Wildfires seem to have gotten worse around here since 2014 and this year is no exception. Our valley has been filled with varying concentrations of smoke for weeks from wildfires raging to the north, east, and south of us. Yesterday’s morning of clarity in the Bear Creek Valley was an exception, since, by afternoon, the smoke was back. So it’s entirely on me for not doing an air monitor check before driving all the way to a trailhead. 😥
With an AQI of 13, yesterday would have been “the day” (at least in the morning) for a hike had not other obligations intervened. So, despite the smoke’s return, today became that day, one we decided to spend revisiting Grayback Mountain. We were buoyed by our belief that the smoke would be less oppressive at altitude and it was, with just a hint of dead campfire on the breeze. It also helped that air temperatures had finally dropped from the triple digits to somewhere closer to “normal” for this time of year. It was actually a tad chilly at altitude. 😊
Grayback Mountain, at 7,048 feet (2,148 m), sits just northeast of Oregon Caves National Monument and is the highest point in Oregon’s Josephine County. The one, and only, time we climbed it together was in late May of 2014, when we were on a pre-retirement scouting trip, one of many we took as we searched for somewhere to live other than Portland. The weather that day in May was on its best behavior and the blue sky, panoramic views from the summit were totally beguiling. We can’t say that this one hike is what clinched our decision to relocate to Southern Oregon, but it sure helped move us in that direction.
We finally made the move south in December 2014 and many hikes followed. I hiked the Grayback Mountain Trail up from Williams to Windy Gap a few times in 2015 (another snowless winter) but didn’t continue on to the summit. My last hike to the top was in August of 2016 along with local guidebook author Joe Knotts. On my 2014 climb with The LovedOne, we’d gone up and back along Grayback’s southeast ridge, but Joe showed me how to reach the summit via the north ridge from Windy Gap. On that day, thanks to smoke from nearby wildfires, the view from the summit wasn’t as clear as it had been in 2014. Then, in 2017, wildfires came to Grayback, burning over part of the O’Brien Creek Trail (Bigelow Fire) and parts of the southeast ridge route (Creedence Fire).
So today we made the bumpy drive up Forest Road 1005 to the upper O’Brien Creek trailhead and took the O’Brien Creek Trail (#900) up to the Boundary Trail (#1207) and followed that to Windy Gap. From there we went up to and along the north ridge to the summit. We descended the southeast ridge to the #1207 and followed it and the #900 back the upper O’Brien trailhead.
Our experience on the summit today was vastly different from what we found in 2014. Than it had been blue skies and views. Today it was views of varying shades of smoke. Yet, on the climb up we had not, remarkably, been feeling the tightness in our chests that one comes to expect from breathing smoke particles.
This is a short (6.3 mile / 10 km), but steep (2,430 feet / 740 m of gain), hike to what, if the weather and smoke cooperate, are some great views. Not so today. I suppose we could have waited until Fall weather (hopefully) tamps down the wildfires and their smoke but who knows when that will be, given the drought and the increasingly unpredictable weather. 🙄 So we went for it today and had a surprisingly good hike (and great exercise) despite the faint stink of dead campfire and the gauzy views. And, after a several year hiatus, it was nice to find that we could still drag our increasingly decrepit carcasses up this somewhat steep and rocky mountain. 😁RETURN TO FRONT PAGE