By Ryan Loughrey
After visiting the Ishi Wilderness, it is easy to see how little effort it would take to disappear into the canyons, forests, and rocky outcroppings and remain undiscovered.
The Ishi Wilderness is named for the last of the of the Yahi Yana Native Americans. It is a story so woven into our local lore, but still too often unknown. The Ishi Wilderness appears to be forgotten even by maps, where it seems to have been crammed between private property, national forests and state jurisdiction. I’ve visited the northern edge, camped at Black Rock Campground along Mill Creek, but I had never driven the main road that bisects the wilderness – until Sunday.
By the look of it, travelers of this road are few and far between. Just getting to the Ishi Wilderness can be difficult unless one knows where they are are going. Rather than approaching from the north as I had before, we decided to come up from the south. From Chico, we drove in the direction of Cohasset, and after passing this little town we found we had left the pavement behind. The road is not exceptionally difficult here, but the farther north we got the less maintained the road seemed to be. On our map, we saw the name Campbellville, but discovered this to be little more than a signpost.
The mud puddles that we were coming to were daunting, as their depth could be inches or feet with no way to see through the brown liquid. Water is not an issue; getting stuck in the mud this far out could be. We drove quickly but carefully, and were assured when we saw a truck going in the opposite direction from us; we knew they had made it through whatever challenges lay ahead. (What we did not realize, however, was that this was the only vehicle we were to see on that remote road that day.)
As we climbed up the ridge, we also passed a car engine, and a few miles further, the shell of the overturned car, it’s tires long gone. It had evidently been used for target practice.
We weren’t sure how it came to be, but it seemed an odd omen. As we proceeded through the forest, we did come to a junction that overlooked a foggy valley. The viewpoint though, had become an unofficial shooting range. On one large rock, someone had written in spray paint “NO SHOOTING” but this was ignored. We saw trash and bullet shells of every sort. The viewpoint was marred by the abundance of litter. It was hard to take in the view without noticing the dump of electronics and the colorful carpet of spent shotgun shells.
Although the roads were sparsely marked, it was assuring when we came to a helipad in what seemed to be a remote community. It was a slab of cement, really, but it let us know we were on the right road and that this area was accessible in emergencies.
After the helipad, we had to make an educated guess at one fork in the road as to which was the correct path. We chose the right fork and soon found we were crawling over rocks heading down a steep hill. The brush on either side seemed to be ever encroaching on the road, and we knew that the truck was being scraped as it had not been before. We had to choose our path on the road carefully, balancing the challenge of the rocky landscape with how close we wanted to be to the bushes or the edge.
After driving for a few hours we came to our destination. In photos of this place, I’ve seen otherworldly rocky protrusions, looking like giant ant mounds frozen in time. The road was wide enough for us to pull off, and we walked on a rocky slab that overlooked Deer Creek Valley. The hills were dotted in forests, but in several areas the rock faces shone through.
We took a picnic lunch here, setting down a blanket and boiling some water to make some food and coffee. It was nice to stretch our legs and walk around after being cramped in the truck keeping a close eye on every nook and cranny of the road. We walked along the rocky surface, relaxed, and ate our lunch overlooking the sprawling hills.
Analyzing the map, it was decision time. If we went back the way we came, it had the potential to take the same amount of time as it would to proceed through the wilderness. The road on the map that continued on from this point looked desolate, but the road we had come in on was still pretty hairy. It was early enough in the day that we decided to continue on.
We followed the road down into the canyon, eventually crossing Deer Creek. There was actually a nice bridge and trailhead that would have been perfectly suitable as a campground. In fact, we found that there were numerous places where we could set up a tent and just spend the night. I tried to make a mental note as we climbed and descended over the hills. I kept waiting to see the recognizable landmark of Black Rock and the Mill Creek Canyon, but instead we found more windy roads and dirt. At one point, the road seemed to circle one particularly large and beautiful rock. Around this rock, there was an actual concrete road, which seemed so out of place considering how in the middle of nowhere we were. We realized this was done out of necessity, as the road had no doubt been washed out and the concrete had been put in place for stability.
Finally, we came to landmarks that could help us place ourselves on the map. On one hilltop, there was a signpost indicating the Lassen Trail, and the area was large enough for many cars to park. Having seen no other humans in five or so hours, this struck us as moderately humorous. We continued on, and came to a part of the forest that had long ago been ravaged by forest fire. There was still a lot of standing, dead, trees that were nothing but exposed white bark.
Here, we saw a sign to Black Rock and I knew we were in the final stretch. We followed it to the back of Black Rock where we got out and explored a little before continuing on. I drove around Black Rock Campground, again making mental notes to come back and actually try to hike the Mill Creek trail next time. We followed the rocky road north and west, along the edges of Mill Creek Valley. Finally, we came to Highway 36, and took the road home.
As we made our way back into civilization, It felt odd being among normal people who hadn’t endured the seemingly marathon drive we had just done. We did the math, and estimated that we had driven for around 7-8 hours that day. Then again, we had also seen incredible views, found a plethora of future camping sites, tested out my new truck, and navigated through new country. The Ishi Wilderness is remote, and one could easily disappear into the hills. As with my previous trip, it gave me new insight into the land that Ishi loved and roamed on. I’m glad that it is so difficult to get to, as it may preserve it a little longer. I’m already planning a return trip later this summer to follow more of the the labyrinth of roads and rock that is the Ishi Wilderness.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine