Updated: Jan 28
Have you ever heard of Del Norte County, California?
Prior to this March, I certainly hadn’t. I came across it while messing around on Google Maps in Northern California, and now, after a month and a half of research into its history and two separate excursions into its vast and diverse domain, I seem to know more about Del Norte County than every Californian I’ve engaged about it. And yet, I still feel that I know very little, since its history and statistical materials are hard to come by. If any sort of consensus can be assembled from written descriptions and personal experiences in Del Norte County, it is simply that it is an isolated, rugged, and mineralogically lucrative region.
As evidenced by its name, Del Norte—Spanish for “of the North” or “from the North”—is one of the three counties that comprise California’s northern border. It’s the State’s northwesternmost county, flanked on the East by Siskiyou County, on the North by the California-Oregon border, on the South by Humboldt County, and on the West by the Pacific Ocean.
Del Norte County is small. If we were to list California’s 58 counties from largest land area to smallest land area, Del Norte, which comprises only 1,006.37 square miles, would come in 42nd. According to my calculations, it’s smaller than 72.4% of all the counties in California. In other words, you could fit almost 20 Del Norte Counties inside of San Bernardino County (the largest county in California).
Del Norte is lightly populated. To this day, most of the county’s 27,812 inhabitants reside on the coast, which accounts for roughly 10% of the county’s land area, according to my calculations. The largest community is Crescent City, which has a population of 6,676. Crescent City is the only incorporated community in the county, so the exact populations of other communities along the county’s coast must be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, I managed to create the following charts using data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau:
The following pie chart, from the same source as above, shows how much land in Del Norte County is actually settled. "Unincorporated, Other" refers to the county's tribal and wilderness lands.
Del Norte County is isolated due to the nature of its settlement. Tribal communities located their villages along the county's coast long before the white man came into the picture, only venturing inland for hunting and gathering purposes, and never in large groups—only by foot, or by canoe via the Klamath or Smith Rivers (Tushingham, 39). Although the white pioneers first stumbled across Del Norte’s coastline from California’s interior on-foot, most of the county’s original white settlers arrived by boat to the crescent-shaped shoreline where the county seat, Crescent City, sits today (Chase, 5). As a result, most of Del Norte’s communities sprang up along the coastline.
Naturally, since most of Del Norte County’s people live on the coast, most of its roads are also on the coast. These roads consist of four paved highways: US-199, US-101, State Route 169, and State Route 197. Only the first two on that list are interstates, and, as can be seen on the map below, all four of these routes take a meandering path and are far from “efficient,” in terms of timeliness and shortest-possible route.
Even if the roads were straighter, however, the people of Del Norte County would still be limited by their distance from larger communities. If Crescent City doesn’t have what its people need, they have to travel more than 75 miles to get to a bigger community. The closest one would be Arcata, California, which is still relatively small, with a population of 18,431 as of 2019, and it’s located 77.6 miles south of Crescent City, or an hour-and-a-half drive. The second closest is Grants Pass, Oregon, at 82.5 miles in the opposite direction (or an hour and forty-two minutes of driving), and it’s got 38,170 occupants. The biggest city around is Redding, California, which has a population of 92,590; but to get to Redding from Crescent City would mean driving 211 miles along those slow, winding highways. There are always the backroads, of course, which eventually lead to the upper portion of Sacramento Valley—right next to Redding—but to those require the traveler to have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, at the very least.
Aside from the sliver of coastline on which the population is situated, Del Norte County is composed primarily of rugged, heavily-forested terrain. The forest is conspicuous, no matter where the observer stands on the coastal plain: like a gentle, evergreen wave, the trees roll in from the East, following the slope of the land as it dips towards the ocean. They end abruptly at the edge of the coastal plain, forming a distinct boundary between civilization and stark wilderness. This wilderness is owned by the government, mostly, and occupies the entire eastern portion of the county, totaling roughly 914 square miles (2,366 square kilometers), according to my measurements.
Walking into the forest is like stepping into another world. Under the nearly 400-foot-high ceiling of old-growth redwood trees, the air is humid and damp, the underbrush thick and tall. Sword ferns cascade over the mossy banks of turquoise-blue streams; white-pink rhododendrons reach high for the dappled sunlight above; long-deceased trees up to 20 feet in diameter lie under blankets of fungus and groundcover, crossing fire roads and trails in some places—the whole scene is green and dark, and not unlike a sublime dream.
But the trees mask the most significant feature of this wilderness—the feature that prevented, and still prevents, the construction of adequate transportation facilities (Maxson, 126). As mining engineer C. McK. Laizure puts it, the forest “somewhat softens the outline of [the county’s] otherwise almost Alpine ruggedness” (Laizure, 281).
