Now that low altitude (snow-free) access to the Mule Mountain Trail (USFS #919) has been lost to private development, only two publically accessible trails remain to take you to the upper reaches of the forest east of Applegate Lake: the Stein Butte (USFS #929, post) and the Little Grayback (USFS #921) trails. The USFS has suggested a work-around for Mule Mountain involving the Charlie Buck Trail (USFS #918) but its trailhead is up a steep dirt road and is, at present, blocked by snow – not exactly a low-altitude, year-round accessible trail. The Little Grayback is not a trail that has (so far) made it into many guidebooks, but Ruediger (The Siskiyou Crest, page 110) considers it to be the most botanically interesting trail in this area. That, combined with the loss of the Mule Mountain, may increase its popularity, despite the rough dirt road to its trailhead. The Little Grayback can be hiked out-and-back in its own right (wildflowers in season, big views!) but you can also go from the end of it up forest roads to the lookout atop Squaw Peak [I realize some folks find this word offensive but the U.S. Board of Geographic Names has not yet seen fit to amend the maps in this area, so I’m stuck with it when describing this hike]. That lookout was today’s snowy destination.
The LovedOne used her Quilting Class deferment for this one – likely because she remembered that the last time we did this hike in the snow it came close to being an adventure hike. So she quilted while I hiked. The last short section of dirt road up to the trailhead was its usual bumpy, gritty self (but fine, with care, for 2WD), but was completely blocked by snow several hundred feet before the trailhead sign. It wasn’t worth going 4×4 for this short distance, so I parked along the road and walked.
The persistent theme of ironic hiking asserted itself when, after walking on snow to the trailhead, the first mile or so of trail was totally snow-free. Felt like Spring, at least for awhile.
One thing I like about this trail is that while many parts are in the trees, there are several points where you can get big views – particularly of the Red Buttes to the southwest.
And, at one point, you turn a corner and get a view east toward Squaw Peak, where you can just make out the old lookout sitting on its summit.
But alas, snow-free travel did not last for long. One moment the snow was gone,
and the next, it was all over the trail.
The snow was only deep in a few spots and never slick, so I got by without snowshoes or microspikes. It also helped that, up to about mile 3.2, someone else (oregonnater?) had broken trail and compacted the snow. Fortunately, by then the tracks had gotten me to where the trail’s gradient eases and you mostly traverse along the ridge – much easier going despite the snow.
There were more views for encouragement,
and soon I reached where Little Grayback’s upper trailhead at Forest Road (FR) 2010-340.
From here to the top of Squaw Peak is all on forest roads, roads which can accumulate a surprising amount of deep snow – more than you might have encountered on the trail (which is mostly southfacing) getting to this point. Or not. So do you carry snowshoes all the way up here or not? When we did this in December 2015, we didn’t bring snowshoes and essentially postholed from here to the summit. Today snow conditions were much better – at most 8 to 12 inches of soft new snow over a firm base – so I was able to walk on it without snowshoes and without exhausting postholing. But still more work than walking a dry dirt road. I followed FR 2010-340 east to Hanley Gap, where the road up to the lookout starts. Winter or summer, this last steep climb is a bit of a grind, one that requires mental peristence.
At first it looked (again) like Spring conditions, even with some melt-out along the road. But then I turned the corner to the north side of the peak and floundered into full winter conditions.
The snow was deeper but still manageable without snowshoes. A little further up, winter relented slightly, I was back in the sunshine, and the walking got easier.
The slog up the road continued until the turn it makes on the south side of the peak and there I left the road and scampered up the peak’s snow-free southern slopes to the top.
I checked the met data later and found that it was a balmy 46ºF on top, with a 7 mph wind. Nice! Very nice! I was pleased to see that the old lookout was sporting a new shingle roof (rather than the old tarp it has been wearing for awhile), likely in anticipation of it entering the Forest Service’s lookout rental program.
The view from the top – particularly on this full bluebird day – was as spectacular as ever!
There is a still an operating lookout atop Dutchman Peak but I’ve never been able to make it out at this distance. After a snack and a little lounging in the warm sunshine, I headed back, using some cross-country moves to avoid much of the onroad slogging. I was soon back at the dry part of the trail,
A really great hike (10.8 miles round-trip; 1,800 feet of elevation gain to the peak), slogging and all. A bit of an adventure in the snow but wonderful in the Spring when the wildflowers are out (but maybe a little too hot in summer).