Mount McLoughlin (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 19-Jun-2016

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Mount McLoughlin, at 9,495 feet, is the lowest in Oregon’s chain of six major Cascade Range volcanic peaks (the others are Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, and the Three Sisters, all above 10,000 feet). Viewed from the northwest (i.e., from Interstate 5), Mount McLoughlin’s strikingly symmetrical shape is the dominant landmark of the Rogue River Valley. We first climbed it in 2009, only to find the summit shrouded in a cloud beanie which rendered views non-existent (post). Time passed, we moved south, many other hikes availed themselves, a return to McLoughlin languished. Finally, in 2015, I snowshoed to the top of McLoughlin on a clear day to get that coveted view (post). After waiting out this year’s truculant El Niño-driven weather, I got myself back up there yesterday on a near perfect bluebird day. So, time to compare and contrast the winter versus summer Mt. McLoughlin experiences.


Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Summit Sno-park trailhead signs in winter

In winter, you access the peak from State Highway 140, about 32.5 miles east of Highway 62 outside of Medford, Oregon.  The “official” trailhead is at the Summit Sno-Park (USFS) but some winter route descriptions have you parking along Highway 140 and starting directly toward the peak from there – possibly to avoid the $5/day fee at the Sno-Park? By parking on Highway 140 (if you even can, since the snow plows often leave little shoulder), you risk being ticketed or towed or both, or having your car side-swiped by one of the large trucks that frequent this highway. It’s every hiker’s choice, but for $5, off-highway parking at the Sno-Park with amenities (pit toilet) just seemed like a better deal to me.  There are Sky Lakes Wilderness and McLoughlin warning signs at the northwest end of the parking lot – and you can easily access the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from here as well.

From the Sno-Park, you basically head straight north for about 2 miles and then angle northwest toward the summit ridge at about 8,000 feet. All of the travel until you reach this ridge is through forest and it’s real easy to get disoriented among the trees and rolling terrain that define this side of the peak. Some folks like to head right at the summit and climb directly up the open south slopes of the peak. This is a fun snow climb but my preference is to reach and follow the ridge – more views in more directions and less chance of encounters with rock fall and sliding snow.  The tortured shape of the trees on the ridge attests to both the harshness of the weather and the severe toughness of these plants.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Many, many years in a tough spot

From this point on the ridge, you get your first clear view of the summit, some 1,500 feet above.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The summit is the rounded snow dome in the center

Then you swing out to the west and simply follow the left side of the ridge to the summit. In summer, this involves a poor use trail and boulder fields but in winter it is a slope of smooth snow. Despite the pull of the snowshoes, I found the going easier (at least less jarring) in winter. Near the summit, you cross above the south slope, which is both scarily steep and inviting as a glissade. On a clear day – only masochists would do this just to stand in a cloud – the views are 360, here to the east with Klamath Lake in the distance and Fourmile Lake and Pelican Butte in the foreground.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

View to the east from the summit of Mt. McLoughlin in winter

I retraced my steps down the ridge but a glissade south down to the trees is certainly a possiblity – assuming you know what you’re doing and can navigate back through the trees waiting for you at the bottom.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The winter route to Mt. McLoughlin


After the snow melts and the forest roads are cleared of any downed trees, Mt. McLoughlin’s trailhead moves up to a moderately-sized parking lot (with pit toilet) on FR 3650, about 0.25 miles southwest of its intersection with FR 3661.  FR 3661 is off Highway 140, 35.7 miles east of its junction with Highway 62.  It’s 2.4 gravel miles on FR 3661 from Hwy 140 to the junction with FR 3650 {Note that the 2005 edition of Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon says you can reach this trailhead by driving up FR 3650 from Highway 140.  This stretch of FR 3650 is no longer maintained and it’s a tough (and unnecessary) drive at best.}.  The Mt. McLoughlin trail (USFS #3716) starts here and then it’s about 0.25 miles to the boundary of the Sky Lakes Wilderness, across a bridge that received some unusual damage this year.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Damage to the bridge across the Cascade Canal

The boundary is marked with a wilderness sign and another one of those warning signs about not descending the south side of the mountain expecting a short-cut back to the trailhead (an overnight “adventure” is more likely).

