When I hiked the Illinois River Trail in 2016, I passed the western end of the Silver Peak-Hobson Horn Trail (USFS #1166) on the ridge north of Fantz Ranch. I didn’t have time to think much about it then but later it popped-up when I was looking for different trails to explore. The #1166 traverses one of the most remote and pristine areas in the North Kalmiopsis Roadless Area, has had quite a convoluted history, and has a real world condition that diverges sharply from that which appears in internet searches. Of course, we didn’t know that going in, so it was just as well I billed this hike as an exploratory adventure and we did it on a clear, mild day under wide-open blue skies.
But first, we history. The Illinois River Trail was constructed between 1925 and 1926 and may have intersected an historic trail to Silver Peak around then. Regardless, an Emergency Relief Aid crew completed the Hobson Horn to Silver Peak Trail in 1940 and built a fire lookout on Silver Peak that same year. Until the mid-1980s the #1166 was reportedly maintained every other year. Since it wasn’t in a designated wilderness area, it was also identified by the Forest Service as a high quality motorized route, offering experienced motorcyclists a near wilderness experience (that any conflation of motorcycle and wilderness is nonsensical apparently escaped notice). In 1987 the area traversed by the trail was swept by the Silver Complex Fire and then, in 2002, by the even bigger Biscuit Fire. By 2015 the Forest Service had concluded that only the four-mile long segment from the Illinois River Trail to Silver Peak could be maintained for motorized use (but only during the deer and elk hunting seasons (September to May)). However, the Service’s website left us with the impression that the remaining 13 miles or so of the #1166 were maintained to some extent for hiking. Lord, what fools these mortals be…
Our first sign that something was amiss came when we found the road to the trailhead – Forest Road 2411 – lightly used, littered with rocks, and almost blocked by a rockslide and wash-out about a half-mile before the trailhead. I say “almost” because if we’d been willing to drive over a pile of rocks past a plunging canyon at a 25º angle, we could have motored to the trailhead. We weren’t, so we walked. The trailhead sign is still there but nothing else. The moment we left the trailhead, the devastation wrought 16 years ago by the Biscuit Fire was right in our faces.
The worn, tired, eroded old tread was easy to follow but it had obviously not been maintained in years. Initially, we passed through open terrain,
through patches of forest that had escaped the fires,
and across more open, rocky sections,
all under the watchful gaze of the dead.
Despite the low snow this winter, there were still small rivlets of water in some of the gullies crossed by the trail and, at 2.2 miles from where we parked, a tiny spring. This one supported a cascade of Cobra lilies,
and their remarkable flowers, which we had not seen before. The leaves – which form the cobra hood and trap insects – get most the attention because of their shape and because they are around longer than the flowers, which bloom and senesce early.
We continued on down the trail, which was becoming increasingly hemmed-in by Snowbrush, whose sticky springiness made it hard to push through. There was also poison oak mixed in with the other brush and a few ticks too (but none actually bit us).
But there are still some huge, old trees that survived all the fires.
At a little under 3 miles from the trailhead, we descended several short switchbacks to a saddle. From the top of the switchbacks, we had a view toward Silver Peak, at least 8 miles or so further west along the ridge.
Despite the poor tread and some mild bushwhacking, we had been making pretty good progress up until we reached this saddle. From there the trail contours around the west side of a bump in the ridge, a side that was fully involved in brush.
So we pushed and crawled and climbed and struggled and flicked ticks for another half-mile, to where a Montana Spring is shown on the map. No spring. As I found hiking the Illinois River Trail, the fires that swept this area (particularly the Biscuit) have altered the forest’s hydrology so what was once a wet spring is now just as likely to be a dry dip in the dirt. Looking ahead from where this spring was supposed to be, all we could see was what looked like even denser brush, so we called the exploration here, had a snack, and headed back.
Maybe the remaining piece of road is wider than it looks but…
All in all, a good exploratory hike (7.8 miles round-trip; 1,900 feet of elevation gain) with the Cobra lily flowers the high point of the day. This part of the trail seems well along toward oblivion and the western end of the trail has its issues too. Both provide another lesson in always deploying critical thinking when reading something on the internet. But the fading away of the #1166 might not be as sad as it seems since the historic reasons for it – a connection between the Rogue and Illinois Rivers, access to mines, access to a fire lookout – are behind us now. The #1166 also suffers from a failing eastern access road and no water sources for 15 of its 18 miles. So rather than expend limited trail maintenance funds trying to keep it alive, those funds could perhaps be spent, for example, on maintaining the more popular Illinois River Trail?