A Trip Up Mt. Konocti
Tom Nixon, a retired Park Ranger, lives in Kelseyville and has led hundreds of climbs up Mt. Konocti. Here is Tom's expert advise for your hike to the top of Mt. Konocti.
As you drive east on Main St. in downtown Kelseyville, you soon become aware of the looming mountain on the horizon that stands like a beacon above this town within lake County’s ‘Big Valley.’ As you approach the high school, turn left on Konocti Rd. The road leads you between the school and its football stadium. In a little over a mile, the pavement ends onto a dirt/gravel road that begins to slowly ascend onto the mountain. For approximately 3 more miles, past private residences, orchards, ranches, and eventually the entrance gate at Mt. Konocti County Park, you will be treated to spectacular views of the Big Valley and Clear Lake before reaching your destination at the main parking in the park.
On the drive up you’ll notice how smoothly the valley blends into the lake. The valley, many thousands of years ago, was once part of the lake. Now the valley is uplifted and tilting northward towards Highway 20, where the lake skirts the towns of Nice, Lucerne and Clearlake Oaks. As you continue to wrap around the mountain road and climb, you’ll also eventually notice views to the south where the Mayacama Range of mountains continue southeasterly towards Cobb Mt., the geothermal fields, and eventually Mt. St. Helena, that towers over the Napa Valley and the town of Calistoga. Directly below you, is the Highway 29 corridor that moves east towards Lower Lake.
Mt. Konocti is technically a ‘composite’ or ‘strato-volcano’ that began laying down layers of hot slow oozing lava between 2 to 1.35 million years ago.
Geology tells us that there were several series of eruptions, each interrupted by periods of inactivity. The shape of today’s volcano was most probably created between 300,000 to 600,000 years ago. The still current hot subterranean magma field is part of the broader Clear lake Volcanic Area, located approximately 5 miles below the earth. The center of this magma field is found underneath Mt. Konocti’s southern volcanic neighbor, Mt. Hannah. Mt. Hannah (elevation 3,976 ft.) lies between Mt. Konocti (elevation 4299 ft. above sea level) and Cobb Mt. (elevation 4,772 ft.) The magma field covers an area of approximately 15-20 miles in diameter and still generates energy as evidenced by the commercial geothermal steam vents near Cobb Mt.
The southern facade of Mt. Konocti, like all mountains, is drier because of its longer exposure to the pounding rays of the sun. As a result, the vegetation in these areas is predominated by the sun tolerant plants of the chaparral. Toyon, Manzanita, Chamise, Coyote Brush, and other similar plants form a thick resin rich cover over the topography. The larger trees such as Douglas Fir, Gray Pine, Knobcone Pine, and Canyon Oak are usually found in the shadows of the northern facing slopes.
Even boaters along the Soda Bay Area of Clear Lake often witness the magma charged bubbles of gas and air that surface along its shoreline. The most recent major volcanic activity associated with the Clear Lake Volcanic Area took place across the lake and north of the mountain near present day Clearlake Oaks, approximately 40,000 years ago.
The southern façade of Mt. Konocti, like all mountains, is drier because of its longer exposure to the pounding rays of the sun. As a result, the vegetation in these areas is predominated by the sun tolerant plants of the chaparral. Toyon, Manzanita, Chamise, Coyote Brush, and other similar plants form a thick resin rich cover over the topography. The larger trees such as Douglas Fir, Gray Pine, Knobcone Pine, and Canyon Oak are usually found in the shadows of the northern facing slopes.
Arriving at the parking lot, you’ll find picnic tables, a restroom and an interpretive display that gives the visitor helpful information about the mountain. The first display has information on the series of historical names the mountain has been called over the years and is entitled, “What’s In A Name: Mt. Konocti.”
There is no water available at the park. Please bring adequate water with you if you intend on hiking. It is also advised that you wear appropriate clothing and footwear. A light snack to boost energy it also advised. Cellphone reception is usually quite good and can be helpful downloading interpretive applications on your cell phone or by downloading konoctitrails.com. Please lock your vehicle and do not leave enticing objects in view.
From the parking lot, it is 3 miles to the top of Wright Peak (the park’s highest point) where the Cal Fire lookout tower perches over the landscape. The elevation gain is a bit over 1600 ft. This means that the hike is moderately difficult and requires some physical conditioning. An alternate hike to Buckingham Peak (3,952 ft.) is available after ascending the mountain for 1 mile and following the trail markers. Currently, the gravel road to both peaks, are the trails. There are occasionally service vehicles that share the road. Lake County Parks Department is currently exploring additional trail corridors up the mountain and towards Clear Lake State Park but this is an ongoing endeavor.
