Aspen Butte (Mountain Lakes Wilderness) 26-Aug-2017

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon

At the moment, there are approximately 130,000 acres (200 square miles) of wildfires burning to the north, west, and south of the Rogue Valley. Needless to say, air quality in the valley sucks (if it were possible to breath-in). And, with air temperatures pushing into the triple digits, even Mordor is beginning to look like a better alternative.  And yet, after two delightful weeks of “floating and bloating” on the Salmon River (post), I (or, more accurately, my now bulging gut) needed a hike. But where? Someplace reasonably close, yet high enough for clearer air, and to the east of the wildfires (some of which, sadly, are busy burning away nearby hikes – like Grayback Mountain and Stuart Falls – that we’d enjoyed only a few months ago). After bringing an extra brain cell online, I decided that a hike up Aspen Butte in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness was my best choice. At 8,208 feet, it’s the highest point in this wilderness and thus a likely place to find fresher air.  The LovedOne – once again suspecting my sanity – opted instead to spend the day volunteering in the cool, filtered air provided by the county library.  Sigh (gasp, hack, wheeze…).

The shortest access to the Aspen Butte is from the Clover Creek Trailhead via the Clover Creek Trail.  The smoke was thick as soup in the valley but had thinned considerably by the time I reached the trailhead at 5,700 feet.  It was also pleasantly cool here and this coolness would last all the way up to the summit. The trail, which goes mostly level of its first 0.7 miles, was in great shape – the Forest Service must have gotten in some maintenance before they were diverted to wildfire duty.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Starting out on the Clover Creek Trail

After its level start, the trail turns and climbs gradually up the slope of what was the slope of a cluster of four overlapping shield volcanoes. Along the way I passed a small meadow, still sporting a few late season wildflowers,

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
A small meadow along the Clover Creek Trail

and a small, unnamed pond that offered reflections and a few desperate late-season mosquitos.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
A small pond along the Clover Creek Trail

Shortly after passing this pond (2.3 miles from the trailhead) I came to the unsigned (but marked with a couple of cairns) junction of the “new” Clover Creek Trail (the one I was on – red track on map below) and the “old” trail (blue track on map below), the one that, before 1985 or so, by-passed Clover Lake and went directly up to the rim. The Forest Service had abandoned it but it seems to have been revived by users as it is now an obvious and easy to follow tread all the way up to where if rejoins the “new” trail at about 7,200 feet. The old trail is no longer shown on the Forest Service map (which is understandable) but the new trail is only approximately where the map says it is (which is confusing). I took the old trail up to the rim, where I got a nice, mostly smoke-free, view of Lake Harriette below and Mount Harriman beyond.  Harriette is the largest of over 20 small lakes at the bottoms of several large large cirques carved by Ice Age glaciers near the summits of the four shield volcanoes encompassed by this wilderness.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
The view of Lake Harriette from the rim

The Clover Creek Trail ends at its junction on the rim with the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail (USFS #3727). I followed the Mountain Lakes Trail southeast to where it begins to descend toward Lake Harriette. From from here I continued southeast on a good use trail toward Aspen Butte. I traversed the ridge for a bit and then did a steady, but gentle, climb up to the summit. Along the way, I passed strands of #9 galvanized wire, all that remains of the telephone line (first installed in 1915) to the fire lookout (as a camp from 1910 to about 1920; then as a cupola cabin until 1928) that once occupied the summit. Conditions on top were great: fresh air, a light cool breeze, sunshine unfiltered by smoke, no bugs – totally worth the hike up. To the northwest, I could see that the summit of Mount McLoughlin (at 9,495 feet) was also above the smoke.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Mount McLoughlin from the summit of Aspen Butte

But, to the north, it seemed that both Mount Harriman and Pelican Butte were well in to the smoke.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Mount McLoughlin (M), Pelican Butte (P), and Mount Harriman (H) from the summit of Aspen Butte

To the east, Upper Klamath Lake was buried into invisibility under a dense cloud of smoke. The now 1,500 acre North Pelican fire burning on Pelican’s north slope undoubtedly contributed its share to Klamath’s smoke.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Upper Klamath Lake is out there somewhere

To the south, only the very top of 14,179 foot Mount Shasta was above the smoke pouring into the Shasta area from the Orelans Complex and other wildfires to the west.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Mount Shasta from the summit of Aspen Butte

And to the west, the Rogue River Valley was also lost in the smoke.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Looking west from the summit of Aspen Butte

I loitered on the summit as long as I could and then (reluctantly) started the journey back down in to the smokey depths, wishing I could exchange my GPS for a respirator.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Descending from the summit of Aspen Butte; Mount McLoughlin in the distance

I stopped to chat with two equestrians at the rim and then returned via the old trail. A very nice hike (10.4 miles roundtrip; 2,500 feet of elevation gain) to a view with cool, breathable air! One of the classics in Southern Oregon and hopefully one that won’t get burned like many of the others.

Aspen Butte Mountain Lakes Wilderness Oregon
My track (red) on the old trail to the summit of Aspen Butte; the new trail bypassed by the old trail is in blue

4 thoughts on “Aspen Butte (Mountain Lakes Wilderness) 26-Aug-2017

  1. Looks like we’re all betting on cooler, clearer weather coming in October. Or, if you can get high enough, above 6,000 feet, then the smoke isn’t too bad. We were also noticing that wind direction makes a big difference. Yesterday winds were from the south, pushing the Chetco Bar smoke over us but leaving the Mount Shasta area clear.


  2. I’ll second the fire and smoke issue…..been tough to get out and hike at all. We have done a few local hikes, but always early in the morning and not long hikes. Hopefully the weather and fire conditions change soon so we can get out and enjoy some cool Autumn hikes?


  3. Yes, it looks like we’re going to lose a few good ones. The trails will still be there, of course, if you like walking through cinders. But then, in a few years, the burned trees will start to fall over the trail…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It sure has been an awful year for fires and not just because of the numbers, it’s the locations too. It’s tough to see so many good hiking areas burning.


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