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 will 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,
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.
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.
We continued to climb easily on the PCT – which was in great shape in this area –
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.
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 little Echo Lake (accessible via the Horse Camp Trail), nestled in a small cirque basin below No Name Peak.
After enjoying our aerial view of the lake, we followed the PCT as it descended past the Red Buttes,
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!
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 extraction 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.
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 driveable 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 flummoxed (cowed?) by closed gates…
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.
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!
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.
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 wilderness!
From the shore of the lake, we had a great view of Red Butte’s summit,
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.
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.
Once back at the saddle, we had another great view of Lily Pad Lake and Mount Shasta to the south.
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 Forest Service did with the old road up Yamsay Mountain (post)).
Along the way, we passed a large, old cedar tree that had been miraculously spared by the road-builders.
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.
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!