Saturday, May 23, 2015

Siskiyou Wilderness

I hiked to Polar Bear Gap last year and on that hike, I had taken the Black Butte Trail down into the East Fork Illinois River canyon. There were a couple of backpacking campsites down there and I made some comment on my blog about the "...thought of lugging a backpack down and up this rugged terrain nearly made me want to cry with empathy for the abject human misery that particular labor had to have entailed" and while I didn't say it, I probably thought something along the lines of "pity the fools" or something like that. 

Pity the fools!
Well, misery loves company so I sallied forth onto the Black Butte Trail accompanied by Dale, Lane, and Rick; all of us eagerly anticipating 4 lovely days of backpacking pain. Basically, the Black Butte Trail goes downhill, losing a mere 700 feet or so of elevation on its way down to the East Fork's headwaters which doesn't sound particularly daunting. However, we are talking about the Siskiyous, and elevation gain/loss data can be misleading. So naturally, our descent began with a mad charge up the flanks of Black Butte on a rocky chute of a trail.

Snow plant
Despite this being a downhill hike, there were plenty of steep uphill stretches and there were no level spots at all.  Up or down and nothing in between. Since we were starting high above the East Fork, we had great views of the mountains on the opposite side of the canyon. Periodically we'd cross small creeks which were nameless little forks of the East Fork. Forklets, if you will. When we crossed the actual East Fork, Dale posed with one foot on either bank of the Illinois River like Paul Bunyan straddling the mighty Mississippi River.

Dale Bunion
Speaking of Dale, he entertained us all a bit by tripping and rolling downhill off the trail. A small tree wedged its way inconveniently between the back of his head and pack frame and he was flailing away like an upside down darkling beetle trying to regain the upright position. Lane, in his best faux PBS-nature-documentary-announcer voice, narrated "Here we see the turtle attempt to right itself". Three out of four guys laughing means the whole situation was funny and Dale's trail name is now "Turtle".

Young's Valley, our home for 4 days
Fortunately, there were no other pratfalls on the way down and eventually the sketchy trail widened onto an abandoned roadbed. Thankfully, the grade eased up on the old road, demonstrating once more we care more about cars than hikers. A short push up and over a forested saddle took us out of the East Fork Illinois watershed and into the Clear Creek drainage. And just like that, the forest thinned out and we were treated to a jaw-dropping vista of a large meadow reposing in meadowy glory below some tall peaks. We had arrived at idyllic Young's Valley, our home for the next several days. Camp was made next to a huge pile of bear poop at the south end of the meadow but fortunately, no bears came to visit (that we know of) during our stay. My theory is that they were kept away by fear of the large over-sized airplane hangar that was Rick's tent, dubbed "The Chalet" by us ultralighters. I think it even had a disco-ball inside it.

Raspberry Lake

Lane leads the charge to Raspberry Lake
Day 2 dawned bright and beautiful and we headed up the Raspberry Lake Trail. It was easy walking at first, the route following an old mining road above Clear Creek. The only travail was the occasional tree step-over and the plentitude of rocks on the trail. This being the Siskiyous, we were never going to get away from rocky trails.

We all took pictures of each other
taking pictures of each other
Anyway, after a short and easy stretch, the road angled steeply uphill and then the fun began. As we climbed, we were treated to several awesome overlooks of the Clear Creek valley. Below, we could see a grassy hole in the forest and that would be the meadow we were camping at, but from this distance we couldn't quite make out the huge pile of bear poop next to our camp. Above and beyond the meadow rose craggy Young's Peak. On our side of the canyon loomed a rocky wall with a waterfall plummeting off of it and that would be our first introduction to El Capitan. Further to the south were a chain of prominent peaks: Rocky Knob, Twin Peaks, and Bear Mountain. We also had periodic views of the snow-flecked pyramid of Preston Peak.  Much photography ensued.

Rick hikes on the edge and likes it
Cyclone Gap is the site of former mining operations and the trail went narrow at the mine, climbing over slag and debris, some of which included weathered timbers from the mine. On a rocky slope, the trail went faint and sometimes invisible but rock cairns on the slope kept us going in the right direction, which was up. All uppy things turn to down eventually, and the rocky goat path made a precipitous drop down into the Raspberry Lake basin. A backpacking party was coming up the trail and none of the participants were smiling. Must be some of that abject human misery discussed in preceding paragraphs.

Raspberry Lake
Raspberry Lake sits in a rocky bowl on the slopes of Copper Butte and is nothing but scenic and picturesque. The lake was calm and ripples from jumping fish slowly expanded Zen-like across the surface. Such a peaceful place demands an extended lollygag and we obliged, snoozing here and there in the many sunny spots next to the lake.  Eventually, we all wound up on top of a huge boulder overlooking the lake where we did nothing for an hour or so.  It was great!

Heading back to camp
All the ups became downs and vise versa on the way out and it was no easier leaving the lake than it was coming in.  Well, I suppose it was a bit easier once we hit the mining road but we still had to watch for ankle-hungry rocks with each step.

