In 2015, the Siskiyou Mountain Club (SMC) resurrected the Wild Rogue Loop from neglected trails in the Wild Rogue Wilderness. We backpacked that loop in 2017 and had a great trip. This year the SMC announced the rehabilitation of a 27-mile loop in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, around the headwaters of the Rogue River’s Middle Fork. With a lot of help from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the Fremont-Winema National Forest, the High Desert Trail Riders – Back Country Horseman, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and REI, the SMC removed about 5,000 logs from portions of existing trails that had become impassable after acute wildfire damage and years of neglect. So, of course, we had to do it. Unfortunately, The LovedOne’s knee, while getting better, wasn’t ready for a trip like this. We could have waited, but I was anxious to do this loop while the weather was still relatively cool and before any (hopefully none) wildfires closed areas or spoiled the air (like they did last year).
We were first acquainted with this loop by a hand-drawn sign that appeared at our local REI store. It painted a bold concept but we were left to figure out the details for ourselves (as it should be).
DAY 1: Middle Fork Trailhead to Cliff Lake
You could do the loop in either direction, but after pondering elevation profiles it looked like it would be better to descend the Middle Fork Trail (USFS #978) on the second day rather than ascend it on the first day (this proved to be true), so I did the loop clock-wise, starting from the Middle Fork Trailhead. From the trailhead, I had about a mile under a forest canopy before breaking out into the scar left by the 2008 Lonesome Complex Fire.
Along here I could see the effects of the 2008 fire and then the 2017 Blanket Creek Fire on the slopes of Mudjekeewis Mountain to the north.
The Middle Fork Trail, although obviously lightly used, was in good condition over the 3.4 miles between the trailhead and its junction with the Halifax Trail (USFS #1088). But the SMC acknowledges that, despite the heroic effort expended to get this and the other trails in this loop open, they …will need intense ongoing maintenance… to keep them open. This was evident from the trees that had fallen over the last winter – ones that always seem to land smack in the middle of the trail.
The junction with the #1088 is pretty obvious and is signed, if you count the sign facing up from a fallen tree.
I started along the Halifax Trail cognizant that I would either have to wade the Middle Fork (something I’m not keen to do most times and something that would be foolhardy to try at high water) or find a convenient log. As fate would have it, there was a truly gigantic tree that had fallen across the entire creek. Dry feet! Yea!
Once across the log, it was not obvious where the trail continued on the other side. After floundering in the creek-side vegetation (more like a swamp), I came to the trail about 100 feet downstream from the log, right across from a colorful cliff.
Once I got free of the low-growing vegetation along the river, the Halifax proved to be a well-graded and easy to follow trail as it switchbacked its way up the slopes above Halifax Creek. The SMC had removed about 1,500 logs, brushed the entire route, and had retreaded sections that had disappeared.
As I climbed, there were openings where I could look southeast towards Lucifer (a peak on the ridge west of Devils Peak) and west down the Middle Fork drainage.
After about 1,100 feet of elevation gain through several nicely graded switchbacks (and past some still flowing springs), I reached more level ground to the west of Solace Meadow. The 2008 Lonesome Fire was not a good thing, not at all, but hiking through its aftermath some 10 years on was not the horrible experience I’d expected. There was still some shade, a few views, and, higher up, evidence of regrowth of not only low-growing vegetation but also trees.
Further along, the trail even traversed patches of unburned forest,
and then reached the west end of Solace Meadow.
Shortly after reaching the meadow, I encountered the effects of last year’s Blanket Creek Fire, which had burned away all organic matter on the ground, exposed mineral soils, and effectively obliterated the trail.
Many of the trails in this area owe their existence to farmers in the main valley who began, in the early 1850s, grazing their livestock in the high-elevation ranges of the Cascades during the summers. Most of this activity occurred at or near Solace and McKie Meadows since these offered water, forage, and reasonably level ground. To support this grazing, there was a cabin (line shack) here (some maps call it Solace Cow Camp),
but the Blanket Creek Fire destroyed it,
but not its view of the gloriously green meadow. The spring that feeds the meadow was still flowing well, so I got water here in anticipation of a long stretch of dry trail ahead.
The Halifax Trail ends here at a junction with the McKie Camp Trail (USFS #1089) that runs north, past McKie Shelter, to the Stuart Falls Trail (USFS #1078) and south to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The McKie Shelter was built between 1934 and 1936 and was named after a sheepherder, Tom McKie. Unfortunately, the Blanket Creek Fire had largely obliterated this junction, along with the start of the southbound portion of the #1089. But I knew that trail crossed the slope above the old cabin site, so I just climbed until I intersected the faint tread that remained.
Ironically, the tread of the McKie Camp Trail got much easier to follow once it passed beyond the reach of the Blanket Creek Fire and into that of the Lonesome Complex Fire. The SMC had removed approximately 550 logs from the #1089 and brushed around 1.5 miles of it from Solace Meadow south towards the PCT before there were forced to retreat by the Blanket Creek Fire.
