Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stein Butte

This was a tough one.

That was my opening sentence from last week's Collings Mountain Trail posting to the Friends of the Umpqua Hiking Club website. That statement was also made before my hike to the top of Stein Butte the following weekend. After Stein Butte, Collings Mountain is now deemed to be as tough as a marshmallow and I have acquired new definition of what constitutes a tough hike.

The Pillsbury doughboy 

Speaking of marshmallows, my physique resembles one as I've had to give up mid-week racquetball due to a dislocated wrist suffered in last August's bicycle crash. I've sort of deceived myself into thinking I was in reasonable hiking trim as I've been hiking on flat beaches, as I am wont to do in winter. However, the doughy flaws in my pancake batter of an exercise regimen were exposed in all their flabby glory a mere half-mile into the hike to the Stein Butte summit.

How hard can a little butte be?
Stein Butte, like Collings Mountain, is an unassuming little foothill next to Applegate Lake and is dwarfed both physically and visually by its snowy Siskiyou big brother peaks. As an aside, I know just how that feels. At any rate, while Stein Butte tops out at a modest 4,398 feet, there is nothing modest about the 2,400 foot climb to the top of the butte. 

"I'll be keeping me pant legs on" he said 
The day of the hike dawned sunny and beautiful; it also was colder than an ex-wife's heart. Well, if it actually had a heart, that is. It was 25 degrees at the start and icicles formed on mossy rocks and my nostrils. All notion of offering my pasty-white legs to the sun gods were stashed at the bottom of my daypack, to be used at some future warm date.

Madrone canopy
The trail quickly headed up through a cold and shady forest as it switchbacked back and forth across the face of Elliott Creek Ridge. There were plenty of fallen trees and branches strewn across the trail by the chaos of winter, but there wasn't anything a one-handed gimp like me couldn't handle.

Alder bud
Spring seems to be a late arrival this year and the forest floor was totally devoid of any of the usual early spring wildflowers. No lilies, no ground cones, no snow queen, nor any of the other usual spring suspects. However, there were other signs spring is coming as shooting star seedlings were sprouting and poison oak was budding. Hmm, maybe spring's arrival might not be all that, now that I think about it, but the fine folks that make Tecnu soap for the poison oak afflicted should be happy.

The Red Buttes Wilderness
At the two mile mark, the trail attained the crest of Elliott Creek Ridge and the open areas on the crest provided marvelous views of the snowy peaks of the Red Buttes Wilderness. The vegetation changed, too, with less trees and more leg-scratching tick-harboring manzanita encroaching the trail. The vibe was California-ish which was appropriate as the Oregon-California border was just a pee stream distance down the slope dropping away from my feet.

Spring comes to the downtrodden
The next few miles were a continuous uphill push past a couple of knobs atop Elliott Creek Ridge. Paralleling the crest of the Siskiyous, the views became more expansive of the mountain range just across the deep Elliott Creek canyon. And finally, wildflowers made an appearance in the form of green-leaved manzanita. Practicing a vegetative form of apartheid, the green leafed manzanita were on the left side of the trail while the blue leafed manzanita grew on the right. I'll leave it to the readers to decide which species is the oppressed and which is the oppressor.

Hey, you're not Stein Butte!

Since I'd hiked this trail before, I was not fooled by the knobs. Ever hopeful that one of the two knobs would turn out to be Stein Butte, newbies always wind up crying wet girly tears when having to hike up and around the knobs with their shattered remnants of crushed hopes. Stein Butte is such a cruel taskmaster but the grade did ease up which is kind of like saying your colonoscopy prep is slowing down. Disgusting poopy similes aside, the third knob does turn out to be the rare and elusive Stein Butte summit.

Just when it couldn't get any steeper...
A steep and sketchy goat path up an oak studded rock slope delivers hikers to the Stein Butte summit. Tired, I just kept my eyes on the ground until all the bad uphill stopped. Sitting in blessed relief on a windbreak made from the former lookout's foundation stones, I gratefully took about an hour to appreciate and soak up the mesmerizing panorama that make this hike so worthwhile. Well to be completely honest, I took an hour waiting for the blood flow to return to my legs.

