The South Fork Rogue River, a 25-mile tributary of Oregon’s Rogue River, rises in the Blue Lake Basin of the Sky Lakes Wilderness and flows generally northeast to its confluence first with the Middle Fork and then with the main Rogue slightly upstream of Lost Creek Lake. The South Fork is bordered for part of its length by three hiking trails: the Lower South Fork Trail between Lower South Fork Bridge and Imnaha Creek (USFS #988), the Middle South Fork Trail between the Upper and Lower South Fork Bridges (USFS #988), and the Upper South Fork Trail from near Upper South Fork Bridge to the Blue Lake Basin (USFS #986). Both the Lower and Middle trails are locally popular and are also described in almost every hiking guidebook for this area. The Upper trail is rarely mentioned (if at all) in local guidebooks and is described by the Forest Service as a minimally maintained primitive trail, one not recommended for horses, and a challenging workout for hikers. This made a hike of it sound intriguing for one last venture into the Sky Lakes until the end of mosquito season in September.
The LovedOne favored library volunteering over yet another primative trail, so I facilitated this hike by hiding the bike at the Blue Canyon Trailhead and then driving back down to the Upper South Fork Trailhead at the end of Forest Road (FR) 720 – scaring a small bear off the road along the way. The Forest Service places this trailhead in its area is unavailable category, one that can mean many different things, some innocuous, some not so good. But I found the short dirt road to this trailhead to be in good condition and there was a nice parking area, kiosk, partially eaten permit box, and signage at the trailhead itself.
There was one burst of sunshine as I started up the trail,
but otherwise the trail follows – but not too close – the South Fork up the valley floor under the forest canopy and between low, lush vegetation,
across more than a few marshy spots,
and through more upland forest where signs of maintenance – whether by the Forest Service or local volunteers – were clearly evident.
The tread was clear of obstructions and easily discernible up to 2.2 miles from the trailhead; immediately after that, however, it’s condition deteriorated to one of no recent maintenance, overgrowth by low brush, and vagueness in the larger marshy areas. Following it wasn’t hard but I had to pay a lot closer attention and, in a few spots, hunt some to reacquire it after crawling over a downed tree (of which there weren’t, thankfully, too many). In its last three miles, the trail makes three significant water crossings: two of tributary creeks and one of the South Fork itself. For me, these we slightly more than just a rock hop across but could be a challenge (or impassable) during the Spring runoff. These were also the places where the tread was easiest to lose.
After the South Fork crossing, the trail started to climb a little more steeply and, at about 5,400 feet, almost disappeared in to a large meadowy, marshy area – the only place where some old surveyor tape came in handy.
Just beyond the trail-enguling meadow, and shortly before reaching the first lake, the grade eased to almost level and the trail became totally obvious.
The #986 trail comes into the South Blue Lake Group from the north and passes Beal Lake first,
then Mud Lake which, as its name suggests, is very shallow and muddy on its north shore,
and then Meadow Lake, which is a small body of water backed-up by a large marsh,
before reaching an unsigned junction with the Blue Canyon Trail (USFS #976) at the eastern edge of Blue Lake, with its crystal clear waters below a backdrop of solid and crumbling basalt cliffs.
The trails in this area can be confusing – particularly if you try to reconcile them with the varying numbers and descriptions on the USGS and Forest Service maps and the Forest Service website. In short, going south from this junction will eventually take you to Island Lake (post), while heading northeast, as I did today, will take you up into the North Blue Lake Group, past Round Lake,
and on up to the Blue Canyon Trailhead. Once there, I retrived the bike and did a mostly downhill glide back to the Upper South Fork Trailhead. The hike was 7.5 miles with 1,700 feet of elevation gain, while the bike ride was slightly longer at 8.7 miles, but a lot easier. The #986 [but shown as #988 on the USGS and Forest Service maps] is primitive as promised (particularly the second half) but not challenging other than (maybe) for some spots of routefinding. Obviously, if all you want to do is get to the lakes as quickly as possible, then use the Blue Canyon Trailhead and the #976 trail; otherwise, the #986 makes for a more interesting, if somewhat longer, alternative.