If the hike up Pearsoll Peak doesn't take your breath away, the view certainly will.
Located on the Chetco Rim, the reconstructed Pearsoll Peak Lookout offers incomparable views of the Illinois and Chetco watersheds. For those of us who love wild rivers, that's like being able to view a Van Gogh and a Renoir painting from the same easy chair — it's hard to know where to rest your eyes.
And rest is the operative word.
After the rugged and steep terrain of the Chetco Rim, the creature comforts and spectacular vistas of the Pearsoll Peak Lookout invite restful contemplation.
May is my favorite month to visit the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The wildflowers are blooming, the creeks and rivers are full, and the higher peaks still enjoy a mantle of snow. However, May of 2011 was no ordinary May. By the end of the month we'd experienced record spring rain — record cold rain to be more exact. So my preferred route to Pearsoll Peak, which involves driving to the Onion Camp/Whetstone Butte trailhead near Babyfoot Lake, was inaccessible due to snow. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The alternate route to Pearsoll Peak is the old 087 mining road out of McCaleb Ranch on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River. This is a great starting spot for a wilderness adventure. The wildflowers, the hanging footbridge and the swirling eddies of the Illinois are like a friendly pat-on-the back before the thousands of feet of elevation gain to the Chetco Pass and then up to Pearsoll Peak proper.
Most folks choose to wait until the summer season and drive this steep, dangerous, crumbling road up to the Chetco Pass. I suggest using your legs instead, taking it slow and enjoying the cold springs, wildflowers and views that reward those willing to backpack.
The 087 road has a wet-weather seasonal closure to motorized use to protect Port Orford Cedar trees from an invasive root disease called phytophthora lateralis. While the closure helps reduce the spread of the disease, it hasn't stopped it. While the gate was closed and locked for the wet season, we still observed recent motorcycle and quad tracks going up to Chetco Pass and beyond.
After the steep, five-mile hike up the mining road, my buddies and I set up camp near a Chetco Pass water source with the idea of starting a campfire and watching the weather roll up and down the Chetco River watershed. We didn't witness the famed "Chetco effect," whereby the dry air of the inland mountains is funneled down the Chetco River Canyon all the way to Brookings, creating its own thermal extremes. But we did experience driving rain, hail, sunbreaks, rainbows and celestial columns of light. And we woke up under two inches of snow. John Muir would have loved it.
The hike to the summit of Pearsoll Peak is wild and rugged. Part of the ruggedness comes from the effects of the 2002 Biscuit fire. While some of the Kalmiopsis trailheads (such as Babyfoot and Briggs Creek) were clearcut after the fire, the post-fire forests along the Pearsoll Peak route have been left to recover on their own. The result is starkly beautiful. One can view thousands of snags providing habitat for cavity-nesting birds, anchoring new vegetation and eventually falling down to contribute nutrients and stability to steep mountain slopes. It is amazing to walk through a living laboratory of the process of fire and rebirth that has shaped these forests for millennia.
The lookout atop Pearsoll Peak sure isn't a 5-star hotel, but there isn't a hotel in the world that boasts such a view. One can see vast stretches of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, including a maze of mountains and pristine watersheds.
Our morning climb to the lookout was challenging to say the least. Deep snow shoots blocked much of the trail that switchbacks up the final several hundred feet to the summit. We climbed and scrambled up the steep, crumbling west face of the peak and up into a cloud that rested on the summit. While the cloud obscured much of the 360-degree panorama, it would mysteriously lift and swirl to reveal a mountain here, a canyon there or glimpses of an entire untouched watershed. It was stunning. It was spectacular. It was unforgettable.
Like many of my friends, I've driven my F-250 up the long, steep, bumpy mining road to Chetco Pass and reached the summit after an easy, hour-long stroll from the end of the road. But Pearsoll Peak and the Kalmiopsis don't have to be a drive-by wilderness experience. I liked the feeling of walking on my own two legs, bad knees and all, to a view I had to earn. The view was sweeter. My coffee tasted better. And the long march down the mountain was a celebration rather than a gear-grinding chore.
From here on out I'm leaving my rig at the bottom of the hill.
George Sexton lives in Ashland.