When Jedediah Strong Smith, the quintessential American mountain man, explored the extreme northwest corner of California, the wild river, massive redwoods, and botanical variety in what is now Six Rivers National Forest must have overwhelmed him. Maybe he landed a massive steelhead, or witnessed the salmon's spawning. Possibly he even negotiated the class IV and V rapids that show up after rainstorms. Along Smith River Scenic Byway, you can follow his trails and have a taste of his adventure. Smith's legacy is alive and readily apparent everywhere you turn as you travel along the byway's thirty-three miles of outdoor recreation opportunity.
Smith River Scenic Byway begins, appropriately enough, in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. This park, along with neighboring Redwoods National Park and Del Norte State Park, accounts for almost half of the state's remaining old growth forests. Along with the thirty-five story tall redwoods, a variety of other conifers flourish in these parks, a testament to centuries of ecological prosperity along the Northern California coast. Campgrounds are available to campers and backpackers who yearn to sleep among some of the world's oldest and largest inhabitants. Wildlife enthusiasts observe bobcats, black bears, coyotes, river otters, deer, and even the occasional bald eagle.
The majority of the byway follows the Smith River System's middle fork. You'll find plenty to do along its more than 300 federally protected miles. Smith River's unique position makes it a freshwater enthusiast's Mecca. It's the longest undammed river system in California and a major spawning area for up-swimming fish. If you're a fisherman looking to land a world-class salmon or steelhead, you've found the right place. The state's largest recorded Chinook salmon was caught in the Smith, along with the second biggest steelhead. Kayakers find rapids from class I to V and compete in world-class competitions. For those who don't want to haul a boat or pole around, swim or snorkel in one of the river's turquoise pools.
With forty-five branches and three major forks, Smith River creates an unrivaled watershed area and therefore a bounty of assorted plant life. You'll discover two botanical areas in the vicinity. A visit to the North Fork Smith River Botanical Area results in a glimpse at rare plant life carving out a niche in unforgiving soils. Bear Basin Butte, on the other hand, boasts fourteen different conifers, some of which are quite rare, with forests worth getting lost in and acres of wildflowers to admire.
- Public domain. Courtesy of National Park Service