Every place we’ve lived has had a favorite local hike – one that is close-by, accessible, and short – so that you can get out into the woods for a leg stretch without committing to an epic journey. There are actually several such hikes here in the southern Rogue River Valley but two that are mentioned in every local guidebook, in several newspaper and magazine articles, and on numerous websites, are Grizzly Peak, located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands just east of Ashland, Oregon and Wagner Butte on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest just west of Talent, Oregon (and just northwest of Ashland). After a four-day siege of wind, rain, clouds, and gloom, the LovedOne needed to muck about in the garden finishing some Fall planting and winterizing, while I needed to do some hiking. Grizzly, the easier of the two, seemed the obvious place to start, followed by the longer ascent of Wagner Butte, now wearing a good coating of snow from the recent storms.
Grizzly Peak (5,920 feet)
The story goes that this peak was named for Southern Oregon’s last known grizzly bear, “Old Reelfoot”, who roamed the area for 50 years before it was shot by a 17-year-old hunter in 1890. When the trail (BLM trail guide) is open (snow-free), summiting Grizzly is an easy ~5 mile (~800 feet of elevation gain) lollipop loop hike (3 miles for the loop and 2 miles out-and-back on the connector trail), with most of the initial, gradual climb in a cool, shaded forest, followed by big views. Access is all on paved roads and there’s room for about 8-10 cars at the trailhead, along with a pit toilet. In winter, when snow (the summit plateau sits between 5,700 and 5,900 feet) can smother the trail and some portion of the access road, Grizzly becomes a moderate to difficult, but fun, snowshoe hike. Along the trail are several viewpoints, where you can see the Crater Lake Rim and Mount Thielsen to the north, catch a glimpse of Mount McLoughlin to the northeast, look right out at Mount Shasta, Pilot Rock, and Mount Ashland to the south, and west to Wagner Butte and Grayback Mountain. During the spring and early summer wildlflower season, this area hosts up to 300 different species of flowering plants, including Tall Bugbane (Cimicifuga elata), growing here at the southern-most limit of its geographic range. The downside of most local hikes is often their popularity and Grizzly is no exception. There can be a half dozen cars at this trailhead at any time and on hot summer weekends parked cars can stretch down the access road. The pit toilet’s extraordinarily robust supply of tissue is some kind of testament to this trail’s popularity!
On this weekday in Fall there were only four cars at the trailhead (mine included) and the trail, having seen a lot of maintenance over the summer, was in great shape. The recent storms had dropped a little snow on the peak – mostly as decoration rather than as any real impediment to travel. There are at least two geocaches on Grizzly and I easily found the one (GC307RD) closest to the trailhead but not the one (GC5FV01) up near the summit.
Mount McLoughlin can be seen (sorta) from the trailhead but the best – but not wideangle – view of it comes a short ways up the trail.
The trail makes one long switchback on the northeast side of the mountain – where snow stays the longest,
before somewhat leveling out at about 5,800 feet and moving to the mountain’s less snowy, southwest side, where today there was only a trace of snow left.
I took this picture of mushrooms growing on a dead tree without realizing they looked, collectively, like a little, lumpy person – or an advertising symbol for cookies or tires.
About a mile up from the trailhead, I came to the sign that indicates the start of the 3 mile loop. Going right would have taken me, in 0.3 miles, to the tree-shrouded and thus viewless summit of Grizzly, so, wanting to get an early morning view of the Valley, I went left for a bit to where a brown stake marks another, less formal, trail junction and went left there too. This took me off the main loop trail and out to a rocky, open viewpoint where I could look south and southwest toward Mount Shasta, Pilot Rock, and Mount Ashland. I’d left the house under a blanket of clouds and fog but had climbed out of that shortly after starting up the access road from Ashland. Now I could look down and see that the clouds, while thick, were not at all deep – go up 300 feet or so and you’re in full sun! It’s a Rogue Valley thing during the winter months.
The morning had started out on the cold side and, looking down, I could see that this year’s leaf drop was encrusted with an intricate lacery of tiny ice crystals.
From this viewpoint, a pretty clear use trail took me back to the main loop trail, and on to the larger viewpoint on the southwest edge of the summit plateau.
From here, I could look down in the fog filling the valley, and west toward Wagner Butte, tomorrow’s objective,
and north toward Medford, still deeply buried in clouds.
In 2002, the human-caused East Antelope fire burned 1,886 acres of forest through which the northern part of the hike passes for about a mile. The fire didn’t do the trees much good but it opened the view considerably and allows sunlight to reach the forest understory so that wildflowers can now flourish. Natural restoration is proceeding, albiet slowly. I contined clockwise on the loop to the north side of the summit plateau where it’s possible to look north and see the Crater Lake Rim, now clearly highlighted by the 2+ feet of snow it had received in the last storm.