So you’re ready to hike. Follow the gravel road up to the first vehicle gate and past through the turnstile on the left after checking for a brochure in the holder next to the gate. At the first bend in the road, the trail temporarily leaves the road to avoid the public from interfering with the privacy of a local private property inholding. The trail loops around a walnut orchard, for a brief interlude, eventually rejoining the service road after climbing a stairway. You are back on the main road/trail with increasing views, on your left, of Clark Peak where the Kelseyville “K” marks the west side of the peak. Clark Peak, as well as the county road below, were named after Peter Clark, an early settler who homesteaded near the current Quercus Ranch Area in the area of Kelsey Creek. Future trails towards Clear Lake State Park will lead in this direction.
At the top of the rise we come to the “Y”. Here the road/trail splits. The left road takes you to Buckingham Peak (elevation 3,967 ft.). The right path leads to Wright Peak and the lookout tower. There is also another restroom, several picnic tables, and a cleared landing zone for a helicopter.
Buckingham Peak – Originally called ‘North Peak,’ Buckingham Peak was named after a local family associated with the early development of, what we know today as, the Buckingham residential area on the volcanically created peninsula that divides the lake at its middle. A half mile travel from the “Y,” takes you north to the peak. Here the county maintains a fenced communications area that prohibits public access. However, hikers can traverse to the right of the fenced area for spectacular views at the top of the cliffs that rise above the Buckingham Peninsula. This is a shear cliff with a dramatic drop, so be careful. This is not a place to bring children. The views are incredible. It reminds me of some of the most beautiful views I’ve seen at other areas in the American west. A few picnic tables are also available nearby. There are currently no developed trails at Buckingham Peak, so you’ll need to return the way you came by returning to the “Y.” Approximately ½ way back to the “Y,” search along the west-side of the roadway for “Cedric’s Place.”
Cedric’s Place - Cedric Howard was the son of Euvelle and Maud Howard who, with their large family, lived on the mountain for many years. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot the old foundation of a structure and a poured cistern that’s located within several feet of the road. Finding it is an adventure for sure, but it’s relatively easy to find if you’re willing to do a little bushwhacking. Be careful of poison oak. It’s called “Cedric’s Place,” without true verification. Cedric’s family’s main residence was further down the mountain in what is currently the private in-holding, but there is some reasonable evidence that he is responsible for this smaller structure as well. Additional research, however, is needed.
Back on the road, you continue your return to the “Y.” Turn left, on the road up towards Wright Peak, and continue climbing. Within a short distance, of several hundred yards, is the second interpretive display entitled, “The First People.” The panel gives a brief description of the native peoples of the region and their deep respect and spiritual connection to the mountain.
Canyon Oak Woodland – The road begins to climb again as you catch glimpses of the south. In just under ½ mile the vegetation begins to change rather unexpectedly. The dry chaparral gives way to a more shaded canopy of Canyon Oak. My first reaction was,
“What is this doing here?” “Where are the Hobbits?”
Canyon Oaks are a members of a widely dispersed type of oak that manifests itself in many forms (small brushy, twisted mid-sized trees or full size large behemoths). They are also historically known as “Maul Oaks,” because they are one of the oak family’s hardest woods. Yes, wood mauls, for splitting wood, were made of this species. Under the trees, a ground cover of Oregon grape carpets the earth. Insects, love the shaded, cooler, moister environment of this canopy. Mosquitoes, not experienced earlier, may make their presence known here. They hatch inside of the oaks in cavities that hold small reservoirs of water. California Newts, an amphibian that begins it life cycle in water, can also be found here. Canyon Oaks support an important ecosystem of life support by supplying shade, cover, nesting, and food. Acorn Woodpeckers, Deer, Turkeys, Bobcat, Mountain Lion and other species benefit from this environment. A third interpretive panel, found here, entitled, “A Living Mountain,” describes several of the mountain’s important habitats and some of the species it supports.
Downen’s Cabin – Mary Downen was a remarkable woman. She left Arkansas, just prior to the American Civil War, when she was 16 years old on the adventure of a lifetime. She embarked from New Orleans to Cuba and then onto Panama. After crossing Panama, she once again boarded a vessel and set sail for San Francisco.
Many years later, after the passing of her husband, Mary, at 59 years of age, joined her son-in-law, Euvelle Howard, on a horseback ride up the mountain on July 4, 1903. She was taken with the peace and beauty of the mountain and shortly after informed her daughter, Maud, that she wanted to homestead a cabin in the oak grove. With the family’s support, she built her cabin and etched out a solitary life in the grove for several years. The story is told in the park’s fourth interpretive panel entitled, “ The Pioneer Woman: Mary Downen.” Euvelle Howard, and his family, continued to live on the mountain after Mary’s death in 1927. Euvelle choose to be buried nearby, among the volcanic boulders, after his death in 1942. Mary’s cabin is still standing in the grove.
