Elk Lake (sometimes called Moraine Lake) is one of six little lakes clustered at the southeast end of California’s Red Buttes Wilderness. Such high-elevation lakes are rare in the Siskiyou Mountains because this range was largely unaffected by lake basin-forming Pleistocene glaciation.  Lily Pad is the easiest to access, with Towhead and Echo not far behind. However, Hello, Goodbye, and Elk take some effort to visit. I wanted to see what it would take to reach Elk and also see what impact the 2017 Abney Fire had had on Cook and Green Pass and the stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) running west from there. The LovedOne demurred on yet another hike likely to involve bushwhacking and boulder flogging, opting instead to design a quilt.
It would be an understatement to say that Elk Lake isn’t visited very often. The California Department of Fish and Game reported (in 1969) that Elk Lake received occasional light stocking to take care of very light fishing pressure. Very light indeed! Online research turned-up only one description (Dave’s) of how to reach it from the PCT and that involved climbing over the saddle northeast of Red Butte and making your way down the steep slopes (and around the cliffs) on the north side. Reaching that saddle wasn’t particularly easy and from above (and later from the side) the slope down looked hard. Map-gazing suggested an easier (relatively speaking) way via the notch just south of Point 6532 – that was the goal of today’s exploration.
Forest Road 1055, which had been closed for most of the summer due to fire damage, was now open and the drive to Cook and Green Pass through a partially burned forest was uneventful. Except for the scary signs, the pass itself looked fine,
but within a dozen feet of leaving the trailhead, the effects of the fire became obvious.
Parts of the forest looked untouched, in other parts smaller trees were gone but older trees looked like survivors, while in vast swaths to the south everything was incinerated. But the fire did have a salutary effect on ground cover, which brought out the deer, which brought out the hunters. It was definitely a day to hike swaddled in day-glow orange.
The demarcation between burned and intact forest was just south of Cook and Green Butte and from there, the PCT was as I remember it. I could now see my goal – the notch in the ridge south of Point 6235.
From the junction of the PCT and the Horse Camp Trail (USFS #958),
I worked my way up the ridge toward the rocky slope. I was fortunate to find a faint use trail on the north side of the ridge that got me completely around the mesquite and other brush clogging the ridge. Going up the slope was a matter of finding the easiest, least brushy, line through or around the boulders. I got blocked a few times but there was always a work-around and nothing got higher than YDS Class 2.
From the notch, I could see down to Elk Lake (some 800 feet below),
west to Preston Peak in the Siskiyou Wilderness,
and east to Mount McLoughlin.
In front of me, however, was the bouldery, brushy slope going down some 800 feet in 0.3 miles to the lake.
It isn’t a steep slope (getting here had been steeper) but negotiating it looked like an 800-foot, 0.6 mile (round-trip) pain in the butt just to see a small lake. My enthusiasm for enduring this additional suffering quickly evaporated. If you want to reach Elk, I think that this is the easiest way to do so, if you give easiest a very liberal interpretation. Looking around, I spotted a cairn, which pointed me to a faint use trail going straight down a chute toward Echo Lake. This might be a third way to Elk Lake, either all the way up from Echo Lake or by cutting into the chute from the ridge. Either way, it looks steep, loose, and a likely bowling alley – where you are one of the pins.
Retracing my steps down was easier than finding my way up and I was soon off the slope and going down the ridge. From there, I could look back and see my route versus the one(?) coming straight up a chute from Echo Lake.
Maybe one day Elk Lake will call to me again but, for today, finding a practical way to that notch was enough of a hike (6.1 miles; 1,700 feet of elevation gain). Sad about the burned forest, though – it’ll be missed (at least for a generation or two).
 Reid, IS. Amphibian, Fish Stocking, and Habitat Relationships in Siskiyou Mountain Wilderness Lakes, California and Oregon. Northwestern Naturalist 86: 25-33 (2005)BACK TO BLOG POSTS
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