Hiking the Mule Mountain Loop from Above 19-Nov-2017

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

The Mule Mountain Trail (USFS #919) used to be one of the most popular trails in the Upper Applegate Valley. Then the Forest Service lost its easement through private property to the low-altitude start of the trail on public land. The Forest Service’s suggested alternative, the Charlie Buck/Baldy Peak Trail (USFS #918), starts higher up, where it might be closed by snow in the winter, and involves a heart-wrenching 1,200 feet of gain in its first mile from its northern trailhead! Having done this before (post), I thought it might be easier to reach the Mule Mountain and Mule Creek (USFS #920) Trails from the #918’s southern trailhead at the end of Forest Road (FR) 2010-300.  There was just time to give this a try ahead of an incoming  stretch of hiking-unfriendly weather. The LovedOne has always maintained that hiking should be fun rather than character building, so she buried further under the covers and offered up a muffled “good luck with that” as I headed off into the freezing fog outside our garage.

To get to this trailhead, I went south from Ruch, Oregon on the Upper Applegate Road for 9.2 miles, then turned left onto Beaver Creek Road (FR 20), and followed that for 3.7 miles to a junction on the right with the Hanley Gulch Road (FR 2010) – there’s a “Squaw Peak Lookout” sign here. I turned right on to FR 2010 and followed it (past junctions with FR 200, FR 220, and FR 250 but FR 2010 is always the obvious road to follow) for about 7 miles to its intersection with FR 300.  I turned right here and went about 3 miles to road’s end. If I’d continued up FR 2010, I would have reached the now rentable Squaw Peak Lookout. The Mule Creek Trailhead is just before the end of FR 2010-300 and the southern terminus of the Charlie Buck/Baldy Peak Trail is on the north side of its end at a turn-around area.  There are no amenities at this trailhead.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

The start of the #918 Trail at the end of FR 2010-300

The #918 contours essentially level on the west side of the ridge extending south from Baldy Peak. Aside from the relatively easy hiking, this stretch of trail provides generous views of the Upper Applegate Valley and of the Siskiyou Crest beyond. Unfortunately, today’s milky white bright overcast – which created sharp contrasts between earth and sky – was not conducive to great snapshots. Still, one works with what nature offers up.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Mule Creek Canyon below; snowy Grayback Mountain and Big Sugarloaf Peak beyond

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Along the #918; snowy Grayback Mountain and Big Sugarloaf Peak beyond

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Mule Mountain (M), Grayback Mountain (G), and Big Sugarloaf Peak (B)

In 1.4 miles, I reached the saddle south of Baldy Peak where the #918 continues north and the Mule Mountain Trail (#919) drops off down the ridge to the west.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Where the #920 leaves the saddle south of Baldy Peak

I turned west here and started down the #920. Along here is where you get your first full view of the Red Buttes in the Red Buttes Wilderness just over the California line. They’re not completely snow-packed yet but that will likely change soon.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

The Red Buttes from the Mule Mountain Trail

One plus from the overcast sky was the soft light it produced; light that seemed ideal for enhancing the muted colors of Fall.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

The Mule Mountain Trail descended through droves of fallen leaves

A little further down, the reddish tint of a burned forest became evident on the slopes across the valley. This was the Burnt Peak component of the Miller Complex Fire, one that almost burned out folks living on the valley floor.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Scars from the Burnt Peak Fire (arrow) as seen from the Mule Mountain Trail

With no wildflowers or mushrooms around to distract me, my attention turned to shapes on the madrones – an endless source of abstractions – and some hardy lichens (looking at old photos I realized I’d photographed this same one several years ago – must have grown a miliimeter or two since then!).

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

A madrone abstraction

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Same lichen, different year; the leaf, however, is new

And so I continued down the #919, through an almost park-like forest,

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Along the #919 shortly before its junction with the #920

to its junction with the Mule Creek Trail (#920). By now, I’d lost almost 1,900 feet but there was more down to go. The Mule Mountain Trail seemed less well used then before (thanks to the loss of its lower trailhead), but was otherwise in decent shape – a few large fallen trees but not much encroachment by brush. As I started down the #920, it soon became apparent that it was in worse shape – encroachment by buckbrush, faint tread in places, some fallen trees, lots of ravel – than the #920. The Mule Creek Trail had always been the less popular of the trails in this loop and thus seems to have suffered the most from the loss of easy access.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Along the #920 about halfway down to Mule Creek

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

The #920 transits a park-like forest just before reaching Mule Creek

When I reached the old road that is the #920 at the bottom of the canyon, I had 2,000 feet of elevation gain ahead of me to get back to FR 2010-300. Sigh. For half the distance back to the trailhead, the #920 is an old road – easy hiking despite a few fallen trees.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Starting back on the #920

I had to cross Mule Creek – a perennial creek that flows to some extent year-round – several times but these were just hop-across crossings this late in the year.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

An easy creek to cross

The higher I went, the more and more eroded the old road became, but the road prisim was still obvious.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Along on the #920

The trick here is that the old road eventually turns up along Hole-in-the-Ground Creek, while the #920 turns left, drops to cross Mule Creek, and then climbs steeply up the slope on the other side. It’s an easy junction to miss. There is, however, an obvious rock outcrop the #920 passes through just past this turn – if you don’t see these rocks, you’re on the wrong trail!

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

The rock outcrop along on the #920 just past Hole-in-the-Ground Creek

The waters of Mule Creek are crystal clear over beautiful gravel bottoms. At this time of year, the fallen, but not yet decomposed leaves, make a coloful addition to these sparkling waters.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Mule Creek

The trail continues to climb, sometimes near the creek, sometimes above it, further and further up into the ever-narrowing canyon.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Near the end of the #920

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

Ferns are at home here

As the creek grows smaller and becomes intermittent near its headwaters, huge old-growth trees appear along the trail – some 8 feet or more in diameter – and then the trail swings out of the canyon, becomes an old road again, and ends at FR 2010-300. A good, stiff hike (8.9 miles; 2,700 feet of elevation gain) along trails that are still beautiful but much quieter than they used to be. If you want to experience absolute solitude close to civilization, hike the #920!  When the lower trailhead was still available, you could ascend the #919 goaded on by its big views and then descend the #920 along a creek in the shade. Maybe one day the Forest Service will find its way to a new easement for a low altitude trailhead? Hope springs eternal in this hiker’s soles.

Mule Mountain Mule Creek Trails Oregon

The Mule Mountain Loop starting from the top

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