The Sky Lakes Wilderness stretches north to south along the Cascade Crest between Crater Lake National Park in the north and State Highway 140 in the south. Three major lake basins (Seven Lakes, Sky Lakes, and Blue Canyon) occupy this wilderness and we’ve so far hiked in all of them. But the Dwarf Lakes Area, a subsidiary of the Sky Lakes Basin, had gone unvisited, and I’d planned a first visit for earlier this Fall. But then a host of wildfires (the High Cascades Complex) blew-up, keeping this wilderness closed until the end of September. One of the complex’s component fires, the North Pelican, had burned its way west off the slopes of Pelican Butte and into the southern end of the Sky Lakes Basin. Then an early season blanket of snow put an end (mostly) to this reign of fire, opening the way for a late-in-the-season visit to the Dwarf Lakes. With the LovedOne busy at the library, I approached this hike solo with a lot of trepidation about what I would find the North Pelican had done to this basin.
Humans plan; the gods laugh. I had several new hikes planned in Southern Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness to enjoy it during the usually glorious (and bug-free) Fall weather. But lightning strikes (thank you, Zeus!) ignited the Spruce Lake, Blanket Creek, and North Pelican fires, and these closed this wilderness (and parts of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)) until a week ago. Then we got our first snow (thank Chione for that!), with more coming soon. So, with my Sky Lakess hiking needs unmet, and the weather window about to snap shut, I consulted the augeries and soon visualized Devils Peak. Devils isn’t the highest peak in this wilderness (that would be Mount McLoughlin), but it is the presiding monarch of the Seven Lakes Basin and a summit which, based on previous trips, I knew had one heck (metaphorically speaking) of a great view.
While we were hiking in Nevada, a couple of cold fronts swept through Southern Oregon and Northern California, clearing out the choking smoke and bringing rain to stifle the many wildfires plaguing our area. Although the rain helped a lot, it wasn’t sufficient to put the fires dead-out, so several national forest and wilderness area closures remain in effect (likely till next Spring in some cases). This required a major re-think of our Fall hiking plans. Fortunately, the nearby Soda Mountain Wilderness was still open for business. It’s adjacent to the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which is now under threat from the current administration’s utterly misguided belief that we have too much wilderness and not enough clear-cuts. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is more of a threat to our outdoors – wildfires or politicians? To assuage this unsettling thought, I headed out (the LovedOne having resumed her volunteer duties at the county library) to visit the various “pilot” rocks and peaks dotting the Soda Mountain Wilderness.
After two partially successful attempts – hikes of Aspen Butte and Mount Ashland – to get above the wildfire smoke that has been choking Southern Oregon and Northern California for several weeks, we were finally faced with Mount McLoughlin, the sixth highest Cascade peak in Oregon. At 9,495 feet, it just had to be high enough to be above the smoke. It just had to be (sob)! If I (the LovedOne having demurred on a grueling ascent in favor of air conditioning at home) got above the smoke, I would (hopefully) be rewarded for the nearly 4,000 of elevation gain this summit demands (making it one of the toughest hikes in Southern Oregon) with BIG VIEWS in all directions. It would also be the first time in many years that I’d climbed it under totally snow-free conditions – which, to me, makes the climb both easier and harder for different reasons.
At the moment, there are approximately 130,000 acres (200 square miles) of wildfires burning to the north, west, and south of the Rogue Valley. Needless to say, air quality in the valley sucks (if it were possible to breath-in). And, with air temperatures pushing into the triple digits, even Mordor is beginning to look like a better alternative. And yet, after two delightful weeks of “floating and bloating” on the Salmon River (post), I (or, more accurately, my now bulging gut) needed a hike. But where? Someplace reasonably close, yet high enough for clearer air, and to the east of the wildfires (some of which, sadly, are busy burning away nearby hikes – like Grayback Mountain and Stuart Falls – that we’d enjoyed only a few months ago). After bringing an extra brain cell online, I decided that a hike up Aspen Butte in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness was my best choice. At 8,208 feet, it’s the highest point in this wilderness and thus a likely place to find fresher air. The LovedOne – once again suspecting my sanity – opted instead to spend the day volunteering in the cool, filtered air provided by the county library. Sigh (gasp, hack, wheeze…).
In late 2015, as we were assembling our hiking to do list for 2016, it occurred to us that we had yet to at least visit all of Oregon’s 47 established and open federal wilderness areas (Oregon’s Wilderness Areas). Two of the 47 (Oregon Islands and Three Arch Rocks) are closed to public entry (and would require amphibious operations even if they were open). Of the remaining 45, we had, as of 2015, hiked or visited all but 18. So we planned some trips to visit these. We’re not philosophers but suffice to say that wilderness exists just to be wild, irrespective of human needs or wants. So we understood going in that the primary “human” purpose for these wilderness areas is to protect a watershed or a threatened and endangered species or a terrestrial habitat or a fish habitat or all of the above and not for our hiking pleasure. This is particularly true of the smaller, less visited areas, many of which have few or no trails and in which cross-country travel opportunities vary from good to heroically (think Lewis & Clark or Alexander Mackenzie) difficult. So we weren’t planning on long day hikes or multi-day backpacks, just a visit and, if possible without undue heroics, a short hike. We started on the remaining 18 in January 2016 and visited the last one in July 2017. Below is a list of all of Oregon’s established wilderness areas, with a link (if available) to at least one of our visits to each (we’ve visited some multiple times).
As we’ve noted in previous posts, we have a project underway to at least visit all of Oregon’s 45 established and open federal wilderness areas that we’d missed visiting in years past. We started this project in January 2016 with 18 wilderness areas remaining and closed out that year with just two left: the Menagerie and the Middle Santiam. The Middle Santiam Wilderness is a moderate-sized (8,844 acre) wilderness area whose primary human purpose is protection of the Santiam River watershed. Four trails, most of them seldom hiked, provide access to this wilderness: McQuade Creek (USFS #3397), Chimney Peak (USFS #3382), Gordan Peak (USFS #3387), and Swamp Peak (USFS #3401). The Chimney Peak Trail is the most popular as it provides easy access to the upper Middle Santiam River and, in six miles or so, to Donaca Lake. The Chimney Peak Trail was our Plan A, although we weren’t sure going in whether we’d hike all the way to the lake or just to the wilderness boundary. Why we ended-up doing neither is a twisted tale of plans (and karma) temporarily gone awry.