The recent run of 100+ºF days on the valley floor has been sapping our enthusiasm for hiking, even at altitude. It hasn’t been cooling off as much at night, so even elevations above 6,000 feet have been getting pretty warm before noon. So, if actual hiking wasn’t an appealing option, then we could at least drive around and look for places to hike once the weather moderated. The drive we chose is called (at least by the U.S. Forest Service) “The Siskiyou Loop” (USFS brochure). The most interesting, and largely unpaved, part of this loop is Forest Road 20 (FR 20), which runs along the scenic crest of the rugged Siskiyou Mountains between the Applegate Valley to the west and Mount Ashland to the east. FR 20 provides access to several trailheads along the crest – including the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in several places.
The loop drive starts in Medford, Oregon and can be done either clock- or counter-clockwise. We did it counter-clockwise (from Medford through Jacksonville to the Applegate Valley and over the Siskiyous to Ashland) because going in this direction entails an easier descent from the highest point on the Loop and also avoids the weekend afternoon tourist traffic in Jacksonville. From Jacksonville, we went southwest on Highway 238 to Ruch and ther turned south on the Upper Applegate Road. Six miles south on Upper Applegate, we passed the Star Ranger Station.
This station is the administrative headquarters of the Applegate Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest; much of the Loop is within this ranger district. The station is named for Star Gulch, which comes in near here from the west. The gulch, in turn, is named for the Starr brothers (Ohio-born prospectors of the 1850s) and thus, like the names of many other steams and peaks in the Siskiyous, recalls the gold rush era of the 1850s to 1870s. In 1911, after using an abandoned miner’s cabin for a year or two, the Forest Service built its first ranger station here. This little building, which later came to be called the “Tack Room,” sits next to the road just before the ranger station office. It is one of the oldest Forest Service structures in the Pacific Northwest, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A second ranger station office, located on the uphill side of the road, was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
About three miles past the ranger station, we came to the junction with paved FR 20, which goes uphill here on the east (left) side of Upper Applegate Road. Just so the drive can have some navigational challenges, the sign at this junction makes no mention of FR 20. The sign also fails to mention that FR 20 will take you to Ashland (via Interstate 5) and not just to Mount Ashland. And you won’t actually see an FR 20 sign until after you’ve committed to this turn. So motor on! Note that all mileages (Mile 1, etc.) that follow were measured from this junction.
FR 20 was first built in 1936-37 by the CCC to provide access to the high elevation forestlands of the eastern Siskiyous. For its first few miles, FR 20 follows Beaver Creek, whose name recalls the quest for soft gold – beaver fur – which brought the first non-indigenous people into the Siskiyou Mountains. These trappers worked for the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company, headquartered at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. At Mile 3 is the Beaver-Sulphur Campground, which is available for reserved camping by groups (see Recreation.gov). It has drinking water (a hand-pump located near the entrance), vault toilets, six campsites with tables, and sits next to shady Beaver Creek. Alder, willow, and ash trees grow along this stretch of Beaver Creek. Ponderosa pine still occur but, aside from the riparian (steam-side) areas, broadleaf trees are few. Sugar pine (with its huge cones up to a foot or more long), incense-cedar, and especially Douglas-fir make up the other dominant conifers in this area.
FR 20, which is signed at most major junctions, is paved to about Mile 5.5. The unpaved section of FR 20 from the end of the pavement to Silver Fork Gap is wide enough to allow for easy passing and is devoid of a high center or potholes. It is, however, severly washboarded in many places, which makes for an amazingly bumby ride. At Mile 10.5, FR 2015 descends to the right (west) toward Maple Dell Gap; we stayed left (east) here to continue on towards Dutchman Peak. At about Mile 13.5, we came to Silver Fork Gap, where several Forest Service roads intersect. Going straight ahead on FR 2025 will take you to Donomore Meadows and a PCT trailhead, one that we used for a hike to Observation Peak last June (post). We scoped out FR 20-819 as a way to do a loop over Dutchman Peak and then went left to continue on FR 20. Beyond this junction, on its way to Jackson Gap, FR 20 steepens and narrows considerably, with more blind turns. Fortunately there was no traffic until we got closer to Mount Ashland.
At Mile 15, we came out on to an open slope, with a good view down into Silver Fork Basin and across to Observation Peak.
