The 113,849 acre Sky Lakes Wilderness stretches south along the crest of the Cascades from the southern boundary of Crater Lake National Park to State Highway 140 (details, USFS). The numerous lakes in this wilderness divide somewhat in to three basins – the Seven Lakes Basin north of Devils Peak (accessible via the Seven Lakes trailhead), the Sky Lakes Area (accessible from the east via the Nannie Creek trailhead and from the south via the Cold Springs trailhead), and the Blue Lake Basin just north of Fourmile Lake (accessible from the south via the Fourmile Lake trailhead and from the west via the Blue Lakes trailhead). Basically, if you like lakes, good trails, easy backpacking, the option of dayhikes, overnight or longer trips, and a choice of campsites, along with ready access to water, then this is the wilderness for you.
For those who need a view as well as lakes, the PCT can be used to reach the summit of Devils Peak (7,582 feet) for 360 degree views from Crater Lake to Mount Shasta. On the down side, all of this open water supports clouds of mosquitos in July and August – so cover and repell. Last year (2015) we did a number of hikes throughout this wilderness, taking advantage of the drought conditions that opened the trails early and substantially reduced the population of winged blood-suckers. This winter, thanks in large part to a strong El Niño, we had more “normal” snow levels, along with short, heavy snowfalls and high winds. So, we headed out for our first Sky Lakes hike for 2016 a little unsure about what we’d find vis-a-vis trail conditions and snow levels.
Having already done a number of hikes in this wilderness, we started looking around for a new, different, or variant hike. This lead us to a post by the Ashland Hiking Group (Red Lake), which showed a route from the Cold Spring Road (FR 3651), past Center Lake, to the Badger Lake Trail. This route (what we’re calling the “Lost Creek” trail) no longer shows as a trail on the most recent USGS topo map (Pelican Butte quad) but was clearly there on the 1955 edition of this map.
So, with a “new” route to Red Lake (we’d visited Island Lake (beautiful!) several times but not its northern neighbor, Red Lake) we were off! We parked at the Cold Spring Trailhead (USFS) – growing a little apprehensive due to all the fallen trees along the road. The mosquitos were on us as soon as we exited the truck but were easily managed (at this point) with a few dabs of DEET. Thus chemically enhanced, we walked back south on FR 3651,
for about 1.75 mile to its junction with FR 3659, which looked like it had been made passable to trucks through the efforts of local volunteers.
About 0.25 miles west along FR 3659, we forded (by stepping on strategically placed rocks) the drainage from Big Meadows,
and about 0.5 mile further on, at the junction with FR 3659-080, we passed a small unnamed pond – which probably hasn’t had this much water in it in the last 2-3 years!
The old “Lost Creek” trail (it never seems to have had a USFS number) heads west from FR 3659 right where that road makes a sharp bend to the north. There’s no signage but the trail was readily apparent just beyond an obvious camping spot. This trail was remarkably wide and well used – probably by hunters and equestrians seeking quick access to the Blue Lake Basin – and mostly free from fallen trees up to the wilderness boundary.
Past that, we started to encounter more fallen trees and more patches of snow, but none were much of a challenge and none obscured the trail.
Shortly before reaching a junction with the Badger Lake trail (USFS #3759), we passed shallow Center Lake, full to its banks with this season’s snowmelt.
There’s no signage at the junction of the “Lost Creek” and Badger Lake trails, nor is the Lost Creek trail particularly obvious at this point, so it would be easy to miss if you were hiking up from Fourmile Lake or down from Island Lake. We turned north on the Badger Lake trail, which shortly becomes the Red Lake Trail (USFS #987) where it crosses the boundary between the Fremont-Winema and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forests. The Red Lake trail had a few fallen trees on it but no snow and we cruised along it to the north end of Island Lake, where we had a good view of the lake and still snow-capped Mt. McLoughlin in the distance.
More easy rambling brought us to the shores of previously un-visited Red Lake.
Past Red Lake, the #987 trail makes a sharp turn to the east and, in about 0.5 miles, reaches a junction with the PCT. Since the PCT is the premier trail here (and elsewhere), we figured that it would be in at least as good condition as the lesser #987 trail. WRONG! From this junction to its junction with the Sky Lakes Trail (USFS #3762), the PCT was encumbered about every 100 yards or so with fallen trees, patches of snow, or some combination of the two. We had to pay close attention to avoid losing it as it ducked under tree/snow masses and emerged many feet later. It was, to put it mildly, slow going.
After floundering along for what seemed like too long – The LovedOne was starting to make mutinous noises – we reached the PCT’s junction with the Sky Lakes trail, only to find it similarly choked with trees and snow. Oh joy! Clouds of mosquitos had now found us, so we were clambering over barriers with one hand while using the other to open a view though the winged clouds. Much fun (but not in a good way)! We passed Deer Lake, which was full to bursting and quite lovely,
and continued on to the junction of the Sky Lakes and Cold Spring (USFS #3710) trails and then headed south on the Cold Spring trail, which sadly offered more of the same in terms of fallen trees and snow. Sigh.
The mutinous noises from the LovedOne had now been replaced with the sound of cutlasses being sharpened and breadfruit trees being heaved overboard (to the extent such noises could be heard over the whining mosquitos), so I knew it was imperative that we reach the Cold Spring trailhead SOON! And then, like Captain Bligh finally sighting land, I saw the truck and knew we were saved! Oh joy (now in a good way)! Well, we thought trail conditions this early in a “normal” snow year might be sub-optimal and we were right. An otherwise moderate hike (12.7 mile loop but only 700 feet elevation gain) got pushed well into the hard (or at least frustrating) category simply because of trail conditions. Yes, there were the expected mosquitos but these would have much less of an issue if they weren’t in addition to the other challenges. Once the snow melts completely – and if there is some trail maintenance – this will be a great loop past several very nice lakes, with the added bonus of the possibility of a visit to the Judge Waldo Tree!