Wintertime at Yontocket

By Richard Wiens/Wescom News Service January 09, 2013 09:24 am

Equestrians stop for a moment of silence at Yontocket Cemetery.
Equestrians stop for a moment of silence at Yontocket Cemetery.
Winter is a good time to approach Yontocket from the south. Ponds along the way are full of themselves and the Ridge Trail dries out quickly after the rains. The wildflowers of spring are absent, but so are the bugs of summer.

There are no sand dunes on this stretch. No redwoods, either, and just one fleeting ocean view. So there you have what the trail to Yontocket is not.

What’s left? A serene stroll amid the pines and spruces, sometimes closed in, sometimes opening out to ponds, marshy side trails and panoramic expanses. And something more: the realization that you’re journeying toward the ultimate place of Tolowa tribal sacredness. Once a village and the scene of a massacre, it’s now a pair of cemeteries.

The knowledge can lend a sense of anticipation and reverence to every step.

You probably won’t be alone. This is a popular route for joggers, dog-walkers and horse riders and you will encounter another party every mile or so.

After driving north on Lower Lake Drive and west on Kellogg Road, park near the first trailhead on the right, marked by a gate. A beaten-up sign promises ponds, marshes, Yontocket and ultimately the Smith River.

You can map the route in advance by going to Unlike some parts of Tolowa Dunes State Park, the map is fairly inclusive of the trail options in this area.

Throughout, the trail follows a two-track road used only by authorized vehicles. Within a few minutes, side-routes lead left to two sets of primitive campgrounds. Twenty minutes in, the Marsh Trail veers left, but it’s well-named and this time of year the prudent choice is to keep right on the Ridge Trail. A spare sign at the junction refers only to “Marsh” and “Ponds,” so go with the latter.

Later an unmarked side-trail to the right would weave right around the ponds, but again it’s tough slogging this time of year. Keep on the main trail and pond views kick in just fine, including one watery expanse that provides more of a lake effect (pictured). This is also the point where the Marsh Trail rejoins the Ridge Trail.

Three minutes later there’s a brief glimpse west through the trees of the world’s biggest “pond,” the Pacific. Six minutes farther north is another pond trail option to the right, this one marked but also difficult to traverse. Stay the course, and in another 13 minutes the pine tree escort starts to give way, first to a ravine on the left.

Soon the trail opens to its final expanse. A hawk soars its greeting before perching in a tree like a sentinel near the two wood-fenced cemeteries.

Yontocket. The Tolowas’ Center of the Universe. A pastoral setting that 160 years earlier was the scene of genocide: more than 450 tribal members killed by white settlers. A fourth annual candlelight vigil was recently held here to recall the atrocity and grasp at a 21st Century perspective.

No one in the know just passes through. History itself makes for a solitary commemoration.

Beyond the east cemetery are twin streams of sun-splashed blue, the nearby Yontocket Slough and distant Smith River. You could veer right from here on another twin-track trail that turns into Pala Road. It leads to a parking lot providing much closer access for folks looking to reach the cemeteries without a long hike.

You could also continue north another four-tenths of a mile to the river, or find a couple of westward passages to the beach and the option of a long, sandy return trip to Kellogg Road. 

This time, on New Year’s Day, there seems no more appropriate turn-around point than Yontocket.