The adventure of the North Fork of the Smith River begins as soon as you make the turn off of Highway 199 near Gasquet, CA. It should be noted that just because you can drive to the put in, does not mean that it is easy to get there. Do not let that deter you though, the road itself is spectacular with views alternating between occasional glimpses of Pacific waves to your left and a the sea of rugged wilderness rising all around you. You will wish the car was made of glass as you crane your neck trying not to miss anything.
With a map in hand, there are recognizable waypoints in the drainages you are passing. Contour lines are easy to transfer to the surrounding ridges and plateaus as trees disappear the further you go, a legacy of the Biscuit fire that burned the entirety of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness little more than a decade ago. Starkness however, or rather, sparseness has been a part of this landscape long before the Biscuit fire. The geology of the region makes it hard for many species you would expect to see in a coastal range to make a living here. The ones that have adapted to it though, are often not found anywhere else and that makes this region all the more special.
In spite of the arresting beauty all around, your mind will soon wander to that most common of wonders, are we there yet? Probably not quite, but you will know it when you are. The road begins a steep grade down to the river and the storied North Fork finally comes into sight. Across the way is the old wagon road that used to be the only option for transit through this place. Your put in used to be a rest stop for those travelers, and you can imagine how welcome the pure water of the North Fork was for them as they cooled off after a trying day.
The first thing a boater will notice about the North Fork, if you have not already jumped in and noticed it is cold, is that it is remarkably clear. The whole Smith River drainage is famous for the clarity of its water and a journey down the North Fork showcases that quality well. That eye candy serves a practical purpose too for the fish that come here spawn. They thrive in the sediment free water, returning year after year to leave eggs in the nooks and crannies along the river bottom.
A relatively quick current draws you downstream, through the initial riffles and eventually to the first of many horizon lines to be encountered during the day. The first rapid of note, Surprise, is as its name suggests, larger than the ones that preceded it. Surprise also serves as the gate keeper to Red Wall gorge. Ready or not, here the river narrows and banks rise up to lofty heights as the North Fork provides the wild ride boaters came for.
Most of the rest of your day is spend in spectacular gorges like the Red Wall, some with rapids, others with calmer water that will again leave you entranced with the clarity of the water. Seriously, its like floating on air. Bring a snorkel next time. Another thing you will notice as the day goes on is the multitude of waterfalls cascading into the river. They are impossible to count, and many of them provide perfect conditions for the carnivorous Darlingtonia lilly to flourish.
The longest rapid of the day, named Golf Course, for the eighteen holes it holds, marks the end of the major rapids on the North Fork. Past here, the river gradient eases and the sparse landscape becomes a bit more treed and lush. If it is possible to pick a favorite favorite moment from a river that makes that choice so hard, mine is when I rounded a corner and saw the Grotto. The view here is of a slightly overhung cliff face, draped in Darlingtonia lilies and trees clinging to the edge, with water flowing through the whole thing in hundreds of rivulets. All of this with the not be overlooked, gin clear North Fork in the foreground.
Even with all the challenging rapids, the hardest part of my day was leaving this spot knowing that the take out was not much further. That said though, the North Fork is beautiful until the very end. Just downstream from the Grotto, there was another enormous cliff wall gushing water and draped in greenery. I should have known. The North Fork of the Smith is no one hit wonder, from the views along the road to the put in, all the way to the last stop at take out, this place impresses. In the end, all I really have to say about it, and maybe what its best left as is this – Go there. See it for yourself.