Applegate Lake, below Grayback Mountain
The Siskiyous, snowy-white under a mostly blue sky, inscribed a near circle of Siskiyou peaks beginning with Grayback Mountain and culminating with Dutchman Peak. The tips of farther and taller mountains (such as Mt McLaughlin, Pyramid Peak, and Prescott Peak) showed their pointy little heads above their less tall mountain friends. And let us not forget the many-armed Applegate Lake in glorious turquoise repose at the foot of Stein Butte.

Bye, hiking!
All good things come to an end and since I am adverse to gearless mountaintop camping in 25 degree nights, I gathered my things and began the long and equally tiring descent down to my car. Four days hence, I would be submitting my damaged wrist in anesthetized acquiescence to the surgeon's knife followed by what will be a fairly lengthy period of hike-free recuperation. I'm going to wind up with more spare tires than an 18-wheel Peterbilt.

For more pictures of this challenging 9.5 mile hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Collings Mountain

"Enough!  Enough, I say!" This is the time of year where that's it: no more creek or beach hikes! Fueled by a sudden bout of springish weather, dreams of standing on top of mountains began dancing around in my hiking-addled head. Unfortunately, the Cascades are still stashed away in the icebox awaiting the sunny days of summer, just like last year's lamb chops. Ergo, it's now time to pay the Siskiyou Mountains a visit.

Spring is coming to the Siskiyous
In the summer, the Siskiyous are fairly hot and arid so spring is really the best time to visit this underappreciated mountain range in the southwestern corner of Oregon. And for our purposes, spring comes earlier to the Siskiyous than the Cascades and hikers can, by judicious trail selection, nibble at the retreating snow line and enjoy spring in the Siskiyous for the next few months.

Glenn and I perform the hiker's meet and greet

Collings Mountain is a smallish mountain, topping out at a humble 3,625 feet but since it is reliably snow free this time of year, it was a perfect destination to lead the Friends of the Umpqua Hiking Club to. At the trailhead, we were joined by fellow southwestern Oregon hikers and bloggers Glenn and Carol who on this day were deemed to be honorary friends of the Friends. Glenn and I have been acquainted via the Internet for several years but this was the first time we would actually meet and hike.

Uphill, what a concept

As stated, Collings Mountain is a humble little peak but try telling that to the hikers who cursed their hiking leader while winter-atrophied quad muscles burned with the "sweet" heat that only comes from walking on a trail that wastes no time in heading uphill. Actually, winter layoff had nothing to do with the burning legs: this trail was pretty steep, climbing 1400 feet in 2.5 miles. Doing the math, this was a 10% grade, a climb that would tax my little KIA Rio. Of course, level ground taxes my KIA, but the point is the trail was steep, regardless.

Applegate Lake, below the Siskiyou Mountains

As we trudged up Collings Mountain, the madrones and oaks thinned out, offering a magnificent view for those of us that had any strength to lift our heads up. The Red Buttes loomed tall and snowy in what looked like Oregonian Alps. Extending to the east were a chain of lesser snowy peaks that comprise the crest of the Siskiyous and us map geeks played the Name-That-Peak game. The centerpiece on this Siskiyou doily was Applegate Lake, its blue-green waters reposing in a myriad of spidery lake arms.  

The Red Buttes and Kangaroo Mountain
We ate lunch at what we thought was the Collings Mountain summit. Actually, it wasn't the true summit but instead the mere high point of the trail. The "summit" was forested and views were limited but we were just happy to sit down after the tedious slog up. The consensus was that everybody was looking forward to hiking downhill but I, having hiked this before, smugly advised all to be careful what they ask for.

Hello down there

Leaving the "summit", the trail hooked and headed briefly in the seemingly wrong direction while providing ample views of prominent and snow-covered Grayback Mountain, with lesser peaks (all equally snow-covered) Mount Elijah, Steve Peak, and Big Sugarloaf Peak looming above the rugged forested mountains and canyons. The rocky slope dropped steeply away from the rugged trail and we enjoyed an impressive vista to the idyllic farms and pastures of Baker Flat about 1,300 feet below.

A tree melts, just like my quad muscles
Our trail dropped quickly off of Collings Mountain, seemingly headed down to Baker Flat and I had flashbacks to when I first hiked this hike all by myself. At the time, I was quite concerned because Baker Flat is in totally the wrong direction and I began to question as to whether I had missed a trail junction and was hiking on a wrong trail. Sometimes, a little faith is needed as there are no trail junctions and the trail was merely rounding the backside of Collings Mountain.

