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 Lakes 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.
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.
UPDATE: In August of 2017, this whole area sustained substantial damage from the Blanket Creek Fire, part of the High Cascades Complex Fire. Current trail and forest conditions are unlikely to match those seen here.
Stuart Falls is a gorgeous 40-foot or so cascade of silver water nestled in a spectacular forest in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, near the extreme southwest corner of Crater Lake National Park. It has some wonderful campsites at its base and used to be readily accessible via the Red Blanket Trail (USFS #1090) from a trailhead on Forest Road (FR) 6205 to the west. But then this area was touched by the 2008 Lonesome Complex Middle Fork fire, which removed a lot of the understory and ground cover. This was followed by two years of minimal snow cover, punctuated by short, but intense, bursts of rain. No longer slowed by an understory, this water tore down gullies and completely obliterated the #1090 in several places (and also closed FR 6205 2.5 miles from the trailhead). Using my 4×4 to reach the trailhead, I did this hike in 2015 and found the journey to the falls to be difficult at best and possibly even dangerous. A return visit seemed unlikely until I realized there was a safe (but slightly longer) way in from the east via the Pumice Flat Trail. So, leaving the LovedOne immersed in some sort of intricate fabric project, I headed out to return to the falls.
The South Fork Rogue River, a 25-mile tributary of Oregon’s Rogue River, rises in the Blue Lake Basin of the Sky Lakes Wilderness and flows generally northeast to its confluence first with the Middle Fork and then with the main Rogue slightly upstream of Lost Creek Lake. The South Fork is bordered for part of its length by three hiking trails: the Lower South Fork Trail between Lower South Fork Bridge and Imnaha Creek (USFS #988), the Middle South Fork Trail between the Upper and Lower South Fork Bridges (USFS #988), and the Upper South Fork Trail from near Upper South Fork Bridge to the Blue Lake Basin (USFS #988). Both the Lower and Middle trails are locally popular and are also described in almost every hiking guidebook for this area. The Upper trail is rarely mentioned (if at all) in local guidebooks and is described by the Forest Service as a minimally maintained primitive trail, one not recommended for horses, and a challenging workout for hikers. This made a hike of it sound intriguing for one last venture into the Sky Lakes until the end of mosquito season in September. Continue reading “Upper South Fork Trail (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 03-Jul-2017”→
Gardner Peak (6,884 feet) sits on the eastern edge of the Sky Lakes Wilderness, overlooking the northern reaches of Upper Klamath Lake. It’s a named peak without a benchmark and the origin and date of this name are uncertain; it was probably named after an early settler in the Wood River Valley around Fort Klamath. It certainly doesn’t get the same attention as does Devils Peak along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to the west. Still, a cross-country hike to its summit was as good a reason as any for a first visit to the Sevenmile Marsh Trailhead and the associated Sevenmile Trail. With its easy trails, plethora of campsites, and over 200 lakes of varying sizes, the Sky Lakes Wilderness is one of (if not the most) beguiling and wonderful wilderness areas in the state. But only the hiking-obsessed (hand raised here) visit before September, when the clouds of blood thirsty mosquitos that hatch from snowmelt until mid-August have dissipated.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”~ Norman Maclean
It took a few days following the Great Storm for the weather to return to being abundantly clear and sunny and for us to feel the urge to try out the volumes of snow the Storm had dumped on us. Having made the short snowshoe out-and-back to the South Brown Mountain Shelter before the Great Storm, we thought we’d try a little longer trip to the Summit Shelter. This shelter sits in a cluster of nordic trails (more details here) just north of Highway 140 near Lake of the Woods, Oregon; trails that are readily accessible from the deluxe (it has ample parking AND a pit toilet) Summit Sno-Park. It was clear, sunny, and about 12ºF when we pulled in to the sno-park, with its great view of Brown Mountain to the south.
Here the nordic trail maps are not much more than simple sketches showing the names and approximate alignments of the various trails. Fortunately, the trails themselves are well signed and marked with the usual blue plastic diamonds. The Powerline Trail leaves going east right from the sno-park and we took that trail for 0.25 miles over to its junction with the Lower Canal Trail, the major north-south connector trail.
Pretty soon, we came to a junction with the McLoughlin Trail and turned east (right) on to that trail. There had been ski and snowshoe tracks (this area is closed to snowmobiles) on the Lower Canal Trail, which made travel easier, but once we got on the less-tracked McLoughlin, we quickly found out just how soft, deep, and unconsolidated the snow was. Even with snowshoes, we would sink-in at least 8 inches all the time and much, much deeper in selected spots. Snowshoeing is SOOO much more aerobic than just hiking on dirt! Soon the word consolidated lost all meaning…
It was work, but the day was clear, sunny, and bright, and the forest was amazingly quiet and fully decorated in all manner of snow fittings and sculptures. Truly stunningly beautiful!
