Southern Oregon plays host to some of the best hiking in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the hardest part of planning a hike is often choosing where to go. You'll want to consider the length and difficulty of the trail, its distance from home, and what you want to see —stunning mountain views from high altitude vistas, subalpine wildflowers, or birds and wildlife. If you want it all, consider a day trip to the Mt. Ashland section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), near Grouse Gap.
The famed PCT runs roughly 2,650 miles, from Campo, Mexico all the way to the Canadian border. At the half-way point, the trail winds right through our own backyard, the Siskiyou Mountains. One of the best places to access the trail is the Grouse Gap shelter, near the Mt. Ashland ski area. Just a few hundred yards from your vehicle is the PCT and some of the best hiking Southern Oregon has to offer.
Grouse Gap is a few miles south of Ashland. Traveling south on Interstate 5, take exit 6 and then follow the signs to the Mount Ashland Ski Area. Once past the ski area, you'll see signs for the Grouse Gap Shelter. A short gravel road leads you right to the parking area (stay to your left at the fork in the road).
From the parking area, walk back toward the gravel road and turn right (northbound) onto the trail. You'll find yourself in the first of three meadows, separated by shady stands of forest. This is the wilderness, so use common sense. Carry water, dress in layers and tell someone where you're going.
The first thing you'll set your eyes on is Mt. Shasta, a 14,000-foot, snow-capped, volcanic peak. While Mt. Shasta can be viewed from several locations in our area, the view from the PCT — at 6,000 feet — offers a brand-new perspective. Mt. Shasta stands as a jewel in a panorama that includes Mt. Thielsen, the Siskiyou Range and the valleys below. On a clear day, nothing can obscure one of the most spectacular views in Southern Oregon.
Competing for your attention in the summer months are enormous subalpine meadows bursting with wildflowers. There's no need to strain your eyes because the blooms completely surround you. Columbine, mountain gentians and Indian paintbrush abound, while enormous stalks of larkspur stand close to eye level. Just remember, at 6,000 feet elevation, spring arrives later than on the valley floor. The wildflower show starts in late June and ends in early September.
You won't be the only one appreciating the wildflowers. Hummingbirds, primarily Anna's and Rufous, flock to the gardens of Grouse Gap in droves to feed on the sweet nectar the blooms provide. With patience, you'll catch the tiny birds — among the most entertaining creatures of the natural world — feeding, fighting over turf, chasing bees and landing on nearby flowers. For the hard-core birder, warblers, grouse and goldfinches abound. You might even find woodpeckers and chickadees in the area's scattering of oak trees.
Another curious creature you might encounter is the long-distance hiker. Every year, hundreds of people set out to conquer the entire PCT, from Mexico to Canada, an arduous undertaking. Spending time on the PCT may give you the chance to cheer on courageous hikers. They may need it. Only half the hikers who set out to complete the PCT will conquer it. Consider yourself lucky. All you had to do was drive a few miles off Interstate 5 to arrive at this glorious spot, while they crossed scorching deserts and snowy, mountain passes to reach the same point.
One of the best features of this hike is that it caters to all skills and ability levels. The elevation changes are moderate in both directions. Plus, it's an "out and back" hike, which means you can turn around anywhere on the PCT and head back when you've had enough. Reward yourself with a picnic lunch so you'll have extra time to soak up the exceptional beauty around you.