Private Lake

Bear Cub and Polar Bear Mountain 
And then we were three. Lane had to work on Monday so he got to hike out by himself, departing camp to the accompaniment of snickers from the rest of us non-workers (for a few days, anyway). So Rick, Dale, and I head up the Twin Valleys Trail and it didn't even pretend to switchback as it charged straight uphill, the route about as subtle as an AC/DC concert. At least the trail was shady.

Miniature onion (Siskiyou version)
After a mile of that, we plopped in grateful appreciation at a mountain pass that provided great views of neighboring Bear Cub and Polar Bear Mountain. The pass was all serpentinitic rock and the rock gardens were putting on a show what with  quill-leaved lewisia, penstemon, stonecrop, Siskiyou lewisia, and phlox stuffed into cracks in the rock and blooming madly away.

Small pond on the ridge
From the pass, the trail sashayed to and fro atop a bare rocky ridge right below a series of craggy peaks known as The Lieutenants. This was my favorite part of the hike as not only was the trail level, but no trees grew on the ridge which meant we could see all the surrounding peaks and valleys of the Siskiyou Wilderness. Totally awesome! On top of the ridge was a small pond full of tadpoles and just beyond the pond, the trail headed uphill to a second pass. The pass was shady and we stopped to eat lunch there. Just beyond the pass, the trail dropped steeply down into a creek canyon and we were filled with dismay because what goes down would certainly have to come back up.

View toward the Red Buttes
Gluttons for punishment, Rick and I headed down the trail to see what we could see, and boy we could see some stuff. On the horizon were the Red Buttes and below a cliffy overlook, a large meadow was stuffed into a rocky bowl. Across the creek canyon was a tall ridge which this trail would eventually climb up and over for the privilege of dropping down into Twin Valleys. Polar Bear Mountain was prominent, looming over us against a deep blue sky. The trail leaving Twin Valleys would then have to climb up and around the mountain for the privilege of dropping down to Young's Valley. That was a whole lot of serious up and down for one day so we contented ourselves with a visit to a small cirque lake at the canyon's head. The amazing thing about this rugged and challenging trail is that it is part of both the long distance Bigfoot Trail and Coast to Crest Trail systems. All that up and down with a backpack on...ugh!

Private Lake, or else a private lake
The map shows this small lake as an unnamed lake but William Sullivan's "100 Hikes in Southern Oregon" refers to it as Private Lake and so shall I because a lake this special deserves some recognition. Rick and I beat our way through the brush to access the shore and a throng of inquisitive trout checked us out, no doubt curious about the rarely seen visitors to the small body of water. The lake is not very deep and lily pads ringed the shallows along the shoreline.

Day ends on El Capitan
So back we go up the steep trail but that was nothing new on this trip, and we got to enjoy the splendid ridge-top views all over again. On the descent down to Clear Creek and Young's Valley, we better appreciated the steepness of the trail and it suddenly made sense why we had been huffing and puffing so much on the morning climb.

Young's Valley to Black Butte Trailhead

On our way to abject human misery
Day 4 was getaway day and it started pleasantly enough in the early morning. The trail was on the wide mining roadbed and angled gently uphill through the lush and shady forest. And then the easy hiking on a gentle grade ended as the trail began to dole out some of that abject human misery I had mentioned earlier.

Typical Siskiyou Wilderness trail
The hike out was up and down, never level, but more up than down as we climbed out of the East Fork Illinois River canyon. The rocky chute of a trail required we put our heads down and concentrate on where we placed our feet, lest we turn an ankle. Although the out hike was only 6 miles and would gain only about 700 feet of elevation, it sure felt like it was more than both of those stats due to the ruggedness of the trail and surrounding terrain.

Rick crosses the East Fork Illinois River
Actually, it was inadvertently longer than 6 miles because after we crossed an East Fork fork, the old roadbed angled steeply uphill on a mad charge seemingly to the Polar Bear Mountain summit.  It didn't feel right, so Dale and I whipped out our GPS's and quickly deduced we had missed the faint trail at the creek crossing. At least we got some more miles and elevation gain in, sarcasm intended.

Young's Peak, across the East Fork canyon
As we worked our way up the East Fork canyon, the forest thinned out to a sparse concentration of Ponderosa pines and Brewer's weeping spruce, a Siskiyou tree oddity. Scrubby Sadler oaks clawed at our legs as we walked by and several specimens of bright red snow plants were spotted below the trees. This was work and we were soon bathed in a mixed-up goo of sunscreen, sweat, trail dust, and blood (I had taken a pretty good scratch to the back of my hand, thanks to a dead tree). 

Pretty happy for abject human misery!
Despite the travails and trudgery involved in climbing out of the canyon, the views of Young's Peak and Sanger Peak on the other side of the valley were stunning. Further down the canyon, the East Fork opened up to the farmlands and towns of the Illinois Valley with the peaks of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness making for a jagged skyline just beyond. As I had surmised a year ago, there was plenty of "abject human misery" and while I did indeed pity the fools (us),  I must say it was a fantastic 4 days of hiking!

For more pictures of this backpack trip, please visit the Flickr albums:

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

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