Finding the Wickiup Trail (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 24-Jun-2020

I think those of us who hike (and you know who you are) all appreciate a good trail – one that’s well-graded, clear of obstacles, goes somewhere we want to go, and where its mapped incarnation matches its reality on the ground. Think of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Then there are those trails that appear on old maps (and some new ones) but may no longer exist on the ground. Nothing like including one of those in your hiking plans only to find yourself unexpectedly thrashing cross-country for several character-building miles. Still I’m drawn (despite several interventions by The LovedOne) to occasionally (the interventions must be working) look for these old trails. It’s a bit of a geeky obsession. Calling it “hiking archeology” makes it sound, ah, more respectable? 🙄

Anyway, one old trail that caught my attention a while back is (or was) the Wickiup Trail in Southern Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness. This area was first mapped (at a large scale) in 1897 and then not again until the 1950s. The 1955 1:24,000 Pelican Butte map shows, among several other named trails that also seemingly no longer exist, the Wickiup Trail running over the Cascade Crest and down to what was then the Skyline Trail near Lake Land (this was before today’s PCT was built along the crest). The Wickiup was numbered at one point (#3728), was mentioned in PCT hiking guides as late as 2014 (although it was noted as abandoned by then), and appeared on maps until the mid-1980s. Then it went un-mapped for some 30 years until it re-appeared on the 2020 Pelican Butte map – only now it was called the Sky Lakes Cutoff Trail (this map gets the names of several established trails wrong too). Sometime during the 1990s – when the Wickiup was free from any map, the USGS placed a benchmark (Point 6218) along it – so there must have been something there then for them to follow. But none of this paperwork told me anything about whether it was still there or not.

A section of the 1955 Pelican Butte map showing the Wickiup Trail

So, time to wander out and experience reality. The LovedOne was spared yet another character-building experience when she ducked out to help get the library ready for its planned re-opening this July. 🙂 So I found myself alone as I stepped from the truck into a cloud of mosquitoes at the Cold Spring Trailhead. The Sky Lakes Wilderness has many positives – over 200 (many fishable) lakes, miles of easy to moderate trails, ample campsites, views, etc. Its one big negative – at least from June to August – are swarms, nay clouds, of tiny winged syringes. To the DEET! That, and never stopping for long, kept these flying exsanguinators at bay as I went up the Cold Spring Trail, then past Deer Lake on the Sky Lakes Trail to the PCT.

Entering the wilderness through the damage done by the 2017 North Pelican Butte fire
Deer Lake

Climbing the PCT took me above the country favored by mosquitoes. And a cool breeze from the west pushed away those that kept trying for a meal.

Climbing the PCT to the Cascade Crest
Mount Shasta from the PCT
Greene Hawkweed with tiny wasp

I got to where the Wickiup used to cross the crest at Benchmark 6584 and looked around for any sign of it while eating a snack. No sign of the trail. So I started downhill following the route as mapped in 1955, recognizing that this could be off in either direction by many, many feet. It was, nonetheless, pretty open and easy terrain for cross-country travel. In the end, I was able to find a few sections of old, faded tread, some blazes, and a cut log. I also found Point 6218 and the little lake the old trail passed just before reaching the Skyline Trail (today’s Sky Lakes Trail). But a lot of it is just gone – buried under fallen trees and new growth or eroded away by the weather. My thoughts are that this section of the Wickiup was more of a route than an actual built trail – a path horse packers back in the day simply knew how to follow to make the shortest, lowest-angle transit of the crest.

One of the few sections where the old tread (arrows) was most visible
Blaze
Cut log
The benchmark from the 1990s
The still snowy north side of Mount McLoughlin
The unnamed lake near the bottom end of the trail

The sky had clouded-over while I was trying to find the trail. This cooled things off a bit and seemed to discourage the mosquitoes, so the walk back on the Sky Lakes and the South Rock Creek Trail was pleasant. This absence of the winged pests even allowed for some wildflower shots.

Heavenly Twin Lakes (north) with Luther Mountain on the horizon
Shriveled ‘schrooms
Snowy Polemonium
Red Columbine

The loop came to 12.2 miles (with 1,500 feet of gain), 1.4 miles of which was cross-country travel looking for the Wickiup. Overall, it was a good hike 🙂 on a nice day in one of our favorite local wilderness areas (mosquitoes excepted 😡 ). I’m convinced that I found and probably followed the Wickiup’s original alignment; it’s just a little sad to see that most of it has gone back to the earth. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Red line is my track; blue dots are the 1955 mapped alignment of the Wickiup Trail; “S” is the USGS benchmark

5 comments

  1. OK I think I see it now. Your Fish Lake hike began from Big Elk road, followed the north fork little butte creek to the dam and beyond. We started from Fish Lake Resort. The half mile scramble over boulders and through brush you did must have been interesting, was a little more than we wanted to tackle that day.

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  2. Thanks! I should make it clear that the Wickiup Trail isn’t a trail anymore, just an approximate cross-country route along which, every once and awhile, you may catch a glimpse of the old trail. As for Fish Lake, we started from the south end of the dam and went eastward cross-country until we encountered a rough flagged path at 10T 554395E 4692295N. We followed that to an obvious ATV track at 10T 554893E 4692218N, which we followed to the old cabin. It doesn’t look possible to go completely around the lake without a little cross-country bush thrashing.

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  3. Interesting. We have hiked this area but not the Wicikup trail. We also hiked Fish Lake and parts of the loop you completed. Coming in from the east, we found the old shed and the OHV trail to a cabin in the woods. No road to the cabin, just ohv and boat access. The cross country part looked pretty gnarly to us and we did not try, partly due to time factor. Curious where you starting point was, I think it was off your map. Did you start from this location? 42°22’38.28″ -122°21’37.33″. We may do an out and back using the north part of your loop. Would be fun to stop at the cafe for lunch. Thanks for all your posts!

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