Lots of fallen tree stuff on the trail
All that downhill was nice but there was a price to pay as the trail eventually angled back up to attain a saddle on the north side of Collings Mountain. The attaining thereof was a little bit tough as numerous madrones had fallen across the trail, knocked down by wind or snow or both.

Trail designers will not go to heaven
So there we were, on the saddle looking down at the Grouse Creek drainage, all we had to do was hike down the slope to where our shuttle vehicles were waiting. But no, that would be too easy. Instead, the trail began a tedious climb on a ridge covered by a stunted Siskiyou mix of madrones, tan oak, and laurel. Darn sadistic trail designers were doing it to us again.

What's to grouse about?

After Round 2 of trudging uphill on the rim of the Grouse Creek headwaters, the trail dropped down for good. All that wishing for downhill quickly became wishing for uphill as legs, tired from all the climbing, were severely tasked leg-braking down a steep descent into the bottom of the Grouse Creek drainage. I had always thought that Grouse Creek had been named after the bird but after listening to the grousing emanating from my fellow hikers, I now have a different theory on how the creek attained its name.

Sasquatch, anyone?
On the way down, a short side-trail took us to an interesting oddity: the Bigfoot trap. In 1974, the trap was built by a group looking to prove the existence of the legendary and elusive hominid. The trap was baited with carcasses but attracted only bear. I have often wondered what the proper bait would be as no one really knows what a Bigfoot eats, it may not be carcasses. Perhaps they should have tried bananas or cottage cheese. The reason the for the trap's particular location is that there had been stories of Bigfoot sightings near Grouse Creek. My theory is that any Bigfeet sighted were big feet, swollen from the pounding on the steep descent delivered courtesy of the Collings Mountain Trail.

For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Cummins Creek loop

After a cold and drizzly night, Sunday dawned gloriously sunny at Florence. However, the summery day was pretty in appearance only as it was icy cold at the core of things. Hmm, that could describe my ex-wife too, now that I think about it. But I digress, suffice to say this was a day that  looked like spring but felt like winter on the Cummins Creek Trail at the foot of Oregon's scenic Cape Perpetua. 

Sunny and cold on the Cummins Creek Trail
The frozen trail crunched noisily underneath my boots at an early morning start. Beginning the loop on the Cummins Creek Trail, the morning sun slanted through a dense canopy of conifer and maple, the sun beams illuminating vapor rising from evaporating frost. The trail, at this point, is an old road bed and emerald green moss lined the gravelly trail tread. I soon lost sensation in my ears, nose, hands and various other exposed appendages due to the winter chill. 

Water drop, refracting sunlight
The trail climbed steadily for 3 miles or so and my camera was clicking merrily away, taking pictures of spring buds, ferns, mossy trails, sunbeams, and yellow-green slugs. Cummins Creek was heard but never seen as it tumbled through its wooded canyon well below the trail. Life was good, indeed, for the first three miles.

Time to work out the uphill muscles
At an intersection with an old logging road, a bona fide foot path angled up to the left, commencing the "Richard Hike" portion of this little trek. Climbing 800 feet in just under a mile, the trail was steep as it ascended what would normally be considered a beautiful hike through mossy white-barked alder trees. Burning quad muscles do have a tendency to take some luster off of the coastal forest scenery.

Warm view to the ocean
The climb took me out of the Cummins Creek drainage and crossed over to the headwater ridge crest overlooking Gwynn Creek. A short side-trip led to a grassy overlook of the Cummins Creek drainage culminating in the dark blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. There were no trees at the overlook and various clothing layers were soon strewn about the overlook as the sun warmed me up. This would be the only time I would be warm the entire day, excluding the drive home with the car heater cranked up.

Reach for the sky!

As I stated, the trail was traversing the headwaters of Gwynn Creek; once that little task was completed, the trail headed west, descending to the Cape Perpetua Visitor Center via the rounded and forested Cook's Ridge. The ridge is not named for any culinary incident or kitchen dignitary but instead is named for Captain James Cook who first laid eyes on the cape on Saint Perpetua's Day. Good thing he saw the cape on March 7th, otherwise the cape would have been named after a different saint. Cape Chad just does not have the same poetic ear-pleasing ring that Cape Perpetua  does.

