Saturday, June 23, 2012

McCloud River Trail

After a stormy night camping at Siskiyou Lake, the Friends of the Umpqua Hiking Club shook off the raindrops, piled into cars, and drove over to the McCloud River. The destination was chosen because the waiter in last night's restaurant said it was pretty cool. So off we go on this well-researched and meticulously planned hike.

But the guy in the restaurant said...

The lower falls
As we arrived at the trailhead, the cloud cover broke up and it looked like we were going to get a cool and sunny day for hiking. The lower McCloud falls poured off a ledge right below the parking lot. And from the parking lot we descended some stairs, prompting a Webshots fan (yes, I have fans)  to comment "Stairs and handrails! What kind of hike is this?"

The middle falls on
the McCloud River
From there the path followed the river and a short half-mile away the middle falls came into view. Clearly, the middle falls were the best on the day, being wide and tall (just like me) under a cloudy sky. Yes, the sun had disappeared and we would find the weather to waffle and tergiversate (thanks, Thesarus!) as much as an undecided voter in an election year.

Above the middle falls 
There was no tergiversating by the trail though, as it headed decisively to the canyon rim in a series of switchbacks capped off by another set of stairs with handrails. The view from the top down to the middle falls were impressive even though another rail kept hikers from going over the edge. Leave it to California to take all the luster off of a cliffy trail, but I guess there are people in California in sufficient numbers that need protecting from themselves.

Staying high above the river, the trail left the campgrounds and city-slickers behind and behaved more like a real trail. After a three-quarter mile or so walk, the upper falls spewed forth from a rocky notch into what is probably a blue-watered bowl (like a sanitized toilet) in broad daylight.

The upper falls

The trail followed the McCloud River
Above the falls, the McCloud River funneled into a narrow and rocky chute before taking the plunge. The rocky walls of the chute were pockmarked with large bowls carved out by the river in testimony to the power of water.

Now that we got all that waterfall stuff out of the way, the river became more tranquil, pooling scenically while lush vegetation bordered the river. At Lakin Dam, the river became even more tranquil at the backwater behind the dam, reflecting the clouds, sun, and sky. I took a series of photographs here as the weather changed like every thirty seconds or so. 

Lakin Dam

That amorphous red blob is my wife
Continuing on, the river disappeared into the expansive willow thicket that is known as Bigelow Meadow. The weather turned as the skies darkened while a serious rain poured down on us. It felt like the rain would be semi-permanent so Dollie and I dug out raingear from our packs. After a few minutes of this, it was deemed that heading back to the car would be more fun, so back the way we came.

Ox-eye daisy

And of course, a few minutes later the sun came out in a relatively cloudless sky; the sight of Dollie walking in the sun while clad in a poncho was amusing. The sun stayed out for the rest of the hike and it became obvious that California is a land of fair-weather hikers as we encountered mobs of hikers, fishermen, and swimmers on our way back. The parking lot at the trailhead was full and we could have made money by raffling our parking spot before we left. Not your wilderness hike, no tergiversating about it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Castle Dome

Welcome to sunny California!
Castle Crags State Park is closed! I know California has its money problems but it almost seems criminal to shut down this venerable park with its magnificent crags. However, the park remains accessible to intrepid hikers so the Friends of the Umpqua Hiking Club organized a campout in a rare foray to sunny California.

Well, the only problem with sunny California was that we brought our Oregon weather with us, the skies were dark and moody with rain imminent. Setting out on the Pacific Crest Trail, we immediately began heading uphill, gaining the first of nearly 2,600 feet of elevation gain in a wooded forest with very little ground cover.

Prince's pine

My namesake trail

Shortly after an intersection with the signed Kettlebelly Trail, Dollie began snickering and calling me "Mr. Kettlebelly". There weren't a lot of wildflowers but there were several clumps of Cascade lily and tiger lily growing alongside the trail. The saprophytes (plants lacking chlorophyll) were represented by the alabaster white phantom orchid and pink wintergreen. And, of course, there was a healthy poison oak population growing underneath all the trees.