Returning to the main road, you’ll soon find the last restroom in the park before you reach the summit. Shortly after the restroom, you’ll leave the canopy of the shaded oaks and once again experience the sun drenched exposure of the chaparral as you continue to climb. It’s now less than ½ mile to the summit of Wright Peak. Spectacular views towards the southeast are part of this climb. In the immediate distance you will see Mt. Hannah, Seigler Mt., Thurston Lake and the Clear Lake Riviera residential community. The Cal Fire Lookout Tower comes into view as well. Within about ¼ mile another road branches off westerly towards Howard Peak.
Howard Peak – This peak was named after Euvelle Howard. The elevation is 4,286 ft. (13 ft. smaller than Wright Peak). For many years, long time but now deceased Lake County Historian, Henry Mauldin, inaccurately referred to it, in his writings, as the tallest mountain peak. From Lakeport, where Mauldin lived, Howard Peak then appeared to be the tallest peak. At its summit is a small telecommunications facility. From here there are impressive views of the northwest.
Returning to the main road on its southeast side are two more interpretive panels entitled, “Looking Out For You,” and “Dynamic Change: Mountain Geology.” The first panel gives you a brief story of the Cal Fire Lookout Tower and pays homage to the people who built and served in the tower. The second gives park visitors a general explanation on the forces of nature that created the mountain.
Climbing once again, we have but just a short distance to the summit of Wright Peak, named after Wright Mathews, a former surveyor.
The Enzler Plane Crash – Within less than 100 yards from the mountain’s highest point, visitors notice a large piece of turquoise sheet metal lying in a twisted lump on the right side of the road. Next to it is the final interpretive panel entitled, “Tragedy of 1970: The Enzler Plane Crash.” The turquoise fragments are actual pieces of the crash explained by the panel. This modern human-interest story tells the tragic story of Ukiah residents, Mervin and May Enzler’s accidental plane crash, in stormy weather, on the eastern side of the summit in January 1970.
Wright Peak - Within a minute you’re at the summit of Wright Peak. Here you can experience beautiful views to the east and southeast that include, Geyser Peak, Mt. St. Helena, Cobb Mt., Mt. Hannah, Lake Berryessa, and on a clear day, Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County. Picnic tables offer a place to sit, rest, eat or relax. Another telecommunications facility, and of course the lookout tower are nearby. Some prefer to climb boulders just off the summit for natural uninterrupted views but be careful as there are rattlesnakes living between the rocks and boulders. To the north, Knobcone Pines do block the view but there are places within the pines where views are better.
Cal Fire Lookout Tower – Cal Fire owns the tower and restricts public access. There are fences and locked gates that prohibit general access. This is done to provide for public safety. Periodically Cal Fire allows limited access under specific circumstances and approval. For specific information on accessibility, please contact Cal Fire or the County of Lake, Department of Public Services.
Views from the top of the tower are inspirational. The Sutter Buttes in the Sacramento Valley, Mt. Lassen, Snow Mt., Black Butte and the Sierra Nevada are all common sightings depending on conditions. In the months of May and June, an endangered plant specie, Sonoma Beard’s Tongue, can be seen with its small crimson blooms in the creases of the volcanic rock.
Take a little time to enjoy this special place. You’ve earned it after climbing 1600 ft. The air is fresh and the sights speak for themselves.
Please use all trash receptacles,leave only footprints and take only memories. Mt. Konocti is a treasure and one of Lake County’s signature natural landmarks.
In the words of legendary tribal leader, Nelson Hopper, “the mountain has always been our sacred healing place and it will always carry that sacredness and cultural spirit of the Pomo people; yesterday, today, and for many tomorrows.” Please share this respect.
As you return to the parking area, it’s all down hill. Your knees will take the brunt of it on your body. Sights you missed, or saw from a different view on the way up, will now take on a new perspective. Enjoy the company of those who accompany you, and please say hello to those you meet on the road/trail.
Final Observations – The hike up Mt. Konocti is best done during the ‘shoulder’ seasons of spring and fall, but can also be unique during the summer and winter if you dress appropriately and start at the right time of day. A typical round trip, up and back, last from 3-4 hours. I like to start a hike no later than 8:00 a.m. so I can return to Kelseyville for lunch. I also celebrate with a micro-brew or a class of wine. You can order takeout of local food (pizza, deli, or Mexican) and carry it to the Kelsey Creek Brewery to match with their rich local brews. If you want to meet or get to know some of the locals, this is the place. If you want to sit down and order, there are also several excellent choices. Wine tasting is everywhere around town. Your vehicle will probably need a car wash because the road up Mt. Konocti is dirt/gravel. There are several car washes nearby.
So, that’s my story of a hiking experience up Mt. Konocti. I hope you enjoy this breath taking local outdoor adventure.