Rye Flat Loop (Southern Oregon) 29-Oct-2020

How hard can it be for a hiker to follow what’s described as an equestrian trail?
Somewhat harder than it would seem.

The Willow Prairie Horse Camp off Highway 140 northwest of Fish Lake is the focal point for 19 miles (30 km) of interconnecting trails intended for use by horse riders. Which is not to say that hikers cannot use them too, if they adhere to proper trail etiquette. But I figured to avoid any conflicts by trying out these trails on a weekday near the end of the season. I arrived to find the campground empty and the camp host gone. While the campground is designed for horse users (and these spaces really should not be taken by horse-free campers), there is a rustic old cabin (built in 1924 as a guard station and recently restored) nearby that can be rented by anyone.

The cabin at Willow Prairie

It proved difficult to find a map online of these 19 miles of trail. I eventually did and then found roughly the same map at the campground’s kiosk. These maps indicated that the various horse trails were marked by numbered markers. I failed to find any of these. What I did find was a confusing web of in-use gravel roads, old dirt roads, single-track trail obviously used by horses, single-track little used by either two or four legs, plus spur and short-cut trails going off into the woods here and there. Most of these trails, and even some of the old roads, do not appear on standard topo maps. There were Forest Service Carsonite trail markers and hand-lettered signs once in awhile, but no numbered markers. Perhaps they’re more visible from atop a horse? So what I thought was going to be a stroll in the woods turned out to be more challenging (and fun) that expected. The LovedOne – perhaps sensing adventure of the wrong sort – sat this one out. 😦

From the camp, I drove south on Forest Road (FR) 3735 and found the unsigned start, between FR 3735-490 and FR 3735-501, of what the Forest Service calls the Willow Prairie East Loop Trail #1091F. This started as an old road but quickly became a single-track hardly distinguishable from a hiking trail.

Except for the hoof prints and road apples, it looks just like a hiking trail
Winter hasn’t really struck yet

After crossing an old dirt road, I came, in about a half-mile, to a hand-lettered sign for the White Pine Loop Trail and took that trail. After wandering through the woods for a mile, it dumped me on to what I would later learn was an unmapped section of FR 3735-795. I was able to follow that south to a junction with a continuation of the horse trail and an unsigned spur trail to the White Pine.

Maintenance on the White Pine Loop Trail
(1) Horse Trail, (2) Trail to the White Pine

When it was discovered in 1972, this Western White Pine was 242 feet (73.7 m) tall and almost 21 feet (6.4 m) in diameter. In 1976 it was listed as a National Champion Tree as the tallest Western White Pine in Oregon and was estimated to be some 400 years old at that time. But, at some point in the last 44 years, it died and was struck-off the list of Champion Trees. 😥

The remains of the former Champion Tree
Someone broke-off the “Champion Tree” part of this sign

Getting from the late lamented Western White Pine back to the #1091F entailed more unmapped horse trail and a stint on paved County Highway 821. Once there, however, it was pretty much a straight shot east on single-track to the junction with the Rye Flat Loop Trail #1091G.

Continuing east on the #1091F
Fungus supplies color to the forest at this time of year

I went clockwise on the #1091G, which starts here as an old road (FR 3740-760). I passed a hunter’s camp with three deluxe travel trailers, a gas grill, a purring generator, and who knows how many other luxuries. Probably more goodies than I have at home. Who knew that hunting was such a comfortable sport? Anyway, the old road eventually gave way to a single-track trail or trails, one of which was a spur trail to Rye Spring. By sticking with whatever trail went uphill, I eventually crossed Point 5879 and emerged on to the big meadow at Rye Flat.

The meadow at Rye Flat
Mount McLoughlin from Rye Flat

From the flat, I got a brief glimpse of Mount McLoughlin and then started hunting for the continuation of the #1091G. After some wandering around, I eventually found it and started down. The #1091G up to Rye Flat had obviously been used by horses but this piece of it going down barely looked used at all. Also it’s alignment on the ground does not match the alignment shown on the Forest Service’s map. But I did get one more look at Mount McLoughlin. 🙂

One last look at the mountain

The #1091G eventually got me back to the #1091F (but not signed as such), which took me to an old road (FR 3740-820), which took me to a single-track with fallen trees and encroaching vegetation, which got me back to the junction at FR 3740-760. Whew! At this point, I figured it was a straight shot back to the trailhead. Well, it was until I crossed Highway 821. There I was presented with choices between different single-track trails and an unmapped old road. I stuck with what looked (due to use) like the main horse trail, ignored lesser used and hand-lettered signed trails, and eventually made it back to the junction with the White Pine Loop Trail and then to the trailhead. Double whew!

A last gasp of Fall color
Fungus is the new Fall color

My guess is that the people who ride up here a lot are intimately familiar with the various official and unofficial trails and roads that criss-cross this area of the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest. But for this first-time hiker here the assumption of an easy stroll turned into a 10 mile (16 km) adventure with 1,150 feet (350 m) of gain and lots of hunt-and-peck navigation. Although very short on views (except of Mount McLoughlin) is was a nice journey through a second-growth forest, populated here and there with a few old-growth giants. While it was sad to find the former champion Western White Pine has passed on, I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t another big one out there some where. 🙂

My route around Rye Flat: (J) junction of the Rye Flat and Willow Prairie East trails, (T) the former champion Western White Pine
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6 comments

  1. Green diamond, who owns the land where the old Moss creek and South pass trails start, opens the gates on the first day of Archery season. This is generally the last Saturday of August and they are open through the 22nd of November I believe. The roads that show up on the map can sometimes be more of a suggestion than a reality. Even looking at google maps imagery can be dodgy.

    When I last went to south pass lake trail, a few years ago, I wasn’t able to drive up to the old trailhead as it was too overgrown. The trail, at that point, had received less love than the Moss creek trail and was significantly harder to follow in my opinion. I remember lots of manzanita and some blood letting from the lower leg. :/

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  2. You can also reach the old white pine by road (Hwy 140 > Cty 821 > FR 3735 > FR 795; look for a line of thick posts) and a short walk. It would have been great to see that tree while it was still alive but I was years too late. 😦

    There was a recent story in the Mail Tribune about the Moss Creek Trail. The trail’s GPX is now shown on OSM. I didn’t realize that – at certain times of the year – you were allowed to cross the private land leading to its trailhead. I like the lakes in that wilderness but am more attracted by its uniquely rocky summits. 🙂

    And, if OSM is to be believed, the trail to South Pass Lake is also still functioning. It would be about 4 miles from the end of the road to the lake, depending on how far you can drive up the road. I don’t know, however, what the private land issues are over there.

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  3. I’d like to check out that former champion white pine! There is something about those giants that just draws me in.

    Completely unrelated, have you ever taken the old moss creek trail into the mountain lakes wilderness? I can supply GPS coordinates of the “trailhead” if you are interested. Even though it was abandoned many years ago, locals have kept up on the maintenance and is pretty easy to travel. It might be the shortest route up to Lake Harriatte, I can’t recall how long the old south pass trail is.

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