Towhead Lake (Red Buttes Wilderness) 06-Oct-2016

We’ve done several hikes in the  Red Buttes Wilderness in Northern California, including a scramble to its high point (the eastern summit of Red Butte at 6,739 feet) just this last June (post). However, it’s such a beautiful area that we’re always looking for new hikes to explore around here.  So, after wandering around in the virtual wilderness of the internet, I came across a few mentions of Towhead Lake, which is situated in the southeast corner of the real Red Buttes Wilderness just northwest of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  Our trailhead for this hike was at Cook and Green Pass, which we reached via a good gravel road (Forest Road (FR) 1055) which comes up from the Oregon side of the border just south of Applegate Lake.   At the pass, the PCT crosses FR 1055 (which continues south and down as FR 48N20 to the Seiad Valley in California) and is joined by the terminus of the Cook and Green trail (USFS #959) coming up from FR 1040.  There is also a signed “Service Road” that goes west from the pass (there’ll be more about this road later).  We started hiking south on the PCT as in climbed gently up the slopes of Cook and Green Butte,

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Going west (south) on the PCT shortly after leaving Cook and Green Pass

from where we had a brief view to the northeast before the trail swung around a ridge coming down from the butte and headed west.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Looking northeast from the PCT

One of our favorite things about this particular section of the PCT is that it doesn’t waste much time getting to the BIG VIEWS, particularly those of Mount Shasta about 70 miles to the south.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Mount Shasta (below the cloud) from the PCT

We continued to climb easily on the PCT – which was in great shape in this area –

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Further along the PCT

until, after about 2.5 miles, the Red Buttes filled the horizon to the west, with pointy Red Butte (this wilderness’ high point) directly in line with the PCT and the LovedOne.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

The Red Buttes from the PCT

The PCT crosses a saddle here and junctions with the Horse Camp trail (USFS #958) coming up (steeply!) from FR 1040. From the saddle, we could look over and see delightful litte Echo Lake (accessible via the Horse Camp trail), nestled in a small cirque basin below No Name Peak.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Echo Lake from the saddle along the PCT

After enjoying our aerial view of the lake, we followed the PCT as it descended past the Red Buttes,

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

The Red Buttes from the PCT

across a dirt road (this is the Service Road from Cook and Green Pass) to Bee Camp, an open area with informal campsites and some water. Backpackers camping here expecting a “wilderness experience” need to remember that this area is not in the wilderness and is accessible by cars and trucks via the Service Road from Cook and Green Pass – so don’t pitch your tent in any two-track ruts!

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Looking east across Bee Camp

The Service Road, which ends here at Bee Camp, was built in the late 1930s or early 1940s to access a chromite mine (variously referred to as the Kangaroo Mountain Mine, Kubli-Scott Claim, Anniversary Claim, McGuire) in Hello Canyon.  The deposit was found in 1918 and later worked by E.W. Kubli, who built a cabin (now collapsed) in upper Hello Canyon to provide shelter to workers at this small mine. Some production had begun by 1941 but had seemingly ended by 1942.  Whether to maintain or decommission this service road has been a point of controversy for over 50 years.  Even though the PCT runs through this area, backpackers and hikers should remember that it is not in the protected Red Buttes Wilderness and is currently claimed by the Beyond Tomorrow LLC mining company (of Eureka, California) who, at one point (2008), had plans to strip mine the area for chromite ore.  The current status of any such plans is not known but this area without wilderness status nonetheless remains vulnerable to such extration schemes.

From Bee Camp, we followed the PCT further west to where it passes above Lily Pad Lake, now drawn down in late season but home to innumerable chorusing frogs in the spring and summer months.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Lily Pad Lake in late season (with a light dusting of snow)

Here we left the PCT and went a short distance uphill to connect with the Service Road in the saddle above Lily Pad Lake. The drivable part of the Service Road ends back at Bee Camp but the road’s remains continue to this point and on north down toward Towhead Lake. Here we came to a low stone wall – with working gate! – which marks the boundary between the Klamath National Forest (where grazing is allowed) to the south and the Red Buttes Wilderness (where grazing is restricted) to the north.  Presumably cows are not capable of leaping over low walls (or tall buildings for that matter) and are absolutely flumoxed (cowed?) by closed gates…

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

The gate into the wilderness

The morning’s clouds had dissipated by now, so we had an amazing view of Lily Pad Lake to the south, with Mount Shasta visible on the far horizon.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

The view south from the gate

Past the gate, the old mine road is much diminished but still obvious, as is the solid use trail running along it. Because there wasn’t much about Towhead Lake online, I guess we figured that getting to it would require at least a little route-finding and cross-country trail. Au contraire, you silly hikers!