Most sources I used in my research describe Del Norte County as “rugged.” If they don’t use the word directly, they tend to use the same language found in both Merriam-Webster’s and the Cambridge English Dictionary’s definition of “rugged,” with respect to land:
Park brochures for Smith River National Recreation Area and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park explain, respectively, that “rock canyons” and “scenic river canyons, dense forests, and steep cliffs” are the primary features responsible for this ruggedness. While visiting Del Norte County in 1863, William H. Brewer—the man who visited nearly every mining camp in California from 1860 to 1864 on behalf of the first State Geologist, Josiah Dwight Whitney, and wrote about them in his diary—described the Siskiyou Mountains, which cut through the easternmost edge of the county, as “rugged,” and Del Norte’s interior in general as “rough landscape” with “canyons deep and steep, the hills rising two or three thousand feet.” In 1881, Anthony Jennings Bledsoe—ex-Confederate soldier who moved to Del Norte County from Missouri in 1875 and wrote what is considered to be the most extensive history of the region—casually described the entirety of the Coast Ranges (of which the Siskiyou Mountains are a part) as “rugged,” positing that a person capable of crossing such mountains would need to be “more adventurous than any of his fellows [and] armed with his trusty rifle” (Bledsoe, 12).
The ruggedness is attributable to the topography of the land. Although the overall elevation of the Coast Ranges is relatively low, it’s the persistence of canyon-ridge transitions that hinders travel across the wilderness (Maxson, 137). This can be seen in the following topographical map of the county.
Beneath the wrinkled, forest-covered surface of Del Norte County lies a geologic smorgasbord, in which can be found a variety of mineral commodities. According to California geologist John H. Maxson, “The general geology of the area … has almost escaped the attention of geologists” (Maxson, 126), and yet, as he later notes, “An extremely varied group of mineral resources is found in northwesternmost California” (Ibid, 137).
Of all of the above, only copper, chromite, manganese, gold, and quicksilver (cinnabar) were actually exploited. No mining is being done right now in Del Norte County (CEDS), but the mineral resources are still there, under private claim in some cases, and under the protection of the United States Government in others.
Most of my sources agree that the exploitable minerals occur within, or in association with serpentine. Serpentine is abundant throughout Del Norte County’s interior (Maxson, 131). It also happens to be California’s State rock. The California Department of Conservation says, “Serpentine is … the metamorphosed remains of magnesium-rich igneous rocks, most commonly the rock peridotite, from the earth’s mantle.” According to mining engineer C. McK. Laizure, the “succeeding zone of metamorphic and eruptive rocks” dividing the Coast Range from the Klamath Mountains “is composed mainly of serpentine with unaltered masses of peridotite and many inclusions of ‘diorite,’ more or less altered.” He goes on to explain that it is within, or in association with, this “belt” that “most of the deposits of gold, copper, chromite, and platinum” are found (Laizure, 282).
So, there you have it: an impassible interior, tricky terrain, and glitzy geology—three things that, for the most part, indisputably describe Del Norte County. Its population is huddled up against the coast, a mass of craggy wilderness setting it apart from the rest of California (and the United States), and the rock beneath its forests and rolling hills is minerally wealthy—even to this day. It’s both a shame and a blessing that all of Del Norte’s riches were not exploited back when everyone and their mother wanted to get a piece of California dirt under their nails. Perhaps it could’ve brought in a little bit of cash for the county, but, as our friend Mr. Laizure says, “the mines are still there.” He goes on to explain that no mining “operation ceased on account of the mines being worked out. Economic conditions alone have ended mining in the district for the present” (Laizure, 289).
I would like to thank the Del Norte County Historical Society for their assistance with my research during this project.
Tushingham, Shannon, and Jennifer Raggio (Bencze). "Macro and Micro Scale Signatures of Hunter-Gatherer Organization at the Coastal Sites of Point St. George, Northwestern Alta California." California Archaeology, vol. 5, no.1, June 2013.
Chase, Doris. They Pushed Back the Forest. 1959, Sebastopol, CA.
Bledsoe, Anthony Jennings. History of Del Norte County, California, with a Business Directory and Traveler's Guide. Humboldt Times Print---Wyman & Co., 1881, Eureka, CA.
Maxson, John H. "Economic Geology of Portions of Del Norte and Siskiyou Counties, Northwesternmost California." California Journal of Mines and Geology, vol. 29, nos. 1-2, 1933, Sacramento, CA, pp. 125-160.
Laizure, C. McK. "Del Norte County." Mining in California and the Activities of the State Mining Bureau, special issue of Report of the State Mineralogist, vol. 21, no.1, California State Mining Bureau, January 1925, Sacramento, CA, pp. 281-294.
"Del Norte County Comprehensive Economic Development Strategic Plan (CEDS), 2019-2024." Del Norte County Board Report, County of Del Norte Administrative Office, 28 April 2020, Crescent City, CA, Appendix A, Table A-2: "Crescent City Employment."
Note: I literally measured the area of the NPS/NFS land using the measurement tool on the BLM website's ArcGIS map.