Those who have been fortunate enough to raft the Rogue or Illinois Rivers, or backpack these river’s namesake trails, have likely experienced Bear Camp Road. Also dubbed Forest Road (FR) 23, this narrow, twisty – but paved – road runs between Galice on the Rogue River, over the mountains, to Agness, near the confluence of the Rogue and Illinois Rivers, not far from the Pacific Ocean.
It’s not open year-round, but in the summer, it’s the quickest way back to the Rogue Valley from a take-out at Foster Bar or trail’s end at Oak Flat. It was still closed when we did our trips on the Rogue and Illinois this year, so an extra two hours or so were added to our returns from these trips.
But before the 1960s, there were no roads – paved or otherwise – connecting the Rogue Valley with Agness. Instead this area of tall ridges and narrowly incised valleys was traversed by a host of pack trails, most of which connected ranger stations in the valleys to forest camps or fire lookouts high in the mountains.
While most of these old trails were replaced by forest roads in the 1960s or simply abandoned then as no longer fit for purpose, traces of some remain. In a fit of nostalgia, we set out today on a trip – long on driving, short on hiking – to find the remains of two of these: of the Bear Camp Trail past Brandy Peak and of a spur trail out to the old fire lookout site on Fish Hook Peak.
BRANDY PEAK (5,298 ft / 1,615 m)
Prior to the 1950s, the Bear Camp Trail used to run between a ranger station in Agness, a ranger station at Bear Camp Pasture (on today’s FR 23), and a fire lookout on Point 4973 just to the north. Sometime in the 1960s, FR 2308 replaced much of the trail and the Bear Camp ranger station was dismantled. The lookout was destroyed in 1965 and replaced by a communications facility.
The Forest Service kept the part of the old trail that runs below the southeast side of Brandy Peak as the Bear Camp Ridge Trail #1147. It still shows on Forest Service maps but is no longer listed on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest website. A part of the old Bear Camp Trail is also reported to exist between FR 2308 and FR 2308-016 but we didn’t go see that for ourselves. The #1147 is kept alive mainly by peakbaggers drawn to Brandy Peak – the Curry County high point and the peak in Oregon with the ninth highest amount of prominence.
Although the trailhead sign is now gone, we had no trouble finding the start of the trail on FR 2308 (an excellent, easy to drive gravel road) or following it to a good use trail which took us to Brandy’s summit. Although it hasn’t received any maintenance recently, the #1147 was so stoutly built back in the day that it’s still in pretty good shape. We could easily have followed it from where we parked, up past Brandy, and down to its southern end at FR 2308.
Peakbagging aside (we’ve been there ourselves), the primary attraction of Brandy is the spectacular, 360 degree view from its summit. The Pacific Ocean, Preston Peak in the Siskiyou Wilderness, our own Mount McLoughlin – the whole enchilada was laid-out before us! 🙂 Absolutely worth it if you want big views for little hiking effort.
After a long drive, we’d hiked just 1.6 miles (2.6 km), with only 600 feet (183 m) of elevation gain, along a bit of forest history to reach awesome views from Brandy’s summit! It didn’t hurt that, aside from some haze to the east, we had otherwise great weather 😎 and unobstructed views in all directions. 🙂 We got back to FR 2308, then followed it, and FR 2308-076, south toward Fish Hook Peak.
FISH HOOK PEAK (5,030 ft / 1,533 m)
Later in 2021, the Siskiyou Mountain Club restored this trail to its former glory. 🤩
Fish Hook, unlike Brandy, is on no peakbaggers wish list. It is, however, of interest to fire lookout aficionados such as ourselves. 🙄 Back in the day, a trail went south from the Bear Camp Trail, past Sugarloaf Mountain, and out to a forest camp just south of Fish Hook Peak. The lookout on Fish Hook was in operation from 1934 to sometime in the late 1940s. It was supposedly burned-down in the 1960s (as were many old lookouts at this time) but pieces of its timbers still rest on the summit.
We had no trouble finding the trailhead for the Fish Hook Trail #1180 on FR 2038-076. It sported a blank sign board and a warning sign about this being a burn area (huge swaths around here were burned by the 2018 Klondike Fire). The trail itself hasn’t seen any maintenance in ages but wasn’t too hard to follow. It took us over the ridgeline north of Fish Hook, then down into a bowl on the east side (it was a little sketchy through here), and then back up to the ridgeline south of Fish Hook. From there we found our way up the ridge to the old lookout site.
The view from Fish Hook was as big as the one from Brandy but was marred some by incoming high clouds and haze. But we could look straight west and see the ocean. From here, there’s nothing between you and any storms coming in from the west. It must have been a little unsettling to be sitting in your little wooden L-5 cab watching the western horizon darken with an incoming wall of weather… 😮
After soaking in yet more big views, we headed back by descending north below the ridge to reconnect with the trail above the sketchy section in the bowl.
As we were descending, we heard what sounded like a jet engine. Which is not unusual given our proximity to Medford’s airport and training flights out of the fighter base at Klamath Falls. But we were nonetheless really surprised when we looked up and saw an aerial refueling operation in progress almost directly above us! There was a touch of dissonance in standing on a 19th century trail looking up at 21st century aircraft.
Our nostalgia hike to the summit of Fish Hook added 1.7 miles (2.7 km) and another 600 feet (183 m) of elevation gain to our day. The #1180 proved to be somewhat worn overall – and vague in a few spots – but still easy to follow. Getting to the top of Fish Hook was a little cross-country leading to big views.
As noted, the drive to these summits was long and the hikes short, but the views were amazing as was the chance to experience some of this national forest’s bygone days. Visiting these sites and pouring over old maps of this area made us realize how extensive the pack trails were back in the days before the ascent of the automobile and the bulldozing of forest roads. Such trails were essential then and often well-built as a result – that parts of them survive intact to this day is a testament to that. Hikers and backpackers prone to fits of righteous indignation about pack animals “ruining” their trails should remember that the trail they’re standing on might never have existed had it not been for such animals. Just saying… 😀