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

The modern use trail to Towhead Lake follows the old road for a ways

We followed this use trail along the road as it descended into Upper Hello Canyon and stayed with it as it left the old mining road (which continues on around the head of the canyon) and went directly down canyon to the lake. Judging from the clarity of this use trail, this is an oft visited but not much mentioned lake. After passing a small fore-lake, we arrived at Towhead Lake itself.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Our first look at Towhead Lake

The lake, set in a rocky bench in Hello Canyon, is absolutely charming. Clear and blue and deep, it would have been an ideal swim spot had this not been a cool, windy day in October. Still, it was a heart-warming view of high-clarity emerald, turquoise, amber, and aquamarine waters – truly one of the gem-quality lakes in this wilderess!

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Towhead Lake, looking toward the “edge” drop-off into the canyon beyond

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Towhead Lake

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

The “shallows” at Towhead Lake

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Reflections at Towhead Lake

From the shore of the lake, we had a great view of Red Butte’s summit,

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Red Butte from Towhead Lake

and, after clambering up a rock outcropping on the lake’s east side, of the lake itself, with the spine of the Siskiyou Crest extending off to the north.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Towhead Lake below, with the Siskiyou Crest beyond

We poked around the lake for a bit, had a snack and a sit, and then, reluctantly, headed back. There didn’t appear to be any campsites near the lake (not a good idea anyway) but you could probably find a good one in the forest about 100 feet up-canyon.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Leaving Towhead Lake

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Following the use trail back up the canyon

Once back at the saddle, we had another great view of Lily Pad Lake and Mount Shasta to the south.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

View from the gate at the saddle

For something different, we decided to follow the Service Road back to Cook and Green Pass. It’s not bad as a hiking / mountain biking trail and we’d have no issues seeing it closed to motorized vehicles (but not wantonly “decommissioned” into a miserable hiking experience like the USFS did with the old road up Yamsay Mountain (post)).

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Heading back along the old Service Road

Along the way, we passed a large, old cedar tree that had been miraculously spared by the road-builders.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

An old, old cedar aside the road

Except for its last mile or so, the road is mostly out in the open and thus provides big views to the south (as does the PCT) to relieve the mild tedium associated with walking along a road.

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Along the road, with Mount Shasta beyond

A moderate hike (9.8 miles round-trip; 2,100 feet of elevation gain) on good trail, clear use trail, and not-too-tedious road to a lake that is absolutely worth the hike!

Red Buttes Wilderness Northern California

Our out-and-back track to Towhead Lake

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4 thoughts on “Towhead Lake (Red Buttes Wilderness) 06-Oct-2016

  1. derwoodynck

    That looks like a great little lake, wish we had known about it when we went by last year. We did wonder where (if anywhere) that old road into the canyon led.

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    1. dblumrosen

      Hello and thank you for this incredible blog! I have a small cabin near Applegate lake and have dayhiked the heck out of the area, but would like to expand to an overnight backpacking trip. With all the rain this winter, I’m trying to find a good option for an out and back or loop … Thinking that Towhead Lake might make a good option, if I can find a decent place to pitch tent up from the lake? Do you two have any favorite options for overnight backpacking sites in the Applegate vicinity? (unpeopled – not looking to camp out with all the Summer Applegate lake boaters…) Miller lake WAS a possibility, but roads are washed out. Lily Pad Lake, Echo Lake… ? Thanks for your thoughts and for the exceptional and inspiring website.

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    2. Boots on the Trail Post author

      Thanks! You should be able to find a place for a tent about 100 yards or so southwest of Towhead Lake, just off the use trail leading to it. There are also a few informal sites at Echo Lake. Lily Pad Lake is (I think) too close to the end of the old mine road to be truly remote – but there are several places to camp there. If you’re up for some cross-country travel & route-finding, Elk Lake, northeast of Towhead and directly north of Red Butte, would be a good remote destination.

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    3. dblumrosen

      Thanks so much – really appreciate that input. Going to check out Elk Lake.

      Like

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