Direct quote:  "This is awful!"
Arriving huffing and puffing at the intersection with the Castle Dome trail, we were dismayed to discover all the uphill climbing so far was a mere preamble to the "real" climbing as the Castle Dome Trail cranked up the steepness. I tucked in behind Dollie and we continued the hike at wife-speed as she muttered "This is awful!"

On the goat path
I did my part, telling her we were almost there but after three miles of me telling her we were almost there, she didn't believe me any more. Eventually, the forest thinned out, the earthen tread became a rocky goat path, and we were walking around and through a granite wonderland of crags, towers, pinnacles, and minarets. Coming from lava-based geology as we do, this was quite exotic stuff and we reveled in the scenery.

Castle Dome
Gaining altitude relentlessly, the forest thinned out and we entered an alpine scrubland consisting of low-growing manzanita and oak with a crest of rocky pinnacles rising above us.  The views opened up and were impressive despite the overcast sky. Castle Dome, our intended destination was relatively close and a short push brought us to a saddle at its base.

Castle Crags rock!
It is possible to climb Castle Dome but a wall of black clouds was heading our way and this is not the summit scramble to do in bad weather. So Ray and I left tired wives at the saddle and continued exploring the crags above for a bit. We were on a ridge crest and steep and precipitous valleys dropped at our feet while the crags kept going on and on in a seemingly infinite procession.

Feels like Oregon!
On the way down, the wind began to absolutely howl and the heavens opened up, delivering on the threatened rain. It was a soggy return to the trailhead where we removed sodden raingear, heading back to our Siskiyou Lake camp for the remainder of our wet weekend.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Rogue River Trail backpack

Argh!  We be rogues!
The Rogue River Trail had been on my list for quite some time. Dollie read the multi-page brochure and in all the articulate prose describing the wonders of the trail, she seized upon three key words (bears, rattlesnakes, and poison oak) and was promptly self-eliminated as a hiking companion. As it turned out, we encountered all three of those things on this hike but nonetheless, this epic 40 mile trip was one of the best hikes I've ever been on.

I felt like I was walking on air
Last year, I had planned to hike the trail solo during Memorial Day weekend but the weather was so lousy the trip was scratched. So this year, another attempt was penciled in. John heard about my intent to hike it and volunteered to join me; he subsequently enlisted Merle and Lindsay and we had a 4-man Band of Merry Rogues ready to go tackle the 40 mile Rogue River Trail.

Day 1

Mountain goats
Starting at Graves Creek, the trail quickly headed up to the cliffs overlooking the trail. I've hiked this section so many times I've lost count so there was no new-trail smell as we started. But that is a minor quibble as our inner mountain goats were bleating happily as we walked on the narrow path chiseled into the rocky cliffs. There were several other backpacking parties setting out and we would play leapfrog with them over the next 4 days.

Bridge at Bunker Creek
We passed a number of creeks:  Whiskey Creek, Alder Creek, Booze Creek; we discovered a trend in that the trail dropped down to a creek then climbed back up to the cliffs overlooking the green waters of the Rogue River. Up and down, up and down...all day long. After passing Russian Creek, we were on what was new territory for me. We ate lunch at Bunker Creek and tired legs brought us to Horseshoe Bend at the 11 mile mark.

Horseshoe Bend with no flying tents
We set up camp in a brisk wind where we found out Merle's tent harbored secret ambitions of being a kite. Fortunately, the wind died down when the sun set and I'm happy to report all tents remained earthbound.  

Day 2
Pretty face
Day 2 was, in my view, the best day out of the trip.  The trail was built for speed, being amazingly level and wonderfully shaded for the majority of the miles. The forests were remarkably lush for the generally more arid Siskiyous as small creeks ran across the trail feeding a verdant undergrowth of ferns, moss, and poison oak.

