By Melissa Wynn
It was the early 1990’s when long time teacher Jack Forester first read the story about the man called Ishi, the last of the Yahi Yana tribe of Native Americans that resided in the wilderness area that now bears the Ishi name. Fascinated by the story, Mr. Forester felt compelled to explore Ishi’s homeland and to share this amazingly educational experience with his students.
The Ishi Wilderness is a unique 41,000 acre, low-elevation wilderness located in a remote part of the foothills, approximately twenty miles east of Red Bluff. This is a land formed by wind, water and volcanic eruption, dotted with basaltic outcroppings, caves, and bizarre pillar lava formations. A series of east-west running ridges framed by river canyons make up the rugged landscape leading to the Black Rock Campground where Mr. Forester camped with his students annually for 18 years.
Every year in late September or early October this lover of history and the great outdoors would pack up his 6th grade class and take them on an overnight expedition to the mystical land of the long gone Yahi people. Black Rock Campground was always home for the night, and somehow Forester managed to get lucky enough every year to nab enough of the only 6 six campsites available to accommodate his class of 20-30 students.
This is a primitive campground, free to visitors, with no running water and one vault style bathroom stall. Reservations are not available and all sites are acquired on a first come, first served basis in this campground situated in the oak woodlands along Mill Creek. Campfires require a permit and are only allowed in designated fire pits. Black Rock Campground is open year round but keep in mind that the road to get there may not be passable in certain weather conditions. Contact the USFS Almanor Ranger Station in Chester for current conditions at +1.530.258.2141.
This campground is named for Black Rock, an ancient plug dome volcano towering some 300 vertical feet above the center of Mill Creek Canyon. Forced to detour it, Mill Creek itself makes a half circle around Black Rock’s base before pouring through a V-shaped slot into a beautiful pool on the downstream side. This slot was a favorite of the students as they used it for something like a water slide to make their big splash into the pool that came to be the traditional swimming hole for the annual campout. Twice during those 18 years of campouts the students had to wait for a drinking black bear to wander away before jumping in for a swim.
Black Rock and the campground are accessible from Highway 36 via a dirt road called Ponderosa Way near Paynes Creek. Seasoned back country drivers can navigate Ponderosa Way by regular car (very carefully); otherwise a high wheelbase, 4WD vehicle is strongly recommended. The road varies in condition from well-maintained gravel to bumpy, rutted bedrock with some steep, narrow, single- lane stretches along sheer, unprotected drops.
Along one such precarious spot, known as the narrows, visitors will find a stone memorial honoring the man known as Ishi. An imbedded plaque reads “Ishi… may your spirit caress the winds of these mountain tops and …grandfather look upon your people forever.” Ishi was a Yahi Indian born to this land. May you always rest well our Yahi brother.” This introduction to the adventure that lies ahead was placed there by the Redding Rancheria, Pit River Cultural Committee, and Beverly Ogle.
Mr. Forester realized that 6th grade was the perfect age to introduce Ishi and his way of life to his curious students. Along with the campout students learned about the hunting and dietary habits of the Yani people. They observed the blackberries that grow wild in the area and often spotted black-tailed deer from the Tehama deer herd, the largest migratory herd in the state. The swimming hole is teaming with trout, another primary source of food for the last of Yani people. Salmon spawn Mill Creek annually and are often found in the swimming hole as well.
Other wildlife in the area includes great herons, blue herons, wood ducks, canyon wrens, woodpeckers, flickers, vultures, numerous species of hummingbirds, black bears, coyotes, mountain lions, otters, raccoons, wild boar, and feral cattle. Rattlesnakes, king snakes and water snakes are also found in this remote piece of Mountain Valley Living territory.
To reach the Black Rock Campground from Red Bluff, head east on Highway 36. At Paynes Creek, turn right onto Plum Creek Road. Stay on Plum Creek Road for several miles. The road will wind in and out of a few drainages and eventually head east along a ridge. Lassen Peak and Brokeoff Mountain are visible to the northeast. Turn right (south) onto Ponderosa Way. Signs indicate a distance of 20 miles to the Black Rock Campground. The road quickly becomes a dirt road. After five miles, the quality of the road degrades significantly as the route drops into two major drainages; North and South Forks of Antelope Creek. The road drops down several hundred feet on one side of the canyon and then climbs back out. Eventually a ridge is crossed and Mill Creek Canyon comes into view in the distance. The road falls 1,500 feet over the next three miles, finally joining Mill Creek adjacent to the Black Rock. Ponderosa Way continues south, skirting the eastern boundary of the Ishi Wilderness, eventually dropping into Deer Creek Canyon. It provides access to the Lassen and Moak trailheads along the way. At the Black Rock, turn right just before the bridge and enter the Black Rock Campground. The trailhead to Mill Creek Canyon is at the west end of the campground.
From downtown Chico travel north to Cohasset on Cohasset Road. At the town of Cohasset, the road is renamed Ponderosa Way and turns to a dirt road. The route eventually drops into Deer Creek Canyon and crosses a bridge, where the trailhead for Deer Creek Canyon is located. Ponderosa Way continues north from here, skirting the eastern boundary of the Ishi Wilderness and leading to the Black Rock Campground.
From Chester take Highway 36 to Highway 32, left on 32 to the meadow. Logging road on the right is the start of the L line. Stay on L line proper (watch for trucks) and you’ll pass many historical markers about the 49ers route to Cohasset/Chico. A few miles after the Narrows will be the right turn-off to Black Rock and the campground. There is also a forest service cabin that can be rented up on the cliffs overlooking the Ishi Wilderness.
Whether you take your family, or a group of students as Mr. Forester did, the Ishi Wilderness is a fascinating area to visit. Walk in the footsteps of the last of the Yani people, explore their final homeland and experience their rugged way of life with a visit to Black Rock Campground.