Sunday, August 2, 2020

Mount Konocti

Clear Lake and Buckingham Peak from Wright Peak
6.5 miles round trip, 1800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no parking fee

At 4,300 feet tall, Mount Konocti dominates the shoreline of California's Clear Lake, the largest natural lake entirely within that state's borders. This five-peaked mountain is at the heart of the Clear Lake Volcanic Field, a geothermally active region just north of the Napa/Sonoma Wine Country. The summit of Mount Konocti gives good views of Clear Lake and the surrounding mountains and valleys, although the views aren't quite as good as one might expect for a mountain of this prominence. Nonetheless, the hike is enjoyable and scenic and crowds are thin despite the mountain being just two hours from the northern suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. The peak is preserved in Mount Konocti County Park and the hike up also visits orchards, a former homestead, and a plane wreckage from 1970.

The trail system at Mount Konocti County Park provides access to Wright Peak, Howard Peak, and Buckingham Peak; the hike I'll describe here visits Wright and Howard Peaks, the mountain's two highest summits. While it's possible to hike to Buckingham Peak, that summit has no views. For the most part, the trails on Mount Konocti are all fire roads. Lake County has built a number of vault toilets and picnic tables along the trail to Wright Peak; the county also has a good map of the mountain for hikers.

I hiked Mount Konocti on an early June weekend, driving up from the Bay Area. From San Francisco, I took US 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge past Santa Rosa to Hopland; I turned right on California Highway 175 and followed this very windy road across Hopland Pass into Lake County. At the top of the pass, there were nice views into the Clear Lake Basin, with the many-peaked Konocti rising over the lake. I continued on Highway 175 until it met up with California Highway 29. I turned right onto Highway 29 and followed it south to Kelseyville, where I turned left onto Main Street. I took Main Street north and turned right onto Konocti Road just after I passed Kelseyville High School. I followed Konocti Road east; the road turned to gravel as it began to climb up Mount Konocti's slopes on a series of switchbacks. The parking area for Mount Konocti County Park was right before a gate on the road.

Mount Konocti rises over Clear Lake from Hopland Pass
After parking, I continued uphill along the gravel road, passing a gate and soon rounding a corner and coming to an active walnut orchard on private land. Here, the trail leaves the fire road and cuts through the orchard before making a short ascent on stairs to rejoin the fire road.

The fire road traversed relatively exposed slopes on the north side of Mount Konocti; there were few trees but high brush surrounded the trail. At times, views opened up to the north, with glimpses of Clark Peak (the lowest of Konocti's five peaks) and the blue waters of Clear Lake off in the distance. The fire road maintains a fairly constant uphill grade.

Clear Lake views from lower stretches of the trail
At about 1.5 miles, the trail came to a vault toilet and a picnic table at a trail junction with the trail to Buckingham Peak. The main trail to Wright Peak continued to the right; the Buckingham Peak Trail, also a fire road, led three-quarters of a mile to the left to Buckingham Peak, a lower, standalone summit from the cluster of Wright, Howard, and South Peaks. Having scouted out this trail for you, I don't recommend adding it to your Konocti hike unless you're looking for an extra workout; the area around the cell towers at Buckingham's summit have limited to no views but adds an extra 400 feet of elevation gain.

I continued on the trail to Wright Peak, which entered a forest as it turned and headed south while ascending. The trail cut above the upper part of another orchard, which provided lovely views to the west of the farmlands around Clear Lake and the town of Kelseyville at the foot of the mountain.

Orchard on Mount Konocti, town of Kelseyville below
At a little over two miles, I came to a junction: the Wright Peak Trail ascended steeply off to the left, while a spur trail on the right led into a dense forest of majestic canyon live oaks; I took the spur trail for a brief detour on the area's history.

Canyon live oaks
The side trail led briefly downhill to a tin-roofed cabin. Mary Downen, a local who moved up to this little house on the mountain in 1903, chose to spend her life up here after falling in love with the views from Konocti; she tended the orchard next to the house and used a systems of mirrors and lights to communicate with her family in Lakeport. Prior to the arrival of European American settlers, the Pomo people lived around Clear Lake; Konocti was a sacred mountain to these early residents. The Clear Lake region has some of the oldest evidence of human habitation in California, with 12,000 year old arrowheads found at nearby Borax Lake.

