Ishi Wilderness

It was an ominous start to a weekend adventure driving north from Chico up Cohasset Road. A thick fog slowly gave way to crystal clear skies which soon purveyed cold air and an icy road. Eventually pavement turned to dirt and as the threat of black ice dissipated snow became more common. All of this was inconsequential when the road deteriorated to deep ruts with deeper water—small ponds really—that covered our new route—Ponderosa Way. This is the only access to the Ishi Wilderness from the south and, regardless of condition, we were determined to get to the boundary and taste the wilds. Being dark and foreboding along the road-less-traveled we relented that it was not safe to continue under these conditions—we set up a car camp and waited for first light.

In the morning we finally reached the end of Cohasset Ridge but were  held up by snow on the road—we would not make it all the way to Deer Creek on this trip. Stepping out of the car among shotgun shells and beer cans and onto giant cement foundation we were underwhelmed by the immediate environment but overwhelmed by the views to the north and west. With a cup of coffee we reveled in the gentle nature of a landscape suddenly interrupted by volcanic pillars and ledges which lead into the abyss below—Deer Creek framed by the Devil's Den. The headwaters of Deer Creek and Mill Creek, which dissect a wilderness of foothill oak and pine, begin high on the slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Our next move was to drop off the ridge and get in there.

We began our hike along the highest ridges of the southern Ishi Wilderness where we have views across the volcanic tablelands to Mount Shasta and the Klamath Mountains.

This region is atypical for wilderness in that it protects a foothill, low elevation ecosystem. It is, however, understandable once one begins to attempt access. It is a long and arduous journey by road or trail, to ultimately cross these tablelands and enter a hidden world—proven by the legendary Ishi himself. Because access is difficult it was, by default, preserved from future alteration. It is now protected as Ishi himself saw it nearly 100 years ago.

Ishi, whether full blooded Yahi Yana or not, was deemed the last 'wild' Native America holdout in California. After years of survival in this forbidden land—both with fellow tribe members and alone—Ishi emerged alone from the wilds in 1919 at the age of fourty-nine2. One might now only imagine the possibilities of wilderness play (or survival?) in the spirit of the Yahi Yana. Anton Jackson and I played wilderness in early January—enjoying big views and endemic plants
. We left with a new appreciation for this region. I was also able to re-familiarize myself with a long lost friend (the California juniper).

Pinus sabiniana
The trail followed the ridgeline on the western edge of the Devil's Den with ephemeral ghost pines (Pinus sabiniana) shimmering from the chaparral.

Anton Jackson in the Ishi Wilderness
Anton Jackson scopes the wilderness into Deer Creek.

Several of the ridges above Deer Creek hold pineries, or isolated plateaus covered with ponderosa pines. The ponderosa's of Graham's pinery are confined to this plateau south of Deer Creek.

Califorina juniper above Deer Creek in the Ishi Wilderness
An old gnarly California juniper (Juniperus californica) on the volcanic ridgeline above Deer Creek.

Juniperus californica
From Adams:  "Shrubs or trees dioecious (rarely monoecious), to 8 m, multistemmed (seldom single-stemmed); crown rounded. Bark gray, exfoliating in thin strips, that of smaller and larger branchlets smooth. Branches spreading to ascending; branchlets erect, terete, about as wide as length of scalelike leaves. Leaves light green, abaxial glands elliptic to ovate, conspicuous, exudate absent, margins denticulate (at 20´); whip leaves 3-5 mm, not glaucous adaxially; scalelike leaves 1-2 mm, not overlapping, or rarely overlapping by ca. 1/5 their length, generally flattened, apex acute to obtuse, closely appressed. Seed cones maturing in 1 year, of 1 size, with straight peduncles, globose, (7)9-10(13) mm, bluish brown, glaucous, fibrous, with 1(2) seeds. Seeds 5-7 mm"

Range map for California juniper (Juniperus californica)

Pinus sabiniana on a prominent  volcanic outcrop above Deer Creek.

Anton Jackson
Our reward after a long day on the trail.

  1. Adams, Robert P. 1993. Juniperus. Flora of North America Editorial Committee (eds.): Flora of North America North of Mexico, Vol. 2. Oxford University Press..
  2. Kroeber, Theodora. 1961. Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  1. The True Cypresses 
  2. Gymnosperm Database 
  3. Ishi Wilderness on SummitPost
  4. Ishi Wilderness map


What did you think of this article?

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  • 1/11/2011 6:00 AM mttedoc wrote:
    Is there still that eye shore of a "metal box" at the end of the road? Boy those pictures brought back tons of memories from when I grew up in the area. I believe the MacNab Cypress is actually a California Juniper (Juniperus californica Carriere ). The front country of that area and north to Hwy 44 has a far amount of this in scattered sections. A good area where you could find this is off of Hwy 36 near Hog Lake northeast of Red Bluff.

    mttedoc- you are 100% correct. I just had the revelation myself after visiting the grove of MacNab cypress near Magalia this morning. I quickly jumped the gun on the ID thinking the cones were just not mature and the resin glands were missing because there was some genetic bottleneck going on way out there in the middle of nowhere.

    As far as the end of the road, the metal box was not there...but plenty of other trash is. Beautiful country just beyond!


    Reply to this
    1. 2/11/2011 3:18 PM Gambolin' Man wrote:
      Nice post, Michael - it's been a few years since I ventured into the Ishi Wilderness, but really enjoyed it, despite, as you will note in my post from then, a few ordeals and travails!

      Tom McGuire
      "Gambolin' Man"
      Reply to this
      1. 2/12/2011 5:54 AM Michael Kauffmann wrote:
        Tom- I found your post before my visit. We were worried about snow on the north side of the wilderness so we came at it from the south--where we found snow too.

        Great blog you have, keep it up!

        Reply to this
  • 7/18/2012 10:52 PM Joey Malone wrote:
    you find the C. bakeri in Deer Creek? supposed to be only a few trees. the area burned bad, not sure how long ago... just got your book in the mail, looks good, by the way!
    Reply to this
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