Salal gone splotchy, just like me
The next 4 miles were a steady descent through one of the prettier coastal forests in Oregon. The trail wound its way through a second-growth forest (much of the original forest was destroyed in 1962's famed Columbus Day windstorm). Underneath the trees a vigorous undergrowth of ferns, rhododendron, and salal swiped at passing hiker's legs before the path unceremoniously spit hikers onto the visitor center parking lot.

Cape Perpetua, or maybe Cape Chad?
At this point, the rock wall of Cape Perpetua loomed invitingly above the parking lot. The views from atop the cape are arguably the best on the Oregon coast so I asked my legs if they were willing to do the climb to the cape summit. My legs said "No!" rather emphatically. So, for a little extra mileage and scenery, I took the flat paved trail to Cook's Chasm.

A watery belch by Thor's Well

Just a little creek, but my oh my, what a chasm it has carved into the rocky shore. Providing an assist with the rock carving, the Pacific Ocean churns up the narrow defile and a noisy spouting horn spouts salty spray, keeping time with the wave rhythms. Waves broke in spectacular fashion over the rocks, heralding the approaching high tide. Blowholes spouted right and left throughout the black and rocky shoreline. Iconic Thor's Well was performing for visitors, alternately spewing a watery fountain and swallowing the water back up, just like a sick and thirsty hiker.

Gwynn Creek
A short two miles wrapped up this 10.9 mile hike, as the Oregon Coast Trail went up and over the ridge between Gwynn and Cummins Creek. It was a joyous reunion between hiker and car heater, with the heater blowing out blessed warmth at full blast. Another joyous reunion between hiker and hot chocolate followed in Florence. Did I mention it was cold?

For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sweet Creek

After some banter about whether Ray meant to say "let's go Sweet Cheeks" or "let's go to Sweet Creek", he delivered the Friends of the Umpqua Hiking Club to one of the many Sweet Creek trailheads. All the puerile giggling was further exacerbated when we passed Sweet Cheeks Winery on the drive to Sweet Creek.

Sweet Creek lives up to its name
Dumb intro aside, this was a great hike. I had always turned my nose up at the Sweet Creek Trail as it was too short, too creeky, too whatever. My mistake. This short hike packs more views per mile than most trails and I strained my lips uttering an awestruck "wow" after "wow" on this hike.

Elk Wallow Creek lives beyond its name
Just like me, Sweet Creek is full of water this this year and is quite rowdy as it is constrained by a narrow canyon. The creek tumbles from noisy waterfall to noisy waterfall and if there is no waterfall then numerous side creeks obligingly tumble into the raging creek. The unromantically named Elk Wallow Creek in particular made a spectacular entrance into Sweet Creek. At times, the trail is a narrow and seemingly precarious catwalk bolted onto vertical rock walls. Wow, wow, and more wow.
The upper portion of Sweet Creek Falls

The alder and maple trees flanking the white waters of Sweet Creek are all leafless but covered in mossy green "fur" like a certain indistinct food mass lying on a plate in my refrigerator. Just under two miles in, the trail ended at a railed viewpoint overlooking Sweet Creek Falls. An extended lollygag at the falls pretty much filled up my camera card, and it was time to turn around and return to the trailhead.

After an unceremonious lunch in the parking lot, we drove up to the Wagon Road Trailhead where we strung together two more short hikes along the spectacular creek. The first walk ambled through an extensive flat of white-trunked (just like me!) and leafless alder before angling down into the canyon for a closer look at Sweet Creek Falls. The falls are actually a series of punchbowl falls as the creek freefalls down into the canyon.

Moss, rocks, and Sweet Creek
Upon our return to the trailhead, we crossed the road to the other side of Sweet Creek and headed upstream. This time the object of our affection was the confluence of Beaver Creek and Sweet Creek. The two creeks crashed together and fanned out as one across a 20 foot drop down a rock face.

Drip, drip, drip
Despite the shortness of the hike(s), I am now a fan of Sweet Creek. Learning my lesson, I hereby promise never again to turn up my nose like some effete hiking snob as this hike certainly was pretty sweet.

Please visit the Flickr album for more pictures of the aqueous delights of Sweet Creek.