This hike takes you on the historic Kelsey National Recreation Trail to Bear Lake in the Siskiyou Wilderness, where beauty and solitude await. Day hike or backpack: your choice. Note that much of the first portion of the South Kelsey National Recreation Trail has burned in recent wildfires. Also be aware that you need a high-clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead.
Bear Lake Trail, Siskiyou Wilderness Key Data
Length: 6.0 miles round-trip
Hiking time: 4 hours or overnight
High point: 5,550 feet
Total elevation gain: 1,750 feet
Season: mid-June through mid-October
Water: available at Bear Lake (purify first); bring your own
Map: USGS 7.5’ Bear Peak
Information: Happy Camp Ranger District, Klamath National Forest
Bear Lake Siskiyou Wilderness Trailhead GPS coordinates: N 41 40.333 W 123 33.462
Notes: dogs allowed. Backpackers who want a campfire need a permit
Driving Directions to the Bear Lake Siskiyou Wilderness Trailhead
Take paved Forest Road 15N19, which is on CA Highway 96’s west side 72 miles north of Willow Creek, 10 miles south of Happy Camp, and 0.4 mile south of the Highway 96 bridge over Clear Creek. Always stay on the best road at intersections, and follow signs for the Bear Lake/Kelsey Trail. The pavement ends 6.5 miles from Highway 96. Drive 5.0 miles farther and turn right at the sign for Bear Lake. Continue the last 0.1 mile to the trailhead.
Hiking the Kelsey National Recreation Trail to Bear Lake in the Siskiyou Wilderness
Hike into the heart of far Northern California’s wild and remote Siskiyou Mountains; you’ll visit the deep waters of Bear Lake and be treated to a panorama of high ridges and peaks.
The Kelsey National Recreation Trail, a part of the nineteenth-century Kelsey Trail that linked Fort Jones with the Pacific Coast, begins in a forest of Douglas fir, white fir, and incense cedar. It reaches the lush greenery of Elbow Spring at 0.2 mile and then climbs moderately past an understory of Sadler oak, huckleberry oak, manzanita, and tobacco brush. At 1.5 miles the trail nears a ridge and offers open views of the forested Siskiyou Mountains to the west and south.
As you continue northwest along the ridge, red fir, a few western white pine, and the rare Brewer spruce line the path, which is occasionally punctuated by granite outcroppings. Look for a lone red fir on the right 2.1 miles from the trailhead and just east of Bear Peak. From here, you have spectacular vistas of the Siskiyou Mountains stretching north into Oregon and east toward Mount Shasta, the Marble Mountains rising skyward to the southeast, and farther southeast the rocky spires of the Trinity Alps climbing up to 9,000 feet. Note the Brewer spruce to the north just below.
Follow the Kelsey National Recreation Trail another 0.2 mile to a Siskiyou Wilderness sign, where, in addition to the mountains seen from below the red fir tree, you can see Red Hill to the west, Twin Peaks and Rocky Knob to the northwest, and 7,309-foot Preston Peak (the tallest mountain in the region) to the north, with massive Cedar Crest guarding its south flanks. Just below you’ll spy the glacial cirque enclosing Bear Lake along with an upstream pond.
Reaching Bear Lake in the Siskiyou Wilderness
Go 10 feet past the Siskiyou Wilderness sign, take the unsigned trail on the right. Make note of the Alaska yellow cedar growing around the walls of the glacial cirque. This is the southernmost range of this tree species. Descend 750 feet over the next 0.7 mile to the shores of Bear Lake. Talus slopes border the deep lake’s west side, and backpackers will find several campsites nestled in the forest that surrounds the other sides. If you want to hike more, take the Kelsey National Recreation Trail west along the ridge toward Red Hill.