A Major Tom Descent (Cascade-Siskiyou NM) 26-May-2021

Much of this hike is on private land managed by the Selberg Institute – you’ll need to contact them for permission to traverse this area.

Sometimes the inspiration for a hike (if hikes can be inspired) comes from several different sources. In 2018, the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council announced they would lead a shuttled trip from a Sound of Music starting point west of Tom Spring Mountain (5,191 feet / 1,582 m), cross-country down the ridge between Cattle and Sampson creeks to lower Sampson Creek just above Emigrant Lake – essentially a traverse of the Sampson Creek Preserve. We tried to sign-up but the trip was already full. Next year we said, as if the future was going to roll out gently before us. πŸ™„

Time, nonetheless, passed. 2019 was a banner year for big adventures elsewhere. πŸ˜€ Then came the year that will not be named. πŸ˜₯ Forced to stay local and distanced, we did our first hikes around Songer Butte at Emigrant Lake. These passed beneath the rocky prominence of Major Butte on east side of the lake and we got to wondering about hiking to the top of it.

Then, while researching other hiking options, I came across a report by the late Dennis Poulin, an avid local climber. He had ascended Tom Spring Mountain from the east and left a detailed description of his route. A quick look at the map suggested a hike between Tom Spring Mountain and Major Butte, with an exit via Cattle Creek rather than Sampson Creek.

Which brings us to two songs, which, as plans for this hike coalesced, quickly became earworms stuck in our heads. We were headed for a roadtrip with just Sound of Music and the following on our playlist…

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
(Ten) Ground Control (Nine) to Major Tom (Eight, Seven)
(Six) Commencing (Five) countdown, engines on
(Four, Three, Two)
Check ignition (One) and may God's love (Lift Off) be with you
David Bowie (1969)

Despite the threat of a poison oak-infested adventure, The LovedOne signed on to this hike. Today was the day for it, as brutally hot (100+Β°F / 38+Β°C) weather is on its way. We left one car at Emigrant Lake County Park (thus further amortizing our annual county park pass) and drove another to the locked gate on Cove Road which marks the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument boundary. From there, we started walking up BLM Road 38-2E-34.1.

On the road
Dosier Flat
Mount Ashland from where the road reaches the ridge

We were walking on a wide gravel road but it was still a pleasant walk – quiet, with lots of birds flitting about. We passed Dosier Flat and another gate before arriving at a horse trough filled with water from Tom Spring above. Here (2.6 mi / 4.2 km from the first gate) we left the good gravel road and, after some searching, found a very old and faint logging road which we followed up to the spring.

Toward Tom Spring

Tom Spring has been converted into a pond surrounded by a fence. The LovedOne got there first and wondered: Why was the water moving? As an image of a hippopotamus entered her mind, a very large black bear erupted from the pond, scrambled up the far bank, crashed through the fence, and shot into the trees beyond! Our first bear sighting of the year! 🐻

The pond at Tom Spring
The LovedOne watching for “hippos” 🐻

Needless to say, cries of “Hey Bear!” rang-out as we continued, partially on very old roads and cross-country, to the summit of Tom Spring Mountain. No benchmark and not much of a view from there. But the main attraction of this hike started as soon as we headed west off of the summit.

Grizzly Peak from Tom Spring
Pilot Rock from Tom Spring Mountain (Mount Shasta on far left)

While the east side of Tom Spring is thickly forested, its west side is a mix of open grasslands and oak woodlands, with patches of pines. We dropped off the summit into one of the grasslands and the views to the south, west, and north opened-up immediately. The promised Sound of Music moment had arrived! πŸ™‚

Descending from Tom Spring Mountain, with Mount Ashland in the distance
(S) Mount Shasta, (E) Mount Eddy, (P) Pilot Rock, (B) Buck Point
Mount Ashland (center) and Wagner Butte (R) over Western Serviceberry

Getting from Tom Spring to the broad ridge that leads down to Major Butte is not simply a matter of dropping directly west off Tom Spring. We did that at first, then had to contour sharply west, toward Point 4499, to connect with the correct ridge. This took us back into the forest where much dodging and weaving was needed to keep us from getting mired in the undergrowth.

We started our sharp turn west in a field of rabbitbrush

Once we got to just above Point 4584, the ridge opened-up before us and it was a straight shot down to Major Butte – with us humming “The hills are alive…” the whole way. With Major Tom still running in the background, this had the makings of a Julie Andrews / David Bowie duet. o_O

In the open again on the ridge we wanted
Down through oak woodlands with Pilot Rock in the distance
Grizzly Peak on the distant horizon
Descending toward Major Butte (B) with Mount Ashland on the horizon

Once Emigrant Lake came into view, we stopped for a snack under the shade of a an old, but still vital, oak. The weather was excellent, but starting to warm, and we were beginning to feel the heat.