About 2 miles from Solace Meadow the trail passed back in to unburned forest and,
about a half-mile further on, past a putative junction with a #1089A trail, but no such junction exists. This may have been an echo of the Maude Mountain Trail (shown on the USGS 1955 Pelican Butte quadrangle) that supposedly ran from Solace Meadow to what was then the Oregon Skyline Trail on the east side of Big Bunchgrass. Soon thereafter, I reached the southern end of the #1089 at a signed junction with the PCT. I stopped for a snack here and was soon passed by two groups of backpackers doing either section hikes or finishing aborted parts of last year’s thru-hike. Crowds! I then sped south on the PCT – which was a superhighway compared to the day’s earlier trails – past signed junctions for the Middle Fork Basin (USFS #1077 to Ranger Spring) and Seven Mile (USFS #3703) Trails, to a possible camp at Honeymoon Creek. But the water there was stagnant and fetid,
so I continued south, past a junction with the Seven Lakes Trail (USFS #981) where I stayed left on the PCT (judging from the wear, many PCT hikers prefer diverting from the PCT here to camp at the lakes) to its junction with the Cliff Lake Trail (USFS #983) and then took that trail to a nice campsite at Cliff Lake. The SMC had removed 125 logs and brushed the entire route of the #981 with help from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. With the Sky Lakes mosquitos doing their utmost to live up their blood-sucking reputation, I had a quick dinner followed by a retreat to my mesh tent for some sleep after 15.7 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain.
DAY 2: Cliff Lake to Middle Fork Trailhead
I don’t usually sleep well the first night on the trail, so when I opened my eyes to find it still light, I thought I’d just dozed off. But, no, I’d passed out and it was now sunrise, not sunset – on one of the shortest nights of the year – and hence time to haul my carcass out of the tent and get back in the trail. The mosquitos apparently got to sleep-in, so I was able to get breakfast and packed and on the trail without further blood-loss (or DEET poisoning).
I rejoined the Seven Lakes Trail a little ways south of Cliff Lake, then climbed past South Lake,
a tiny unnamed tarn,
over some lingering patches of snow, past a view out over the fog-filled valley to the north,
to a signed junction with the Alta Lake Trail (USFS #979). The SMC had removed approximately 150 trees and brushed the entire route of the #979, so it was easy going down to Lake Alta, which I think may be the most beautiful lake in the Sky Lakes.
The north end of Alta Lake was the literal and figurative high point (at 6,486 feet) of the trip; it would be, as planned, all downhill from here. I followed the Alta Lake Trail north, past Boulder Pond (which looks permanent but does dry out, so don’t count on it), past a junction with the King Spruce Trail (USFS #980 – The SMC removed approximately 100 logs from near both ends of this trail), to a junction with the Middle Fork Trail. From here, over about 1.5 miles, the #978 will lose about 1,600 vertical feet in a long series of switchbacks, interspersed with few, very few, level spots. There were few views,
but the first half of the journey down was on excellent trail,
and the lower half was on rocky but otherwise good trail.
It was a different story once the trail reached the canyon bottom and started descending along (but not necessarily near) the Middle Fork. Initially, the trail was obscured by low-growing vegetation and sometimes crossed by trees felled by winter,
then there was a delightfully open stretch under the forest canopy,
until the trail re-entered the area burned by the Lonesome Fire, about a mile above the junction with the #1088. Work had obviously been done to clear the trail but last winter’s storms had tried their best to undo it.
I navigated through this section largely by looking for the cut ends of logs that marked where trail work had been performed. It was slow going and I was heartily glad that this was at the downhill end, not the uphill beginning, of this loop! It didn’t help that Nature had, in spots, perversely dropped recent blowdown right on the trail and right where so much work had already been done to clear it. So, yes, this will need to be an ongoing effort.
By the time I got back to the junction with the #1088, the recently cleared section of the Middle Fork Trail from there to the trailhead was looking almost as good as the PCT!
The cleared trail made quick work of my return to the trailhead; yielding 12.2 miles and 900 feet of elevation gain for the day. So the total trip was 27.9 miles, with 4,400 feet of elevation gain. More work needs to be done on some of the trails in this loop (in addition to ongoing maintenance) so, at the moment, there’s some navigating and bushwhacking, but, overall, I was impressed by how good the trails were. I was prepared to hate the burned areas but found them both compelling and cautionary. This worked as an overnight backpack but might be even better as a two-nighter. The only trick is that reliable water sources are scarce between Solace Meadow and the Seven Lakes Basin (unless you add two miles by diverting to Ranger Spring). This might not be the trip for the beginning backpacker, but it could be one for those with a few trail miles on their boots who want to see parts of the Sky Lakes Wilderness few have seen in the last 10 years.
And a special thanks to the Siskiyou Mountain Club and their partners for once again making these trails accessible!