The lure of untrammeled wilderness attracts intrepid hikers to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, despite the summer’s blazing heat and winter’s torrential rains. In addition to enjoying the isolation of Oregon ’s largest (179,655 acres) and probably least-visited wilderness, they come to take in the pink rhododendron-like blooms of Kalmiopsis leachiana (in June) and other rare flowers.
The area is also home to such economically valued species as Port Orford cedar and Cannabis sativa. The illicit weed is a leading cash crop in this part of the state, and its vigilant protection by growers should inspire extra care for those hiking during the late fall harvest season. The potential for violence associated with the lucrative mushroom harvest also mandates a measure of caution.
In any case, the Forest Service prohibits plant collection of any kind to preserve the region’s special botanical populations. These include the insect-eating darlingtonia plant and the Brewer’s weeping spruce. The forest canopy is composed largely of the more common Douglas fir, canyon live oak, madrone, and chinquapin. Stark peaks top this red-rock forest, whose understory is choked with blueberry, manzanita, and dense chaparral.
Many of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness’s rare species survived the glacial epoch because the glaciers from that era left the area untouched. This, combined with the fact that the area was once an offshore island, has enabled the region’s singular ecosystem to maintain its integrity through the millennia. You’d think that federal protection, remoteness, and climatic extremes would ensure a sanguine outlook for this ice-age forest, but an active debate still rages over the validity of some logging claims.
In summer 2002, the so-called Biscuit Fire raged out of control for weeks, ravaging nearly half a million acres of southwestern Oregon, engulfing most of the Siskiyou National Forest and virtually all of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. This inferno, the nation’s largest wildfire of 2002 and the biggest in Oregon  for more than a century, destroyed extensive habitat of the endangered northern spotted owl, whose population U.S. Forest Service biologists predict may drop by 20 percent. It will likely be decades before the forest returns to normal.
The good news, however, is that flora of the region is well adapted to periodic fires; many of the old-growth trees survived the blaze, and within a few months green sprouts and new growth of many species were reappearing amid the ashes.
Even if you don’t have the slightest intention of hiking the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, the scenic drive through the Chetco Valley is worth it. From Brookings , turn off U.S. 101 at the north end of the Chetco River Bridge, follow County Roads 784 and 1376 along the Chetco River for six miles, and then turn right and follow County Road 1909 to its end. The driving distance from Brookings is 31 miles.