Saturday, June 1, 2013

Azalea Lake backpack

This was a hike of firsts: the first backpack trip this year, the first hike with my new hiking boots, and my first blisters from my new hiking boots. Not all firsts are good things, vis-a-vis the blisters and the first blackfly bites of 2013. This was not my first visit to Azalea Lake however, but it was my first time to the small alpine lake this year and it was also the site of the very first ever Richard-and-Dollie backpack trip. I'm not sure what all these firsts mean but the scenery was certainly first rate on this weekend overnighter.

Starting out
Ray and I had camped at the trailhead on Friday night which translated to an early morning start as we hit the trail just before 7:30. That might have been the first time in my entire life I've done anything before 7:30! At any rate, leg muscles were soon burning after a brisk uphill climb from the trailhead.

Fir Glade
What goes up must come down, a truism that does not always hold true in hiking, but in this case the trail actually did drop down as we hit Fir Glade in just over a mile. Fir Glade is a large and picturesque meadow and it was peacefully quiet early in the morning. We were too early in the season to enjoy the wildflower show as the hellebore was only several inches tall in a sign that snow had just recently melted. A small creek trickled musically through the meadow and we crossed over it on a footbridge.

Thompson Creek Pass, so far away...
From here, the trail climbed steadily through the forest. The trees here are not so densely packed like in the Cascades and we got to enjoy intermittent views of Buck Peak and Whiskey Peak with a clear blue sky overhead. We were contouring a mountain slope well above the Middle Fork Applegate River's valley and occasionally we could peer down into the forested canyon. Unfortunately, we could also see Thompson Creek Pass, our next destination, far away and high above us. I should learn not to look ahead, it's demoralizing.

No, not the Sadler oak...I'll tell you everything...I promise!
The Siskiyious host a number of vegetation oddities and Sadler oak is one of them. This small, waist high bush resembles a rhododendron (the bush, not the flower); extremely rare, it grows only in the Siskiyous where it is quite common. The reason I mention the Sadler oak is because this rare and endangered bush had grown over the trail and I have the leg scratches to prove it. I now know what it feels like to be flayed alive and the heck with waterboarding, an applique of Sadler oak will have the most hardened terrorist spilling state secrets within minutes. I'm not sure if Sadler oak is carnivorous but certainly these specimens were well fed as I walked by.

View down the Middle Fork Applegate
As we neared Thompson Creek Pass, we walked past timberline and and began to enjoy a spectacular view down to Phantom Meadows and the Middle Fork Applegate River with Whiskey, Lake, and Buck Peaks all looming over the deep valley. The views even got better when we actually arrived at the pass and a lengthy gawk-stop was in order.

On top of the world

The pass is a low spot on a narrow ridgecrest and we could simultaneously look down the Middle Fork Applegate River and Thompson Creek valleys with Thompson Creek extending all the way to the Klamath River Valley. Beyond the Klamath rose the snow covered Marble Mountains range. To the west was the prominent cone of Preston Peak with faithful El Capitan standing by in perpetual attendance. To the east was a brush covered ridge with a series of high points and peaks above us with a notch (Azalea Lake Pass) being our next test of manhood.

Brush wading is so much fun (sarcasm!)

We had traded Sadler oak for manzanita and other assorted leg scratchers and skin removers. The parts of my body that still had skin were fair game for biting blackflies and the combination of blood, pain, and itchy welts made me think perhaps I should find a new hobby. The trail was barely visible in the thick brush we were wading through and there was no shade. Fortunately, this stretch of "trail" was only about 1.5 miles long and we plopped down for another gawk-stop at Azalea Lake Pass, which still had a patch of snow on it.

The Red Buttes
Figurehead Mountain was our immediate neighbor and the mountain regally presided over a forested basin containing the green waters of Azalea Lake. From the pass, a jagged ridge crest ran all the way to the prominent knob of Buck Peak. On the other side of the lake basin, Mount Emily and Fruit Mountain flanked the valley of the Butte Fork Applegate River (Azalea Lake is the source of the Butte Fork Applegate). And way down the valley loomed an orangish wall of rock that were the Red Buttes, Kangaroo Mountain, Desolation Peak, and Rattlesnake Mountain. Views like this are why we hike but I still would have liked to have kept more skin on my legs in the process.