The upper part of Silver Fork Basin visible from FR 20 has the rounded profile typical of glacially-carved valleys. At one time, the circular-shaped, green area at the head of Silver Fork was probably a shallow lake; over the centuries, gradual down-cutting by the stream outlet (as well as filling by sediment) changed it into the most meadow visible today. From here we also had a view to the west of the Red Buttes (post) and Preston Peak, the highest point in California’s Siskiyou Wilderness (details).
At Mile 16, we came to Jackson Gap and got our first views to the east and south. There was just enough signage left after some idiot’s target practice to point us in the right direction.
From here, we could see Mount McLoughlin, Mount Ashland, and Pilot Rock to the east,
and Mount Shasta to the south through a veil of smoke and haze.
From the Gap, FR 20-800 (not maintained for passenger car use) ascends to the summit of Dutchman Peak (7,418 feet). The peak is said to have received its name in the 1870s, when a German-born (“Dutchman”) miner was caught here by a winter storm and perished.
Built in 1927, this lookout is one of the very few “cupola style” lookouts left in the Pacific Northwest. Cupola lookouts (built between 1917 and 1929) had the living quarters below and a “fire-finder” room in the little cupola above. During World War Two, Dutchman Peak was used by the Aircraft Warning Service (AWS). A separate cabin housed a 2-person team of observers who endured the snow- and wind-swept winter atop Dutchman Peak, searching the skies for enemy aircraft. Today, this lookout is both a significant historic structure and continues to serve as an important Forest Service radio communication relay point for southwestern Oregon and northern California.
Jackson Gap is also a great place to turn around if you need to do so.
Just past the Gap, we got a somewhat “clearer” view of Mount Shasta to the south,
and of the valleys and mountains to the north – also suffering somewhat from smoke and haze.
At Mile 18.5, we came to the Wrangle Gap, where FR 20 intersects with FR 40S19 coming up from the south and Road FR 2030 coming up from the north. The PCT also crosses FR 20 here. Here we left FR 20 and went down FR 2030 for less than a mile to visit Wrangle Camp, a small Forest Service recreation site which includes picnic tables, vault toilets, and a one-of-a-kind Cascadian rustic-style shelter built by the CCC in 1936. Wrangle Camp also contains another 1930s structure, a shake-covered cabin erected by the Soil Conservation Service for use during winter-time snow surveys. However, there is now a National Soil Conservation Service automated snow guage (the “Big Red Mountain” guage (SNOTEL Site #341)) a short ways further down FR 2030, so human snow surveys may have now faded into history.
We got back up on FR 20 and continued on, passing through Siskiyou Gap (and another crossing of the PCT) at Mile 21.5. This Gap is the geological “contact point” between serpentine rocks on the west and granite-like rocks on the east. Just east of Siskiyou Gap, FR 20 intersects with FR 40S12, which provides access to the Klamath River. We went left to continue on FR 20. Along here we had a view of the PCT (a faint line) below FR 20 – the two are tangled together from Jackson Gap to Mount Ashland.
A little further along, FR 20 passes FR 2040 (to the north), FR 40S16 (to the south), and FR 22, which leads north towards Wagner Butte, Talent, and Interstate 5. We stayed on FR 20 and, at Mile 25, crossed the Willamette Meridian.
The Willamette Meridian is the north-south line which, together with the Willamette Base Line (an east-west line), has been used as the basis of public land surveys in Oregon and Washington since the 1850s. Here we were approximately 238 miles south of the point-of-origin of these surveys: the “Willamette Stone,” a monument located in what is now a dense residential district of Portland, Oregon. From here, we could see Mount Shasta to the south,
and Grayback Mountain (post) to the north.
At Mile 27, we entered Grouse Gap Basin and passed FR 40S30, the road to the Grouse Gap Shelter, on our right. Grouse Gap is on the watershed divide between Grouse Creek and Ashland Creek. The Shelter is a popular destination summer and winter and there were quite a few cars parked at it as we rolled by on FR 20. Fortunately, we’d just visited the Shelter on a less busy weekday (post).
Just before Mile 29, we passed the Mount Ashland Campground,Campground, a small Forest Service recreation site with vault toilets and picnic tables. During the winter, FR 20 between Mt. Ashland and Grouse Gap becomes a very popular cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trail.
Shortly after passing the campground, we were on pavement again and soon passing the Mount Ashland Ski Area, which looks different in summer,
than it does in winter when a storm rolls in.
All told, just over 29 miles on a gravel / dirt road of varying quality but nothing impassable to carefully driven 2WD sedans. A good way to escape the heat, check-out the Siskiyou High Country, and take some notes for future hikes starting from FR 20 or one of its side roads.