FIRE! SMOKE! FIRE! SMOKE! And so wildfire season begins in earnest… A week ago, huge thunderstorms rolled through our area, igniting a crescent of wildfires to our west and north. Many of these fires are still burning and smoke from them is filling the Rogue Valley with a choking miasma sadly reminiscent of old campfire. Last year, during the worst of the smoke from the Chetco Bar Fire, I sought (and found) clean (or at least cleaner) air atop various peaks in our area (The LovedOne opted for the A/C at the library). One of these peaks was Aspen Butte in the nearby Mountain Lakes Wilderness, which is now one of the few forested areas around here not hosting its own wildfire. Whiteface Peak, at the end of the Mountain Lakes Trail (USFS #3721), seemed like it might be high enough (at 7,684 feet) to afford a breathe of fresh air, so I got an early, but smoky, start for it (The LovedOne again sought refuge in the library’s cellulose-laden air).
The air was cool when I left the truck at the trailhead but it was soon apparent that I wasn’t going to escape the smoke, as it was clearly visible creeping its way into the forest.
The trail (which has seen recent maintenance and was in great condition) goes up-canyon along an intermittent creek – which had gone dry – but there was enough residual moisture to green-up a meadow along the trail and bring forth some corn lilies.
With a drier than normal winter behind us and a dry creek next to me, I didn’t think there would be much left of Lake Waban. I was pleasantly surprised to find it filled (but shallow) and bordered by a lush meadow hopping with small frogs. The sky above it looked blue and clear but I could still smell smoke.
The trail steepens a bit past the lake and now I started to feel the raspy throat and tight chest that comes from breathing smoke. The blue sky over Point 7652 belied the fact that I could taste the smoke and feel its effects.
I came to the junction with the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail (new signage!) and made the short climb from there up the ridge to the summit of Whiteface Peak.
Why its called Whiteface isn’t apparent unless you look at it from Zeb Lake and see the light colored scree on its east face.
By the time I’d rasped my way to the summit, it was obvious that it was only high enough to diminish the smoke, not eliminate it. The air was cleaner up here but hiking through it probably wasn’t one of my brighter ideas. And the views were pretty badly diminished unless you liked looking at smoke. Even the summit of Mount McLoughlin – at over 9,000 feet – didn’t seem to be above the miasma.
I went down Whiteface’s north ridge and circled back on the Loop Trail, mainly because there are a couple of good viewpoints on the west side of Whiteface. The one where you could see McLoughlin left no doubt there was a lot of smoke in the air,
while the view toward Point 7652 made it look like all was blue skies and clean mountain air!
The big plus of the Mountain Lakes Trail is that it’s almost all downhill to the trailhead, which meant that I wasn’t breathing as much and hence feeling the effects of the smoke as much on the way back. And it was nice to again see the meadow in bloom.
A smokey but otherwise good hike (11.2 miles round-trip; 2,500 feet of elevation gain) to a named summit with – under normal circumstances – pretty good views. A nice change from climbing Aspen Butte. I also got to thinking that Crater Mountain via the Clover Creek Trailhead would be another good hike in this wilderness come Fall (with its hopefully smoke-free air).