Elk Creek to Grayback Mountain 29-Jun-2017

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon

The Elk Creek Trail (USFS #1230) is an odd little trail in that it has a website and a trailhead sign but does not appear on any USGS or USFS maps. In reality, it’s a somewhat worn, moderately steep, but easy to follow trail that climbs from Forest Road (FR) 079 along Elk Creek through heavy woods to a junction with the Boundary Trail (USFS #1207) on the Siskiyou Crest. We first learned of it from Roether’s 2006 Williams Area Trail Guide (Hike #3) and have used it as a shortcut for a hike of Mount Elijah.  Both that guide, and the Forest Service website, intimate that you can also use it to reach Grayback Mountain (post), some three miles to the north.  So we decided to go see about that for ourselves and also check the condition of the Boundary Trail along the way. Update: Part of the #1207 close to Grayback Mountain was burned by the 2017 Creedence Fire.

You can get to the trailhead from the west (per the sketchy instructions on the Forest Service website) or from the east. We came in from the east. From Highway 238, we took the Williams Highway past Williams, Oregon for three miles (the Williams Highway becomes Cedar Flat Road beyond Williams), turned left on to Cave Camp Road for 6.7 miles to the end of pavement (BLM Road 39-6-36), bore right at a fork 0.8 miles further on (FR 4611), and continued for 2.9 gravel miles on FR 4611 to its intersection with FR 079, where we turned left and continued 1.6 miles on FR 079 to the signed trailhead. We started out in the cool of the morning climbing through lush undergrowth in the Elk Creek drainage,

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Starting up the Elk Creek Trail #1230

crossed the creek around 5,100 feet and continued on up the west side of the drainage, through an open meadow with a view of Grayback Mountain to the north.

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
A meadow on the Elk Creek Trail, with Grayback Mountain in the distance on the far right

Shortly before reaching the saddle, we passed Delmor Healy Spring, now running well given our wet winter, but a reliable (if slow) source of water even in the dry times.

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Delmor Healy Spring on the Elk Creek Trail

At the saddle, there is a convergence of different trails but few intact or readily visible signs to guide the weary traveler. To the right in a grove of large fir trees is Sparlin Camp, a hunting camp used by generations of locals and now sadly vandalized. Starting up from immediately behind the camp is the use trail shortcut to Mount Elijah. Directly across the open area is the Boundary Trail #1207 coming in from across the south slopes of Lake Mountain. To the left is the continuation of the Boundary Trail toward Grayback Mountain – we went that way.

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
The trail junctions at Sparlin Camp

There’s 1,300 feet of elevation gain between the trailhead and Sparlin Camp but for those (like us) heading toward Grayback, the climbing is far from over. First, we had to climb Point 6420 (“Viewpoint Peak”), some 500 feet above us,

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Climb! Put your feet into it! Climb!

through open areas,

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Along the Boundary Trail north of Sparlin Camp

and over thick patches of snow that completely covered the trail over the top of Point 6420.

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Snow covered the trail on Point 6420

But Point 6420 does offer views from its top, making it a good destination for a shorter hike.

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Preston Peak (P), high point in the Siskiyou Wilderness
Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Mount McLoughlin (M) to the east

After gaining this height, we promptly lost most of it in a 400 feet descent to a saddle and a roller coaster up and around Point 6378,

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Grayback Mountain from Point 6378
Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
The view from Point 6378: S – Mount Shasta; R – Red Buttes, T – Trinity Alps

then did the same up and down for Point 6363, with its tantalizing view of Grayback.  From here it seemed so close, but that was an illusion…

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Grayback Mountain from Point 6363

We had given some thought to the possibility of climbing Grayback via the shortest route – directly up its southwest ridge. But as we got closer, we could see that the ridge was a tangle of ravel-laden forest, lacerating mesquite thickets, and wobbly boulder fields, all out in the now hot sun. We opted, instead, to continue on the Boundary Trail toward where it intersects a use trail running up Grayback’s southeast ridge.  This use trail is popular with hikers taking the short way up via the O’Brien Creek Trail (USFS #900).  From the saddle immediately south of Grayback, we contoured east on the #1207 to a huge meadow where we stopped to pause and reflect.

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
A large meadow on the southeast slopes of Grayback Mountain
Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
The Red Buttes (R) and a forest fire (arrow) as seen from the southeast slopes of Grayback Mountain

At this point, another two miles (roundtrip) and 900 feet of elevation gain separated us from the summit BUT we also had to go up and down, up and down along the ridge to get back to Sparlin Camp. After waving the map around and genuflecting to the GPS, we decided to call the hike here and head back. Maybe on another, cooler day. So, after retreating to Point 6363 for a snack, we continued on back, laboring up the snow field on Point 6420,

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Back up and over Point 6420

and then enjoying a shady descent of the Elk Creek Trail, now enlivened by swarms of Checkerspot butterflies.

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
My flower! Mine! Back off, you smelly mammal!

Overall, this hike was only 10.3 miles round-trip but with a surprising 3,200 feet of elevation gain (pushing on to the summit would have moved this hike into the 12 mile, 4,100 foot a bit more than we’d planned on category). For trails that don’t seem to get much maintenance (or much use in the case of the Boundary) both were in surprisingly good condition – only a few pesky fallen trees – and generally easy to follow. The views from the crest are excellent in spots.  The Elk Creek Trail is an easy way to reach Mount Elijah and the Bigelow Lakes but definitely a much harder way (compared to the O’Brien Trail) to reach Grayback Mountain (the most fun way up Grayback is along its north ridge from Windy Gap, also reached via the O’Brien Trail). {UPDATE: The Boundary Trail from Point 6378 to Grayback’s southwest slopes was burned in August 2017 by the Creedence Fire (one of the Miller Complex Fires)). This may have affected both the quality and safety of the trail.}

Elk Creek Trail Siskiyou Crest Oregon
Our out-and-back track to the side of Grayback Mountain (blue dots are the undone path to the summit)

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