Thursday, April 22, 2021

Buck Rock Tunnels

Hey, I wet the bed last night! No, not THAT wetting of the bed! After I received my second Covid-19 vaccination, the following day was spent feeling ill, feverish, and generally sorry for myself. Sometime in the middle of the night though, the fever apparently broke, leaving bed and blankets soaked with cold and clammy perspiration, or at least I hope it was cold and clammy perspiration! It's so ironic that a vaccine designed to keep you from getting sick has to make you sick to keep you from getting sick. On the plus side, the ordeal left me feeling peppy, energetic, and as upbeat as an optimist on mood enhancers, which in turn directly led to my lacing up my boots the following morning at a primitive trailhead in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Lichen adorns a standing tree trunk

The Buck Rock Tunnels began life in 1883 when the Oregon and California Railroad began excavating both ends of a tunnel through Buck Rock as part of an intended rail route up and over Siskiyou Pass. Just a year later in 1884, the railroad company had exhausted its capital (boy, can I relate!) and the project was abandoned, leaving behind two tunnels that will never meet in the middle. Nowadays, the tunnels make for the endpoints of a nice and short 5'ish mile hike to the historical tunnel entrances. The east tunnel is partially collapsed but the west tunnel is in pretty good shape and naturally, is a more logical and oft-visited destination.

The trails are mostly on old jeep roads

Before it became a monument, the area was crisscrossed with a braiding network of jeep roads. Flash forward to post-monument designation, the roads have since been co-opted into hiking trails. It's a good thing too, for poison oak absolutely thrives in the area and the wide roads keep the pernicious itch-giver well away from my bare legs and arms. However, the quality of the roads comprising today's route was not always that great and on occasion the roads degenerated into faint single-track paths through grassy swales and meadows.

Ceanothus perfumed the trail and called in the bees

At the start, the road gently angled upwards through what initially was scratchy ceanothus blooming away in mad profusion, perfuming the trail and calling in all bees. Representing the tree end of things were scraggly oaks just beginning to put out leaf buds. Before long, the trail entered a shady forest comprised of madrone, big-leaf maple, cedar, and other conifers. Despite the greenery surrounding the trail, the whole vibe felt kind of dry and no doubt, it can get quite warm here in the summer. 

Typical forest scenery on this hike

I thought I had the place to myself but a rustling in the undergrowth caught my attention. I just managed to get a glimpse of a large grayish mammal slinking through the brush, about the size of a medium-sized dog, trailing a bushy tail that resembled that of a squirrel. But this was no squirrel, it was too large. At the end of this hike, I ran into the only other person I'd see today, a fellow hiker who was a Monument regular and she speculated I had seen a groundhog. I had been guessing maybe a raccoon but who knows, I just did not get a good look at the critter fleeing into the brush.

Epic view to Peak 6678

After a mile or so, the old road broke out onto an open slope surrounded by low growing chaparral, and a nice view of the valley created by creeks Carter and Hill was had. The Old Siskiyou Highway could be seen snaking its way up the valley floor up to Siskiyou Summit. On the other side of the valley loomed Peak 6678, mottled with dark forest and some small snow patches, while toy trucks labored up I-5, the freeway traversing the peak's slopes while also on its way to Siskiyou Summit.

Follow this gully up to the west tunnel entrance

Despite the aridity of the terrain, there were several seeps and springs when the trail re-entered the shady forest. The relative humidity and coolness was invigorating and no doubt the local wildlife appreciate the life-giving aspects of the small pools of water just off trail. At a dry gully, somebody had made a trail arrow out of some rocks and the gully would be the route up to the west tunnel entrance. As an aside, there are no trail signs at what turned out to be plenty of intersections so as always, bringing a map is really a good idea

Free hugs inside!

An obvious path in the gully led to the tunnel entrance, the black portal appearing dark and mysterious in the forest. Ignoring the low growl emanating from the inky blackness of the tunnel, I went in for a look see. Of course, I am kidding about the growling, the tunnel was fairly benign and free of trolls, bears, lions, deer, or any other hiker-eating creatures of the night. It was dark though, the only light (besides my flashlight) being that spilling into the tunnel from the entrance. The walking part of the tunnel ended at a shelf that really ended after a short crawl where a certain lone hiker was heard to utter "Well, the Buck stops here!" After a quick exploration of the tunnel, I headed back out to daylight, blinking myopically in the bright sunlight like the pallid cave creature I am, and resumed my journey. 

The upper route was more open

It is possible to continue on to the eastern tunnel entrance and I'm sort of kicking myself a bit for not doing so. However, I'm still taking it easy from the hernia surgery and was still feeling a bit peckish from the vaccine fallout so I opted to return from the west trailhead by taking a loop that climbed up fairly close to the Buck Rock Summit, and was glad I did.

Nothing but scratchy ceanothus and ticks at the high point

The trail went through a forest that transitioned from trees to swaths of scratchy and thorny ceanothus, the aromatic blooms attracting bees and butterflies alike. The rough track crested on a ridge before dropping through a series of grassy meadows where the trail at times went somewhat faint but still remained followable. There were great views to the north and east and the simple activity of admiring Tom Spring Mountain, Greensprings Mountain, and Grizzly Peak kept me adequately entertained on the descent. Bear Creek Valley sprawled well below with Emigrant Lake notably not containing all that much water. 

I don't like to see wildfire smoke

While the scenery was cool and all that, my attention was drawn to Peak 6628 and Wagner Butte, for wildfire smoke was clearly boiling up from behind. Last summer, the Alameda Fire catastrophically burned up Bear Creek Valley, immolating and vaporizing huge swaths of the towns of Ashland, Talent, and Phoenix so we are all a little sensitive about fires these days. However, the aforementioned only other hiker I ran into told me what we were looking at was a prescribed burn so not to worry. But still...

Tom Springs Mountain, to the northeast

So, this was my first time hiking on this trail and I enjoyed the experience. I don't think you'd want to do this when summer heats up though, but for now it was fine. I think I'll definitely come back because after looking at a map of the area post-hike, there is an old road that circumnavigates Buck Rock and that would be a worthier seven to eight mile hike, plus you can also access the eastern tunnel by doing so. In the meantime, I'll try to avoid accruing another hernia, or receiving another vaccine shot and will continue working myself back into hiking trim.

Shooting stars doing their shooting thing

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

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