California's Ishi Wilderness
Ishi Wilderness trails run through stream-carved canyons, past stunning vistas, back to gold rush days.
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Little Known Fact:?The Ishi Wilderness was named in honor of the last member of the Yahi Yana tribe, which had been wiped out by white settlers.
After negotiating the paved and dirt road from Chico, we headed into Deer Creek Canyon.
We started off hiking through a fire zone, for much of the canyon was charred during the summer of 1990. The aroma of California bay trees, freed by flame and sun, permeated the air along the path. There were volcanic cliffs and lava pillar formations, and Deer Creek wound through the lush canyon floor below. The trail passed beneath a massive face of knobby lava and between two towering lava monuments.
We descended to the creek and looked for a suitable campsite. Because of the dearth of flat ground, the Forest Service doesn’t enforce the rule requiring camping 100 feet from water and trails. A further complication is the veritable jungle on the canyon floor; clearings are scarce except high on dry ridges.
We found a spot off-trail that had been kept brush-free by winter high water. There was enough horizontal space for sleeping, fine sitting rocks, plenty of driftwood, and a waterfall sonata.
The day is different in canyon country. Direct sun leaves the canyon floor by late afternoon, yet darkness doesn’t fall for hours. Rays retreat up south-facing walls until ridge tops are scarlet from the sunset. Then night envelops the abyss.
The history of the Ishi Wilderness Area was recently commemorated by an award-winning documentary film, “Ishi ~ The Last Yahi.” The Yahi Yana tribe occupied the Ishi’s canyons for 3,000 years. Ishi was the last member to emerge from the area in 1911; the rest of his people had been displaced (often killed) by the flood of California-bound settlers. His remaining few years were spent in San Francisco with anthropologists, who recorded the only firsthand knowledge of the Yahi Yana.
The Yahi home exterminated by civilization is now protected from civilization. In 1984, the 41,000-acre area that Ishi once roamed was designated as the Ishi Wilderness.
Almanor Ranger District
Lassen National Forest
Chester, CA 96020
Lassen National Forest
55 S. Sacramento St.
Susanville, CA 96130
The wilderness area is in the southern Cascade foothills of northern California, between and east of Chico and Red Bluff. Chico is 20 miles south, and Chester is 40 miles east.
To get to Deer Creek trailhead, head for Chico 85 miles north of Sacramento on U.S. 99. Exit at Cohasset Road and drive east. Six miles from where the pavement ends, bear right and head down a steep hill for a mile. At the bottom of the hill, go straight and find a sign that says “Ponderosa Way, Deer Creek 6, Mill Creek 24.” Follow it about 10 miles to Deer Creek, the first of the trailheads. Mill Creek trailhead is accessed from the north.
Hiking is best in spring and fall, when the blazing heat of summer is tempered by chilly nights, and rattlesnakes are less active. Spring is also a prime time because of availability of water and magnificent wildflower displays, especially along Moak Trail. Summer temperatures frequently top 100 degrees F, and water is scarce.
While the Yahi Yana tribe is gone, their white-tailed deer, mountain lion, and black bear companions still thrive here. The Tehama deer herd, the largest migratory herd in California, winters in the area. Other wildlife includes wild hog, bobcat, and rabbit.
Towering cliffs are home to golden eagles, peregrine, red-tailed hawks, prairie falcons, and various owls. Other common sightings include wild turkey, quail, mourning doves, canyon wrens, band-tailed pigeons, and myriad songbirds.
Chinook salmon spawn in Deer and Mill creeks, sharing the water with squawfish, tule perch, and rainbow and brown trout.
It’s a good idea to bring insect repellent. Ticks are most active from April through October and are found on both vegetation and animals. Scorpions are not especially poisonous, but can pose some danger for children. They hide under rocks, logs, and debris.
The trails include steep descents through chaparral to dusky glens lush with live oak, Indian rhubarb, and wild grapes. Ponderosa and digger pine mingle with black, live, and blue oak, forming a shady canopy over the trail. Breaking out of the trees, the trail meanders through south-facing meadows of tall grass and wildflowers; lupine, poppy, morning glory, mule’s ear, sego lily, stonecrop succulents, snake lily, and thistle.
Camping is primitive in the wilderness. There is a year-round campground at Black Rock with five fee sites available just to the north of the wilderness. All Lassen National Forest campgrounds have fire rings, tables, and restroom facilities. Stream water is available at Black Rock.
The Almanor Ranger Station, with visitor center, is located to the east of the wilderness area.
Contact park office for information.
Campfire permits are available, but Forest Service officials recommend that you use a camp stove since wood is scarce. Fishing is allowed with a permit from the state fish and game department.
- Most of the Ishi is also a state game refuge where hunting is not permitted.
- Motor vehicles and bicycles are prohibited.
- Rattlesnakes are common during the late spring and summer months, and when temperatures soar, the snakes head toward the drainages. Keep a watchful eye while hiking on rocky shores and trails along streams.
- Be prepared for bad weather. Even though Ishi’s climate is mild with little snow, there are a few winter days when the temperature drops below freezing. Hypothermia can be a concern in cold rains. Summers are blazing hot.
- On Lassen Trail, be aware that the ridgetop is dry and no water is available.
- Poison oak is abundant in moist areas along streams, thickets, and wood slopes.
Leave No Trace:
- Stick to established trails (traveling single file) and campsites.
- If you must camp in siteless areas, choose durable terrain and camp at least 200 feet from all water sources.
- If you must use a campfire in a previously unused site, you can minimize the impact by not building a rock ring and by using a small pit dug in sandy soil.
- Pack in, pack out.
- Picket pack and saddle stock no closer than 100 feet from trails, campsites, and meadows. The pawing of horse hooves can damage tree roots and plants at their base, so it’s best to tether horses to trees for a short period of time.
All LNT guidelines apply.
The “Lassen National Forest” map is available from the Almanor Ranger District for $3.22 (contact address above). Checks must be made out to NIA, Lassen National Forest’s attributive association.
USGS 15-minute quads “Barkley Mountain” and “Devil’s Parade Ground” cover the eastern half, and “Panther Springs” and “Ishi Caves” cover the western half.
These maps are available from:
Branch of Distribution
Box 25286, Federal Center
Denver, CO 80225
Orders must be prepaid ($2.50 each includes shipping). Allow six weeks to arrive.
Other Trip Options:
- With lots of blue lakes edged in pine and fir, Caribou Wilderness is a beautiful place to experience in the summer, but in the winter it’s not accessible. It is adjacent to Lassen Volcanic National Park.
- Thousand Lakes Wilderness is also a good choice with 22 miles of trail against a backdrop of mountain meadows, lakes, and volcanic peaks. Season of use is from mid-June to mid-October.