Azalea Lake and Figurehead Mountain
A fairly steep descent on a switchbacking trail brought us down to Azalea Lake  just after noon where we set up camp. The rest of the day was spent lazing alongside the clear and pristine lake while small fish jumped. The craggy face of Figurehead Mountain loomed over the lake in a quintessential postcard photo.  We did take a couple of small tours around the lake and explored a meadow chock full of miniature shooting stars and a horse camp seemingly not in use any more. Amazingly, we had the entire lake to ourselves, a rarity for this popular backpacking destination. As a matter of fact, seeing the lake devoid of people was yet another first.

A pineapple?
Being in no hurry the next day, we struck camp mid-morning and began the tedious but short climb out of the lake basin. On the way up, we saw a yellow ground cone, looking all the world like a misplaced pineapple. This was the first time I'd ever seen one.  In another first of dubious note, I also had my first poo-in-the-woods of 2013 and enough said about that. When we arrived at Azalea Lake Pass, we shed our packs as it was time to caper and frolic, backpacking style.

Azalea Lake,  from the rocky knob
Between us and Figurehead Mountain, there was a small rocky knob that just begged to be climbed. Several years ago, a small rattlesnake (that did not seem so small when it was eye-to-eye with Ray) made our previous visit quite memorable. But on this day, there were no lethal viper encounters, just craggy rocks with low-growing flower gardens blooming in the cracks. The views were predictably spectacular while a chilly wind made sure we shivered on the summit.

Yeah, yeah, whatever
Below us, on a barren ridge, was a narrow foot path leading to several promontories on the ridge that just beckoned to the two of us. Answering the Siskiyou siren song, we were off to bag another couple of high spots overlooking Phantom Meadows. The views to Pyramid Mountain were sublime and a good time was had by all. Unfortunately, the new boots caused new blisters on an old foot and Ray bagged a third high point while I sat and watched. Sitting and watching was the hardest part of the hike!  Especially when Ray let out a bunch of jubilant war whoops at the summit in what I perceived to be taunting, despite his theatrically most adamant denials.

Indian paintbrush
Back at the pass, we met the only other person we would run into:  Jerry from Central Point, who said he was hiking alone "...because no one else will hike with me". Boy, do Ray and I know that feeling and it was nice to run into a kindred spirit. Anyway, we enjoyed the views on the way back to the car until we dipped into the forest. After several hours, I arrived, totally exhausted from lugging my pack around. That may have been the first time this year that I felt that way but probably won't be the last.

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



  1. Hi Richard! I know you did this hike a while ago, but I see you are still out hiking and posting about it so maybe you can answer my question. We are looking to hike to Azalea Lake from Azelea Lake Trailhead. Is this the same spot that you started? The National Parks website says this trail is 1.4 miles long so it seems as though this might not be the trail you did. I just can't seem to get a sense for how long the trail is, and where is best to start. The lake is beautiful, and so I feel like we need to see it on our backpacking trip after visiting the Redwoods in CA. But we'll be driving about four hours to get there, and then will be hiking so we're looking for 1-5 miles to get to the lake to then camp there. Do you have any advice? Also we will be going around the first week in June, what were the temps like when you were camping there?

    1. Hi Sam, always glad to assist fellow hikers. There is an Azalea Lake Trailhead near Powers Oregon which is short and may be the one referenced on the website you looked like. The trailhead I did is the Fir Glade Trailhead ( and it is about 6.5 miles one-way. I can't think of any 1.4 mile trail to the lake. Temps can get quite warm in the Siskiyous but probably not killer hot in June, although there is no guarantee. The hike is absolutely scenic and is one of my favorites. Only downer I can think of is the trail gets brushy but the path was always visible when we did this hike. If you have any other questions, just let me know, I'm glad to help