Have a cup of farewell-to-spring
Occasional trail windows in the vegetation provided gorgeous views of the Rogue and we observed rafters bobbing by all day long. Just before Ditch Creek, there was a prolonged open grassland with a few fruit trees gone rogue, leading to speculation this area may have once been a homestead farm. Farewell-to-spring, elegant brodiaea, common yarrow, and common clarkia were all abloom in the dry grasses.

The Rogue River Ranch, now a museum

We enjoyed a lengthy lunch at Ditch Creek and resumed hiking, passing many more creeks on the way before looking down on the manicured lawns of the historic Rogue River Ranch. The ranch was our intended campsite but we reconsidered when we observed the multitude of noisy rafters camping there. So we continued on past the ranch, winding up on the Marial road before cutting across a meadow to the confluence of Mule Creek and the Rogue River.

Mule Creek

Our campsite gets my nomination for Best Campsite Ever. Mule Creek was a pristine clear creek babbling over the rocky bar and we all waded in and refreshed ourselves. The Rogue coursed by deep and fast, just yards away from our tents. The only other people around were a couple who got very excited when they espied a bear going for a swim after standing on a nearby rock. John was the only member who did not pack a bear vault and his voice rose a few octaves when he heard the tale of the bear sighting. I think he laid awake all night, too, apprehensively waiting for the bear raid that never materialized.

Day 3
The Rogue disappears from sight at Mule Creek Canyon
I used to think that Mule Creek Canyon was the most spectacular point on the Rogue River Trail. The Rogue funnels into a narrow slot canyon surrounded by black jagged rocks while the trail becomes quite narrow, hugging the cliffs above the river. At the aptly named Inspiration Point, Stair Creek (also aptly named) drops into the Rogue in a series of cascades with each waterfall being spectacular enough in its own right. However, now that I've set foot on all 40 miles of the trail, I am now of the opinion that Mule Creek Canyon is just one of many spectacular sights on the trail.

Stair Creek and no rattlesnakes for us

Merle and I passed through the canyon without incident but all that rock just begs for a rattlesnake encounter. Several minutes behind us, John heard an angry buzz and found a rattlesnake wedged into a crevice at waist height. As I previously mentioned, the trail is narrow and precipitous: John and Lindsay had no choice but to tiptoe past, just a few feet away from the lethal fangs of the buzzing reptile.

Paradise Creek
After a brief sun-drenched walk above the river on a trail seriously encroached by waving green wands of poison oak wanting to spread their itchy madness on passing hikers, we arrived at Burns Creek. After Burns Creek, the trail went lush again and the poison oak was everywhere. A beautiful swimming hole tempted us at Paradise Creek but we continued on to Paradise Lodge, stepping over a king snake on the way.

Incredibly handsome guy with a beer
Paradise Lodge is heaven on earth to hot and sweaty hikers, sporting a cool bar with cold beer and hammocks on the shady patio overlooking the river. My comrades kept me plied with beer in what I believe was a surreptitious attempt to induce me to call off the hiking for the rest of the day.

Tendril on a wild grape
They failed, but I was feeling decidedly mellow as we continued on past the lodge on a trail that alternated between ferny forest and rocky cliff. The vegetation changed and seemed to be more coastal what with huckleberry and blackberry encroaching the trail along with the ubiquitous poison oak. At the 9 mile mark, we peeled off the trail and set up camp at Tacoma Camp.

Day 4

Day 4 was getaway day and was our shortest hiking day. The shortness belied the strenuousness of the trail though, as the trail had several big climbs up and away from the river for no apparent reason. More than likely, private property was to blame. And when we weren't mindlessly hiking uphill, the path was so rocky that the going was slow as we carefully picked our way through, no sense rolling an ankle on the last day. Oh, and yes, poison oak was everywhere.

