known as “Indian Rocks“. I thought about trying to climb it but after seeing the thick brush that surrounded it, quickly abandoned that idea in lieu of getting home at a somewhat reasonable hour. It didn’t help that while jumping over a trail-crossing log, a branch managed to tear a small rip in my pants.
After attaining my car, I drove back down the (mostly paved, but so potholed that it must be taken slowly) road to Orleans, where I filled my tank with gas from an old-school pump, that one has to manually reset between customers and everything, and headed back south on Highway 96. After an additional quick stop at Hoopa for refreshments (that’s where to fill your tank if you want a modern gas station), it was time to really just get on with driving home. Highway 96 ends at Willow Creek, and then it’s nearly a hundred miles along Highway 299—much of which parallels the Trinity River, but time constraints prevented me from doing much more than viewing it from my window—to Redding and I-5. And from there it’s just a matter of driving home.
 I think. Not sure how to count the page-sized dragon picture.
 Technically Salmon is just within the Trinity Alps Wilderness boundaries.