Backpack Devil's Punchbowl, Six Rivers National Forest

Rate this Adventure California Doe Flat Trailhead

Added by Joshua Contois

This backpacking trip is one of the best example of the Klamath/Siskiyou mountains. There are over 13 different conifer species on a single-mile stretch of trail. Enjoy excellent opportunity for wildlife and wildflower viewing in the spring.

Located in extreme Northern California, the Siskiyou Mountains are the largest sub-range of the Klamath Mountain range and among the most rugged. The Siskiyou Wilderness, designated in 1984, encompasses three national forests: Siskiyou, Klamath and Six Rivers for a total of 182,802 acres. Because it is geologically young, the area saw minimal glaciation during recent ice ages and as a result, the range is considered to be one of the most biodiverse temperate coniferous forests in the world. One of the few glaciers that did occur created the Devil’s Punchbowl, a moderate sized lake, or cirque, as the glacier retreated from Bear Mountain.

As the most awesome glacial cirque lake in the Klamath Mountains, the crystal clear Devil’s Punchbowl is easily among the most popular destination for hikers and backpackers seeking to experience the Siskiyou Wilderness. The thirty acre lake lies nestled at the base of Bear Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the region. The mountain serves as a reminder to all travelers about the necessity of proper food storage, as black bears are plentiful, but elusive.

Beginning in the Smith River National Recreation Area at the Doe Flat Trailhead (Coordinates: 41.814244, -123.707899), the trail climbs from 3,400 elevation to a height of 4,700 feet, where trees give way to subalpine scrub and breezes cool the air. While it best to do the hike during the warm summer months, the lake can easily be accessed well into late fall provided there are no early snowstorms.

While reaching the Punchbowl may be the goal of this hike, it is the readily evident diversity of the Siskiyou Range that makes this trail truly special. The trail begins within the Bear Basin Butte Botanical Area, which boasts a colorful array of wildflowers including blue penstemon, red castilleja, yellow stonecrops and white and pink cliff maids. For visitors arriving in early summer, sweet smelling native western azaleas bloom right along the trail.

The diversity of conifers is equally impressive. Within the first half mile from the trailhead you will encounter Douglas-fir, sugar pine, noble fir and Pacific yew, to name just a few species. The Klamath Mountains contains one of the largest collections of unique conifers in the world. In a single mile stretch of trail, fifteen different conifer species can be seen. Among the rarest is the Brewers Spruce, a species endemic to the Klamath Mountains and one of the rarest spruces on the continent. These trees are easily recognizable by their definitive weeping posture and can be seen throughout the entire trail.

One mile in, at the wilderness boundary between the Smith River NRA and Siskiyou Wilderness, the understory is dominated by maples and oaks. Visitors hiking in the fall will be treated to a fantastic display of color and a pleasant, aromatic crunch of leaves beneath one’s boots.

By the second mile, the diversity intensifies. From here, take notice of a distinct and surprisingly low elevation grove of mountain hemlocks. Just beyond that, white fir and lodgepole pine dominate before giving way to nearly pure stands of Port Orford and incense cedars. The trail forks at mile 2.5 for Buck Lake (Coordinates: 41.814974, -123.688883), which is just a quarter mile past the junction. It is an excellent location to set up camp if you got a late start or are trying to pace a multi-day trip. There a plenty of available campsites and bountiful fishing opportunities.

At mile 3.3 is the junction for the Punchbowl. The trail ahead connects with the Clear Creek National Recreation Trail, Wilderness Falls, Rattlesnake Meadows, and the rest of the Siskiyou Wilderness. Taking a sharp right brings the hiker to what locals sardonically call “the elevator”, a steep set of switchbacks that ascends 1000 feet in just under half a mile. Hikers wishing to visit the lake in spring need to be especially cautious, as this section of trail has a tendency to retain snowpack well into early summer. At the top of the climb be sure to pause for a snack and enjoy panoramic views of Twin Peaks, Copper Mountain, and Preston Peak. From here, the trail winds through a small valley before disappearing entirely, becoming instead a path over bare rock marked by a series of rock cairns.

Upon reaching the first small lake, follow the trail along the eastern shore as best you can because winter snows may have obscured it or caused it to wash away. A hop, skip, and stone’s throw beyond lies the Devil’s Punchbowl (Coordinates: 41.8027301,-123.6716212), gem of the Siskiyous. Be sure to scout the area for a place to pitch your tent, and take note of the diminutive Alaska yellow cedars, which at the southernmost part of their range, fill the drainage.

The best way to reward your arrival is with a swim. Cold mountain lakes are the perfect tonic for sore muscles and sweaty brows. Drying off in the warm sun next to the lake is as welcoming as the swim itself. If your timing is right, the banks of the Punchbowl will be highlighted pink and yellow due to the tiny blooming cliff maid flowers and glacier lilies. The lake abounds with brook and cutthroat trout, so don’t forget to bring a pole and license.

Bear Mountain and its imposing granite faces surround the view from the lake. Preston Peak, visible to the northeast, is the tallest mountain in the area at 7309 feet. Unlike the rest of the Klamath Mountains, which are composed primarily of serpentine and gabbro formations, the giant rock of Preston Peak is a granitic relative of the Sierra range, separated eons ago by the Cascade lava flows. Because of the abundance of peaks and absence of light pollution, the lake makes an excellent location in which to observe or photograph the Milky Way.

While this hike can be done as a day hike from Doe Flat, it is recommended to visit as part of a longer backpacking trip through the area to reduce camping impacts on the delicate subalpine landscape. There are very few suitable campsites near the Punchbowl, so it is important to arrive as early as possible in order to secure a prime spot. In keeping with Leave No Trace principles, visitors should not make campfires because of the scarcity of downed wood. Additionally, there is actually an open air latrine for all sanitary needs. Overnight visitors arriving on the shoulder seasons can expect some quiet seclusion, but expect company during the busy summer months. The hike, while exhaustive, will make for a long and satisfying day, well worth the climb for stunning sub-alpine views and lakeside relaxation.

Pack List

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag/Pad
  • Backpack
  • Rations
  • Stove
  • Sturdy footwear
  • Headlamp
  • Camera & Tripod (optional)
  • Fishing pole (optional)
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Backpacking, Fishing, Hiking, Photography

Skill Level:



Spring, Summer, Autumn

Trail Type:



9 Miles

Elev. Gain:

1300 Feet


Swimming Hole

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Added by Joshua Contois

Park Ranger currently working for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Restless by nature, Josh has traveled across the American west in search of new adventures. When not out exploring new trails or sleeping under the stars, you can find him in your local brewery.

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