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Sign for a popular, but potentially tricky, route

This time around the somewhat rocky trail up through the forest was largely clear of fallen trees and was free of snow up to about 7,000 feet.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The trail at around 6,800 feet

There’s a nice little (dry) campsite at about 7,000 feet, with a view of Fourmile Lake and Pelican Butte to the east.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Campsite at 7,000 feet

I stopped here for a quick snack (ClifBar), only to be confronted by a squirrel that was absolutely and fearlessly intent on sharing in this bounty. Judging from the pushiness of this little rodent, he or she was no stranger to accosting hikers or campers during the busy summer season.  I dropped some crumbs to create a diversion and then scurried to safety…

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Drop the the snack and step away…

A little further up, I got a good view to the southwest of Brown Mountain (post), and of Mount Shasta and Mount Eddy (post) down in California.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Brown Mountain (B), Mount Shasta (S), and Mount Eddy (E)

Between about 7,000 and 8,000 feet, the trail was covered with snow but there were tracks and it wasn’t hard to kick steps in the few places this seemed necessary. Most of this part of the climb is in the trees, with only an occassional view, so it was a relief to finally reach the ridge above treeline and start getting 180 degree big views, along with that first clear view of the summit.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The summit (S) about 1,500 feet further up

The official trail ends here, so I proceeded up and around the ridge to the west (left) following an occassional use trail but mostly just scrabbling over boulders.  There was a fire lookout on the summit back in the day and long lengths of its telephone line (#9 galvenized wire) can still be found running up the ridge.  Along the way, I could see Crater Lake National Park on the horizon, along with some unique cloud formations wafting past the summit.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Crater Lake on the horizon; unique clouds above

At about 8,600 feet, I turned another corner on the ridge and was now looking directly up the last stretch to the summit – less than 1,000 feet to go!

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

A clear shot at the summit

For the last 400 feet or so, there was the option of either rock or snow – I went with rock on the way up and snow on the way down (much easier on the knees).

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The last 400 feet

At about this point, a guy and his (friendly) dog passed me, giving me a chance to get a shot of a hiker on the last bit of snow before the summit. To the left behind the boulders is the 1,000+ foot open south face of the peak – a solid snow glissade (or ski or snowboard) right back to treeline about 3 miles west of the trailhead.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Crossing a bit of snow over the south slope

And then the summit…

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The summit

Today, this is considered a moderate to hard hike / scramble but back in the day the Forest Service hauled enough material up here to build not one but two different lookouts. A 12 by 12 foot glass ribbed lumber house, topped by a 6 by 6 foot wooden cupola, was erected in 1917. All the material for the building was packed up over a 12-mile trail, with no piece of timber for the entire building over eight feet in length (to fit on the pack animals). The 1917 structure survived until the early 1930s, when it was noticed that its base was slipping away – a sensation that was probably not reassuring to the fire watcher. In the early 1930s, a new, slightly larger structure was built on a cement and stone foundation three feet thick at the base and 14 feet in height. Long steel rods buried in the foundation served as braces and steel cables kept the lookout rigid against storms. Despite all this, it was used for only about one season and then abandoned; it was finally removed in 1955 and today there is little evidence that it ever existed. The climb was so long that early fire watchers were consigned to the summit for months at a time (a packer brought mail up once a month!). Clearly a job suited to a very hardy (and likely unique) personality.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The 1917 building in 1920 (USFS photo)

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The 1930s building with stone base (USFS photo)

The view from the summit was exactly as hoped for, with Mount Shasta to the south,

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Mount Shasta on the horizon, with Lake of the Woods and Brown Mountain in the foreground

Klamath Lake to the east,

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Klamath Lake

the Mountain Lakes Wilderness and Aspen Butte (post) directly to the south,

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Mountain Lakes Wilderness; Aspen Butte is highest point with snow

the peaks rimming Crater Lake to the north,

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The peaks around Crater Lake (S is Mount Scott, the highest point in the park)

and Pelican Butte and Fourmile Lake directly below me to the east.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Pelican Butte and Fourmile Lake

Last year I did a loop hike in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, with a return along the eastern shore of Fourmile Lake (post). From there, I had a view up toward Mount McLoughlin almost directly in line with the shot I had just taken downward from the summit.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

Mount McLoughlin from the east side of Fourmile Lake

It was a little windy and cold on the summit, so, after some photos and a quick (rodent-free) snack, it was back down the way I’d come. A short (9.4 miles round trip – a little longer when you can follow the trail all the way) but steep (4,000 feet of elevation gain) hike that’s well worth it for the views from 8,000 feet on all the way to the summit.

Mount McLoughlin Oregon

The summer route to the summit of Mount McLoughlin


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