Dwarfed by Fire (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 27-Oct-2017

Dwarf Lakes Area Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

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.

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Devils Peak (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 17-Oct-2017

Devils Peak Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

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 auguries 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.

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Climbing to Breathe (Mount McLoughlin) 01-Sep-2017

Mount McLoughlin Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

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!  😨 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.

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Stuart Falls (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 11-Jul-2017

Stuart Falls Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

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.

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Upper South Fork Trail (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 03-Jul-2017

Upper South Fork Rogue River Trail Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

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.

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