Early interactions between the Pomo people are European settlers did not end well for the Pomo. After the United States gained control of California following the Mexican American War, two European settlers moved into Big Valley and enslaved a number of Pomo to tend to grazing cattle; after enduring a couple of years of intense mistreatment, the Pomo rebelled against Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, killing both. In retaliation, a regiment of the US Cavalry attacked a village of Pomo at the northern end of the lake in the Bloody Island Massacre, killing as many as 200 of the native people. This was but one chapter in the extensive history of European American settler violence against native Californians in the mid-1800s that is now collectively being recognized as genocide.

Mary Downen cabin
Returning to the main Wright Peak Trail, I tackled one of the steeper uphill portions of the hike as the trail made a switchback and then passed through a saddle between Howard and South Peaks. After passing South Peak, the first good views opened up to the south: Mount St. Helena and Cobb Mountain rose to the south and the southern end of Clear Lake could be seen as well.

View of the southern end of the lake near the summit
Just a little further on, the trail came to a saddle where an unmarked trail heading off to the left led to the summit of Howard Peak. At this point, the summits of Howard and Wright Peak are equidistant. Both are worth visiting, although Wright Peak, the highest summit, is the main destination of this hike. I chose to take the unmarked spur and check out Howard Peak. The quarter-mile trail to the summit was initially gentle but ascended very aggressively up a steep, loose gravel path at the end to reach the top of Howard Peak, which was topped by communications equipment powered by a small windmill. Rock outcrops surrounding the fenced-off equipment gave good views of the surrounding area: the bulbous northern half of Clear Lake filled the view to the north and to the west I could see Kelseyville and the Mayacamas Mountains. Wright Peak and its fire lookout tower were visible directly to the east.

Northern half of Clear Lake from Howard Peak
Leaving Howard Peak, I returned to the main trail and hiked the final quarter mile to the top of Wright Peak. As I neared the summit, I came to the wreckage of a small, turquoise plane on the right side of the trail. In 1970, the Enzlers- a couple who ran a bakery in Ukiah, a few miles to the northwest- were flying home from Santa Rosa in cloudy weather when they lost track of their bearings and crashed into the summit of Wright Peak. The wreckage of their Navion A plane remains in place a few feet below the summit.

Navion A plane wreckage near the summit
Finally, I arrived at Wright Peak, the high point of Mount Konocti. The summit was topped with a decommissioned fire lookout tower, which was closed to the public during my visit. This was unfortunate, as the summit area of Wright Peak had good but not amazing views due to many view obstructions; I'm sure that the view from the lookout tower would have been much more impressive. I was still able to enjoy good views of the area by making a circuit around the fenced-off lookout tower.
Wright Peak Fire lookout
To the south, Mount St. Helena and Cobb Mountain were the most prominent peaks. A number of steaming geothermal power plants were visible on the shoulders of Cobb Mountain in the Mayacamas Mountains: these are part of the Geysers geothermal energy project, the largest geothermal energy generation project in the world. Heat from the Clear Lake Volcanic Field was once responsible for fumaroles and hot springs in the area but now power a large renewable energy project that provides a majority of the electricity generation for coastal California north of the Golden Gate.

Mount St. Helena and Cobb Mountain rise to the south over Big Valley
The view to the west was blocked by Howard Peak and the view to the east was obstructed by forest on the summit; to the north, however, I had a good view of most of Clear Lake. Buckingham Point, a peninsula jutting far into the lake, split the lake into northern and southern halves; nearby Buckingham Peak blocked part of my view of the northern half of the lake but I could still see much of the water with the high peaks of the Pacific Coast Range rising in the distance. The summit of Snow Mountain, a high peak to the north, was drifting in and out of the clouds.

Clear Lake is the largest natural lake wholy within the state of California and the oldest known lake in North America; sedimentary analysis of the lake suggests that it has existed for at least 2.5 million years. Although the lake is quite popular as a getaway and is well-loved for watersports, the region is still relatively underappreciated as a hiking destination and trails have not been extensively developed, save this one area on Mount Konocti where roads have been converted to hiking trails over recent years. If you visit now, you can explore this corner of the Clear Lake area and enjoy the nice views without competing with dense crowds of hikers.

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