From there, the loop trail continues east past some large meadows that fill with wildflowers in the Spring but are now fading gold under the first snow of the season. Last year we had a near “normal” snow year (unlike the previous two years of snow drought) and these meadows rested under 3 to 4 feet of snow and made for some excellent snowshoeing.
Just short of its rejoining with of the connector trail, the loop trail passes the less than remarkable actual summit of Grizzly, just a lumpy pile of rocks. One comes to Grizzly for the views, not the summit.
And then I headed home to see how the LovedOne was faring in the garden…
Wagner Butte Lookout (7,140 feet)
This hike is a little tougher proposition (~10 miles round-trip, with 2,200 feet of elevation gain) than Grizzly Peak but the views – when available – are spectacular in all directions. On a clear day, you can see every major mountain in the area, from Mount Shasta to Mount Ashland, from the old lookout site at 7,140 feet (the actual summit of the Butte, at 7,255 feet, is about 0.5 mile to the south of the lookout site). We’ve been up there several times in all seasons and have never failed to secure one of these views – until today. The weather cooperated for yesterday’s short loop on Grizzly but for today’s climb of Wagner, clouds were rolling in by the time I reached the trailhead (USFS TH). The trailhead is poorly marked but its parking lot, on the right side of Forest Road 22, is obvious due to its collection of impressively large potholes!
The trail itself (USFS #1101) is also obvious, although steep and narrow in spots, all the way to the old lookout site. Along the way, I took in some of the impressively large Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines that line the trail and somehow have escaped being logged.
I also stumbled (they heard me before I saw them) upon a small herd of elk, presided over by a magnificently huge bull elk who was a bit camera shy.
After 3 miles through the forest, I reached Wagner Glade Gap at around 6,600 feet, and took in an astounding view of…clouds!
There’s a trail junction at the Gap and the trail to the old lookout site heads left (north) from here. If you continue straight ahead, you’ll be on the revitalized Wagner Glade Gap trail that goes down to Forest Road 2060 in the Ashland Watershed. The USFS and volunteers rebuilt it in 2008 and 2009 (story) and it is now part of the Pine to Palm 100-mile endurance run, as is the old lookout site (P to P 100). From here, the Wagner Butte trail (#1101) contours north through the forest,
and past a tree growth of a type I’d never seen before (and hadn’t noticed here before). This is the stuff of “B” sci fi films – as in hiker absorbed by alien pod and so on.
The old watering trough at Cold Spring signals that you’re not far from the lookout site. This was about the time the snow started getting deeper, 8 to 12 inches or so from here on.
When you come out of the trees just beyond the water trough you have, on a clear day, a great view off and up toward the rock outcropping that used to anchor the old lookout,
but today was not one of those days. Sigh.
After a short scramble up the snow-slick rocks of the outcropping, I reached the old lookout site and a view mostly obscured by clouds. More sighs.
Had it been a clear day, I would have been treated – as on all past trips here – to expansive views.
After a 1910 forest fire burned much of Ashland Creek’s canyon and threatened Ashland, the USFS agreed to establish a fire lookout out here on the Butte and an open-air observation post and rag camp (canvas tents) were set up in 1915. The first permanent structure, a D-6 cupola cabin, was built in 1923.
After winter storms blew parts of this structure off the mountain, it was replaced with an R-6 flat cabin in 1961. This cabin was only in service for a few summers before it was intentionally burned by smokejumpers in 1972, leaving only foundation piers, melted glass, and an iron railing.
While I was trying to enjoy my summit snack, even more clouds blew through and visibility dropped to zip. It seemed time to head down, even though I KNEW that the sun would be out as soon as I’d gotten just a short ways from the top. And, sure enough, by the time I got back to the Gap, the clouds were breaking-up and the landscape was dappled with sunshine. Nature can be so cruel sometimes. Triple sigh.
By the time I’d reached the site of the 1983 Sheep Creek Slide, I was in full sun and contemplating sunscreen! In May 1983, heavy rains saturated this forested slope, triggering a huge slide of trees, debris, and soil that roared down to the Applegate River destroying everything in its path, including parts of this trail and FR 22.
The sunlight now streaming into the forest backlit the gills on the undersides of several large mushrooms growing out of trees next to the trail.
After picking-up some trash alongside the trail, it was back to the trailhead and its potholes. A classic and always fun hike, even when the weather refuses to cooperate with the views! I should note that the USGS topo map for this area needs an update, as it shows FR 22 as a trail, doesn’t show the #1101, but does show the now recovered Wagner Glade gap trail. The USFS topo map for here gets the roads right (with a MapBuilder overlay) but labels the now #1101 (which only shows with MapBuilder) as #972. Fortunately, you don’t need a map to do this hike (Gasp! 10 essentials heresy!) as long you stay on the trail and it’s not snow-bound.