The 20,000-acre Red Buttes Wilderness is a showcase of what the Siskiyou Crest was like before Euro-American management. Giant fir, pine and cedar trees tower over layers of untouched forest filled with plant species that found refuge in these mountains while the rest of Oregon was ebbing and flowing with ice. Even the most amateur naturalist can easily observe the dependency and tension between life in this robust ecosystem.
This 6-mile, easy to moderate, round-trip hike is a wild alternative to nearby and overused destinations such as Squaw and Applegate lakes. Continuous access to water makes it a great option for people eager to get their feet wet in overnight backpacking, and it's reachable most of the year, too.
Download the 7.5-minute Kangaroo Mountain Quadrangle map from the Map Locator at http://store.usgs.gov. At the Star Ranger Station on Upper Applegate Road near Ruch, set your tripometer and continue southwest. At 12.1 miles, turn left and continue on Upper Applegate Road. Shortly after entering California, make a hairpin right on Forest Service Road 1050, which quickly merges into FSR 1040. At 13.8 miles on the tripometer, turn left on FSR 1035 and quickly pass over a bridge. The road ascends steeply; at 18.4 miles there is a corral and parking lot. The Shoofly trailhead is well marked on the road's south side.
The Shoofly Trail (No. 954) enters rich forest and switches back gracefully. It also enters the federally designated wilderness area, so be sure to observe all regulations. Within 10 minutes, notice how large the pine trees on this slope grow.
At .75 miles, you'll see a junction with trail No. 957. Head northwest, or right, where there are immediate views of and paths to the Butte Fork Applegate River. While the popular, lower regions of the Applegate River are largely developed and controlled, this fork is remote, clear, cold and wild.
At 1.25 miles, there are campsites on a bank high above the river. There are also sandy beaches and swimming holes for hikers eager to explore the water. Camping here would be a great option for new backpackers. Set up camp and keep heading upstream and slightly uphill on trail No. 957.
At 1.6 miles you'll hit Avalanche Gulch. In the wetter months this could be a knee-high reason to turn around; in late summer, it's a dry hop-scotch. Around here the prevalence of large-diameter, pre-European conifer trees increases. The speciation and diversity also increases.
At about 2 miles is an unnamed stream crossing which could be challenging depending on the season. Keep going.
Between 2.2 and 2.8 miles, under what must be some of the largest pine trees in the world, are populations of the rare snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea). This plant is unique in that it doesn't use chlorophyll. Instead, it derives nutrition from fungi associated with pine and fir trees. They can be seen in early spring months barely protruding from the ground, sometimes through light snow, before blooming into a knobby and symmetrical bright-red stalk.
At 2.8 miles, after passing more stands of gargantuan pines, you'll see a shed built by the Forest Service in the 1920s for trail tools. It is obvious that a lot of care and planning went into the building and ongoing maintenance of this main artery through the Red Buttes Wilderness. Maintenance past this point is dim to non-existent, though the trail is passable all the way to Azalea Lake by experienced hikers.
The relationships in this forest are dramatic and complex. On my return from this hike, as I walk by the fungus-loving snow plants and the giant pines that somehow support it all, I always feel like I'm reading a story. And the broken tree tops and fallen snags, saplings and spring flowers, all help set the scene. Given this ecosystem's adaptation to changing climate and preference for disturbance, this hike may be more of a soap opera than a story.
Freelance writer Gabe Howe lives in Ashland. He is founder and chair of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.