View from our snack stop
Continuing on to Major Butte
Mount Ashland, Emigrant Lake, and fields of vetch
We would descend from Major Butte on the green slopes to the left
Air travel is back

The ridge bottoms-out about a mile short of the Butte, then does a series of rising ups and downs out to the Butte. By this time it is was hot in the sun and we were feeling each of these ups – but not in a good way. Plus the poison oak, which had been absent higher on the mountain, was back with all of its leafy toxicity. But we pressed on to the Butte…

Tom Spring Mountain (T) and the ridge we followed (arrow) as seen from atop Major Butte
Bear Creek Valley from Major Butte
Mount Ashland, Wagner Butte, Emigrant Lake, and Songer Butte (arrow) from Major Butte

To get an overlook view of Emigrant Lake, we would have had to go downslope to the rock outcrop you can see from the lake. It wasn’t that far but it was hot and we were faced with the challenge of descending to Cattle Creek, so we contented ourselves with what we could see from the summit rocks (which are surrounded by poison oak). Suffice to say that our descent to Cattle Creek was the most difficult part of this hike – very steep, laden with poison oak, laced with confusing game trails, and inhabited by sweat-loving flies (there was much sweat and many flies).

We finally made it to the old ranch road on the southeast side of Cattle Creek only to find that the now dry creek had carved itself a narrow, 20+ foot (6+ m) deep gully – one richly packed with poison oak. Problem was, we needed to be on the old ranch road on the other side of this yawning chasm. 😦 After further sweaty wandering and struggle, we managed to find a way across this mini-Grand Canyon and head back on the old ranch road that took us past two cows and an occupied Osprey nest to the lake’s main dam. Since the lake’s water level is low (and is likely to remain that way this year), we were able to work our way down around the dam to the trail on the other side. Otherwise we would have had to climb (gag!) over the rock climbing area to reach the exit trail.

On the old ranch road
Welcome shade on the old road
On the old road with Major Butte in the distance
Getting past the dam
Looking back – Tom Spring Mountain (T) to Major Butte (M)

To say we were hot, sweaty, and tired when we reached the car at Emigrant Lake doesn’t really capture how we felt. But we rallied, drove back up to retrieve our other car, and then went immediately to Caldera Brewing in Ashland for serious rehydration and a dinner cooked by someone else. Their new automated order system needs some work but the food and brews were as excellent as ever. We got home a little late to find – judging from all the meowing – Sofie (our cat) in the final stages of starvation. She’s quite the drama queen when it comes to her food dish. 🐱

This turned-out to be a truly great hike – adventurous without becoming epic. We had forests and grasslands and birds and bears and ponds and big views. And, of course, poison oak and flies. We did not, however, encounter any ticks or rattlesnakes. The weather was great, but a little hot toward the end. All told, it was 9.5 miles (15.2 km) with 1,800 feet (549 m) of gain and 2,900 feet (884 m) of descent. It was a worthy adventure, with Julie and David playing in the background. πŸ˜€

Our Major Tom Descent

If Tom Spring Mountain hadn’t been one of our goals, we could have gotten right to the Soda Mountain Wilderness Council’s Sound of Music starting point by continuing on the road (not shown on all maps) past the turn toward Tom Spring (blue line in above map). From there it’s a straight shot to the ridge. Then, if we’d had the energy, it would have been better to have backtracked from Major Butte and descended the ridge between the tributaries of Cattle Creek (purple line in above map – the way to go up if you just want to climb the Butte), rather than going straight down from Major Butte to the creek. If snow isn’t blocking access from east, this hike is perhaps better done in April when the days are cooler and the meadows are greener – this route would be a heat stroke highway in the summer months. ^^’


4 thoughts on “A Major Tom Descent (Cascade-Siskiyou NM) 26-May-2021

Add yours

  1. Thanks! Being able to add captions to the photos is a nice feature of the blogging software we use. Unless it’s pure art, I think people appreciate knowing what’s in the picture – particularly if it shows a place they’d like to visit themselves. πŸ™‚


  2. I followed the link to the Buck Rock Tunnel! So interesting! I love how you label the photos.


  3. Looks like quite the adventure! So glad you did not encounter ticks and hope the poison oak did not follow you home…


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