Stuart Falls (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 04-May-2015

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

UPDATE: This whole area sustained additional substantial damage during the 2017 Blanket Creek Fire, part of the High Cascades Complex Fire.  Current trail and forest conditions are likely to be worse than those seen here.

This hike wasn’t meant to be a lesson in the transience of trails but that’s what it became. Stuart Falls is a gorgeous 40-foot or so cascade of silver water on Red Blanket Creek nestled in a spectacular forest in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, near the extreme southwest corner of Crater Lake National Park. Judging from the size of the campsite at the falls, this area has been a favorite destination for years. The falls were said to be readily accessible from the west via the Red Blanket Trail (USFS #1090) from a trailhead on Forest Road (FR) 6205. Sullivan (Hike #42 in his Southern Oregon guide (Third Edition, 2014)) describes this trail to the falls as moderate and well-graded. So I went up to see it for myself.

The trailhead is at the end of FR 6205, an otherwise well-graded, nearly level, gravel road EXCEPT for the large pile of gravel wash-out I found blocking it 2.5 miles before the trailhead.

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

The berm blocking FR 6205

Fortunately, the blockage wasn’t too wide or too high, so I was able to slide over it in 4WD without any problems. Then 2.5 miles of good clear gravel road to the trailhead, only to be greeted with this cheery note from the Forest Service (only here – not on their website or along FR 6205).

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

Not what I expected…

Well, then, the hike just moved from moderate to adventurous! The first 0.25 miles were the charming forest trail promised in the guide,

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

A mis-leading start to the Red Blanket Trail

but then the washouts began.

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

The trail had been completely washed away

This area was touched by the 2008 Lonesome Complex Middle Fork Fire, which removed a lot of the understory and ground cover. This was followed by two years of minimal snow cover – which can provide some runoff protection – punctuated by short, intense bursts of rain. No longer slowed by an understory, this water tore down gullies and completely obliterated the #1090 in several places (and also closed FR 6205 2.5 miles from the trailhead).

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

The trail (arrow) was cutoff at the gully

One of these runoff gullies was so deep, it was easier (and perhaps safer) to cross it on a fallen log 20 feet in the air.

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

A deep gully crossed on a log (on the left)

After another mile of gully hopping, trail conditions moderated to only the occassional fallen tree and I was able to continue on up for a view of Red Blanket Falls.

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

Red Blanket Falls

These falls are at a junction with the Lucky Meadow Trail (USFS #1091) which Sullivan suggests you can use to make a short loop out of your Stuart Falls hike. Unfortunately, the not so lucky Lucky Meadows Trail was across Red Blanket Creek and was obviously suffering its own share of blowdown and maintenance issues.

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

A tree across the Lucky Meadow Trail on the far side of Red Blanket Creek

I didn’t want to wade the creek or deal with Lucky’s issues, so I just kept on the #1090 to Stuart Falls, which reminded me a lot of Ramona Falls but in full sunlight.

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

Stuart Falls

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

Stuart Falls

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

Stuart Falls

I had lunch at Stuart Falls and considered continuing past them to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with some vague idea of doing a loop. But more blowdown a short way toward the PCT convinced me to call it a day and head back. Clearing out some blowdown is one thing but rebuilding trail on unstable ground likely subject to further flash flooding is another. While this might be a much-loved local trail, I can understand the Forest Service’s challenge in deciding where best to spend its limited trail building/maintenace budget. Several of the trails south of here (like the #1083) were essentially obliterated by the 2008 fire, so the rebuilding effort (if there is one) may have to be spread around. The 1090 is still being used, but it’s future as a “moderate” trail or even as an offical USFS trail seems to be in doubt. A short hike (9 miles roundtrip; with 1,500 feet of elevation gain) to view some nice waterfalls – just wish I’d gotten to them in better days.

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

My out-and-back track to Stuart Falls

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