Flora Dell Falls

After a couple of miles, we arrived at idyllic Flora Dell Falls, the cool misty breeze from the falls was most appreciated by hot hikers. After leaving the falls, I found myself uncharacteristically in front of the others when I heard a commotion upslope. It sounded simultaneously like a large animal tromping through the brush and the chuffing of a steam locomotive. Peering into the forest, I could not identify the source of the ruckus so when my comrades rounded the bend I held my finger to my lips and pointed uphill.

That's no Care Bear!

Judging by the widening of the eyes, the sudden loss of color, the emptying of bladders, and the general all-around excitement, it was obvious that they could see something interesting. I worked my way closer to where they were and there was a bear sow, warily keeping an eye on us and not running away. We speculated there were cubs nearby which would explain all the huffing and puffing (she was issuing a warning to us) and the hanging around. It's not every hike you get to see a bear, now how cool is that?

End of the trail
After passing Illahee Lodge, we walked through open farm pasture complete with a large bull before anticlimactically arriving at the trailhead. We waited about an hour observing eagles and buzzards floating over the farm in a big sky before Dollie arrived to take us home. This easily was one of the best hikes I've been on and I hated to see it end.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Summit Lake

Summit Lake. Two words that go together, conjuring visions of magnificence and beauty, just like "Siskiyou" and "Mountains"; and "Sonny" and "Cher".  Of course, "mud" and "puddle" go together as do "false" and "advertising". In short, there was no summit and the swamp atop Elliot Creek Ridge could in no way ever be mistaken for a lake. Not even after licking the sunscreen and repellent combo off my sweaty forearm. So why go there, then? Simple: because I had never been.

There were plenty of wildflowers on this hike
Starting on a gorgeous morning in the Applegate Lake area, Maggie The Hiking Dog and I set off into the woods on a pleasantly level trail underneath a cool maple canopy. After about 10 inches of hiking, the trail headed uphill and we never saw level again. And that was the story of the hike for the next 2.5 miles. There were some switchbacks but a switchback on a trail this steep is like taking one bite out of an habanero chile instead of two:  it's still painful, either way.
Steep is as steep does
However, despite the relentless grade of the trail, this was a very pleasant hike. Virtually all of the hike was in deep shade, the temperature was pleasantly cool. and the mosquitoes left me alone for the most part. There were all sorts of flowers to take pictures of while providing a utilitarian rest stop at the same time. Woodland phlox, Oregon grape, Indian paintbrush, Siskiyou iris, and wild strawberry were all in full bloom at different points on the trail.

Madrones provided plenty of shade
The saprophytic community of plants (those without chlorophyll) were well represented by spotted coralroot, striped coralroot, and one lone specimen of phantom orchid. Near the top, there were thick patches of lupine and Oregon tea tree, but no tea. The closest thing to tea was the brackish water of Summit Lake which matched both the color and temperature of warm tea.

Striped coralroot

Summit Lake is pitiful

As a destination, Summit Lake was a bust; especially after all the hard work climbing through the forest before topping out on a level jeep trail on Elliot Creek Ridge. All that anticipation of summity and lakey goodness resulted in one rueful "pffft!" from yours truly. My disappointment was offset by Maggie's exuberance as she threw herself into the water and leaped for joy (no exaggeration, she really did leap for joy) at the wonder of it all. I cannot get that dog into the bathtub at home without a stun gun and here she was, rolling doggie somersaults entirely of her own volition at the water's edge.

So after a brief lunch, we headed back down the trail, leg-braking all the way on the steep descent. The hike had been kind of shortish so we continued past the trailhead to Lower Squaw Lake. This was a real lake, unlike Summit Lake, and we followed the crude road alongside the scenic lake to the far end. There was more canine frolicking in the reeds while I took pictures. 

Lower Squaw Lake is a real lake

The road less traveled
Sometimes, a hike will be all about the journey and not the destination. It was so with this hike and we both enjoyed the trip despite the underwhelming mud puddle "reward" waiting at the top of all the uphill hiking.