We passed a junction with the Petunia Trail and stomped on to where the McLoughlin Trail crosses the Pitt View Trail. Here we turned north (left) on to the Pitt View and were almost immediately rewarded with the only clear view we’d get of Mount McLoughlin all day.
The Pitt View Trail climbs a bit, and gently at that, but with the snowshoes it felt a lot steeper (still, we’d gain only 500 feet the whole day). About 0.5 miles up the Pitt View, we came to its junction with the Petunia Trail and after consulting our sketch map,
we turned northeast (right) and headed up the Petunia,
past the Big Mac Trail junction, and on to the junction of the Petunia and McLoughlin Trails (the McLoughlin continues past where we left it earlier in the day and curves around to this junction and beyond),
and then swung south (right) on the McLoughlin for the last 0.25 miles to the shelter.
Local snowmobile and nordic clubs maintain the Brown Mountain, Summit, Four Mile, and Big Meadow shelters, making sure they are stocked yearly with firewood for use by snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, hikers, and snowshoers. The shelters are open winter months to use to warm-up or in case of an emergency. The layer of snow on the shelter’s roof gives you an idea of what the Great Storm brought us!
The shelter was clean, neat, and fully stocked with wood but the stove was, sadly, not lit, otherwise we might have lingered for awhile. But, nay, after a cold snack, we started the return stomp, back down the Petunia to the Pitt View, and then northwest (right) on to the Pitt View Trail toward the Lower Canal Trail. On the way down the Petunia, we passed some other snowshoers coming up, so our track going down was considerably firmer than it had been coming up. The tracks of the other snowshoers made it easier for us all the way back to the Lower Canal Trail and then along it all the way back to the Summit Sno-Park.
Hard, but rewarding, work (6.3 miles; 500 feet of elevation gain) on a beautiful day through snow-blanketed, quiet forests, with a visit to a classic snow cabin thrown in for good measure. A long stretch of rainy, gloomy weather is forecast for the days ahead, so it felt good to get out and enjoy a full bluebird day!
Last July, I did an out-and-back hike in the Sky Lakes Wilderness from the Nannie Creek trailhead (USFS TH) to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). At the time, it occurred to me that I could use the PCT to loop around Luther Mountain and down past a few of the lakes in the Sky Lakes Basin that we hadn’t visited before. This wilderness, despite its more than 200 pools of water, good camping, and easy hiking, has a deservedly fearsome reputation for hoardes of ravenous mosquitos in July and August. But on a crisp, sunny, clear day in early October, with all of these perditious pests gone to whatever reward awaits them, there is simply no better place to hike in Southern Oregon. Unfortunately, its also the ideal time for Fall planting and gardening, so my attempts to lure the LovedOne from her botanical tasks failed and I was (once again) left to face the wilderness alone (double sigh).
Brown Mountain is a small, youthful looking, basaltic andesite shield volcano located in Oregon’s Klamath and Jackson counties, directly south of its more prominent neighbor, Mount McLoughlin. Brown Mountain is only between 12,000 and 60,000 years old with the last eruption taking place about 15,000 years ago. Much of it is bare, unweathered, dark-colored, block-lava, with a glacial valley carved into its northeast flank. Having already been to its summit (snowshoe to the top), we looked around for another way to enjoy the mountain. While doing so, we came across a report (post) of an out-and-back hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) along the west side of the mountain. A quick look at the map showed that we could circumnavigate the mountain by going south and east on the PCT from the Summit Sno-Park (details), then north on the Brown Mountain Trail (USFS #1005 [on the Rogue-Siskiyou NF; it’s #3724 on the Fremont-Winema NF]), and then east back to the Sno-Park on the High Lakes Trail (USFS #6200). And so it was.
The Sky Lakes Wilderness stretches for 113, 835 acres along the crest of the volcanic Cascade Mountains from the border of Crater Lake National Park on the north to State Highway 140 in the south. As its name implies, it encompasses a large number of named and unamed lakes arrayed in three major lake (former glacial) basins, from Seven Lakes Basin in the north, to Sky Lakes Basin (including the Dwarf Lakes) in the center, to Blue Canyon Basin in the south. Fourmile Lake and Mount McLoughlin lie south of Blue Canyon Basin, on the southern border of the wilderness. More than 200 pools of water, from mere ponds to lakes of 30 to 40 acres, dot the landscape. Fourmile Lake exceeds 900 acres. Despite its fearsome reputation for hordes of ravenous mosquitos in July and August, we have done more than a few summer hikes here – including scrambles to the summits of Mt. McLoughlin and Devils Peak – since first moving to Southern Oregon. Our hike last year in via the Nannie Creek trailhead was cut short when the LovedOne’s knee started acting up (post), so we had some unfinished business with exploring the Sky Lakes Basin from that particular entry point. But, unable to convince her that a hike through mosquitos in hotter than usual temperatures would somehow be FUN, I was left to face the wilderness alone (sigh).