Mount McLoughlin dominates the skyline over most of the Rogue Valley, rising to a height of 9,495 feet. It's no wonder so many people are drawn to its summit.
Oregon Outdoors sent a team to climb the mountain Aug. 11 as part of preparations for the Mail Tribune's new online Mount McLoughlin guide, and it became clear to us why so many hikers have difficulty finding the trail, especially on the way down.
For an online guide to climbing Mount McLoughlin, including an interactive trail map, more photos from our climb, a digital flyover of the trail and a downloadable set of tracks and waypoints for GPS devices, visit www.mailtribune.com/mcloughlin.
IF YOU GO
Allow one hour in good weather to drive from downtown Medford to the Mount McLoughlin trailhead. Take Crater Lake Highway (Route 62) north. Turn east on Highway 140. Continue for about 35 miles, then turn left on the graveled Forest Service Road 3661. After three miles, turn left on road 3560. The trailhead parking is on your right. You'll need a parking permit, available from any U.S. Forest Service office: $5 for one day, $30 for the year.
Remember to bring plenty of water, food, a hat, extra clothing, a map and a flashlight. Apply sun screen. Bring a first-aid kit and know how to use it. Although many people wear running shoes, hiking boots will give your feet more support on the many boulders you'll encounter. The Forest Service's recommended climbing season is late May to October, depending on weather conditions. For more information, call the Klamath Ranger District office at 541-885-3400.
While the summit is an unmistakable destination from below, vast boulder fields dotted with stunted whitebark pines look the same from above. Many people create their own trail markers — some pointing in the wrong directions — which adds to the confusion. And the U.S. Forest Service, in an effort to keep the wilderness experience relatively pristine, refuses to erect trail markers.
Every year search and rescue teams receive 15 to 20 lost hiker calls from McLoughlin. Some 90 percent have chosen to descend through a vast, open scree field east of the trail, thinking they will walk back along a contour and eventually intersect the trail.
"Most of the time we get the call on the cell phone from the victim. We can often talk them down. People tell me what they can see, and I can usually give them a landmark, and they do a 'self-rescue' " says Shawn Richards, search and rescue coordinator for the Klamath County Sheriff's office.
In his 13 years on the job, Richards says that all lost hikers have been found. Alive.
All but the first quarter mile or so of the Mount McLoughlin trail is in the Sky Lakes Wilderness. There's a climber's register at the wilderness boundary, though most people ignore it.
"Only about one in six groups registers. It makes it difficult to estimate the number of people who hike this trail, and funding for maintaining the trail may depend, in part, on those numbers," says Jackie Holm, a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service who guided the Oregon Outdoors team to the summit.
The Forest Service uses a hidden monitoring device during parts of the year to estimate these numbers, which leads Holm to believe that as many as 10,000 people a year climb McLoughlin, more than 100 per day on summer weekends. With so many people, the wilderness experience can be diminished. For this reason, federal law prohibits groups of more than 12 from traveling together in an established wilderness.
Our team, which included freelance photographer Andy Atkinson, Daily Tidings online editor Andrew Eckerson and yours truly, was joined by Klamath Herald and News reporter Lee Juillerat. Over the course of our Wednesday hike we encountered 19 other people, most of them quiet. We discovered that sound travels very easily on this trail. A group behind us was blasting music, and whenever they closed to within a quarter-mile of us, we could hear them.
The drive to the trailhead from downtown Medford takes about one hour (see sidebar). Many trail guides describe the climb to the summit as covering 5.5 miles and 4,100 feet in elevation, but three GPS recordings made during our trip recorded distances from 4.5 to 4.7 miles.
The trail begins in a conifer forest dominated by Shasta red fir. After a mile or so, the trail joins the Pacific Crest Trail. You'll see a sign about 0.3 miles later where the trail splits. Take the left fork for McLoughlin.
By the two-mile mark, the soft, dirt-covered trail steepens and gives way to boulders, rock outcroppings and packed dirt. The forest thins, and the trees become mostly mountain hemlock and whitebark pine. Expect the first half of the trip's mileage to take one third of your trail time to the summit.
Hiking through the boulders is circuitous and slow. The trail seems to follow multiple channels. We observed a series of colored flags tied to tree branches that weren't here a week earlier when Holm had last hiked the trail. Holm removed the flagging and flattened many of the new rock cairns along the way, probably left by hikers trying to mark the route.
Spray-painted arrows appeared on rocks in a haphazard manner. Many of these, Holm believes, are left by spring hikers who have difficulty following the trail in deep snowdrifts. Gray paint squares showed up on rocks, evidence of attempts to camouflage the wayward arrows.
"It's a challenge to regulate and manage the wilderness experience for multiple users," Holm says.
The Forest Service has struggled with balancing hikers' need for an untrammeled wilderness experience with a safe one that minimizes the number of lost hikers. To date, they have chosen a minimalist approach to trail marking, even above the treeline.
The most reliable and unobtrusive trail markers consist of a series of painted white dots on boulders, each about two inches in diameter. You'll notice them on the second half of the trail. Above the treeline, occasional lengths of telephone wire from the old summit fire tower on the ground are also an indicator that you're following the right trail.
The real trick to staying on track, however, is to look back frequently for landmarks you can relocate on your return trip. This is especially important above the treeline.
At the two-thirds point on the hike — time-wise — the trees disappear and you find yourself on a narrow ridge. This is a key point to identify on your remaining trip to the summit. To the east is a steep exposure of several thousand feet, with Four Mile Lake in the distance. To the west the boulder field continues, with a gentler sloping scree field beyond. Fish Lake can be seen to the southwest.
Stay on this ridge.
When we arrived at this point, we met Ashland hikers Allison French and Dan Lupes on their way down.
"It's pretty difficult from here to the summit. I'm glad I had taken rock climbing classes," said French, a teacher at Ashland High School.
Her point is important: climbing Mount McLoughlin is not for beginners.
Aerobic conditioning and skill in bouldering are key ingredients to a successful climb. Practice first on some easier climbs and the McLoughlin experience will be more enjoyable.
The view from the summit makes it obvious where the name "Sky Lake Wilderness" originates. Four Mile Lake, Fish Lake, Lake of the Woods and Upper Klamath Lake are all visible from the summit. To the north, you can see the rim of Crater Lake and Mount Scott. To the south is Mount Shasta.
Our group reached the summit in three and a half hours. Holm guesses that four and a half to six hours is typical for most hikers. Even though we might have been on the fast side, we were passed in a flash by Ashland ultramarathoner Erik Skaggs, who was attempting to establish a record for the fastest run to the summit. His time was one hour and five minutes.
Finding the way down is straightforward, but you must be disciplined.
Stay on the narrow, knife-edged ridge that took you to the summit, even though the footing is more difficult there than on the scree slope on your right (west). If you can see Four Mile Lake on your left (east), while you descend to the treeline, you'll be OK.
Don't forget to start early.
"You want to be summiting by 1 p.m. You'll get better views, you're not hiking uphill when it's the hottest time of day, and you'll avoid potential thunderstorms and lightning," Holm advises. "And always check the weather report before you start out."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org