From the 9,496-foot summit of Mount McLoughlin, the highest point in Southern Oregon, the Sky Lakes Wilderness spreads out like a collection of blue footprints in the forest below.
The more than 85 lakes in this wilderness area northeast of Medford come in sizes large and small, are nestled below sheer cliffs and in wildflower valleys, and together constitute the most popular area for backpacking in the southern Cascades.
Area: 116,300 acres
Established as wilderness: 1984
Forest designation: Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Winema National Forest
Information: High Cascades Ranger District, 541-560-3400
In a nutshell: This popular wilderness area for hiking, backpacking and fishing is home to three major lake basins and the largest mountain in Southern Oregon, Mount McLoughlin. The best time for exploring this area is late September and early October.
July and August bring the largest crowds to the Sky Lakes, but between the roving gangs of mosquitoes and sometimes boiling temperatures, this isn't always the most enjoyable time of year.
By the middle of September, however, the Sky Lakes hits its stride. The mosquitoes disappear as quickly as the crowds after Labor Day, and backpackers can wander through glacier-carved basins and across high mountain peaks in near solitude until, typically, mid-October.
Here are a few of the best options for exploring the Sky Lakes, including backpacking trips, day-hikes and even a climb up Mount McLoughlin. Directions to each trailhead are listed below.
For more detailed information on each hike, see "100 Hikes in Southern Oregon" by William L. Sullivan or "Hiking Oregon's Southern Cascades & Siskiyous" by Art Bernstein.
A 14-mile loop that climbs over Devil's Peak and down through the Seven Lakes Basin might well be the most scenic backpacking tour in the southern Cascades.
Beginning at the Seven Lakes Trailhead outside Butte Falls, the trail climbs 5.3 miles and 2,400 feet up a spectacular trail to Devil's Peak, where the lakes basin spreads out on one side and Upper Klamath Lake, Mount McLoughlin and the expanse of southeastern Oregon are visible on the other. There are a few nice tent spots near the summit that provide the chance to watch both the sunset and sunrise from your tent.
Beyond Devil's Peak, the trail drops into the Seven Lakes Basin itself. Cliff Lake is the highlight, sitting directly below two massive peaks, while the strange and pretty Alta Lake spreads out so long and skinny a person could be fooled into thinking it's a river.
Directions: From Medford, follow Highway 62 north for 15 miles to Butte Falls Highway and turn right. Follow the highway for 15 miles into Butte Falls. One mile outside of town, turn left at a pointer for Prospect Highway and follow it for nine miles. Turn right onto Lodgepole Road 34 for eight miles and continue straight onto FR 37. Finally, follow gravel road 3780 for four miles to a large and obvious trailhead parking area.
There are 13 clear blue pools in the namesake basin of the Sky Lakes Wilderness, which contains a lower and upper section.
From the Cold Springs Trailhead, the trail runs an easy 2.8 miles to the lower Sky Lakes Basin, home to a loop that takes you past eight forested lakes.
The best fishing can be found at Isherwood Lake, the basin's largest body of water.
Better scenery and more fishing opportunities can be found another 1.7 miles up the trail in the Upper Sky Lakes Basin. Trapper Lake and Margurette Lake sit below the sheer cliffs of Luther Mountain and make the prettiest places to set up camp for the night.
Directions: From Medford, drive east on Highway 140 to mile marker 43. Turn left at a pointer for Cold Springs Trailhead and follow it (Road 3651) for 10 miles to its end at a primitive campsite and trailhead.
The quietest and most peaceful of the three basins is filled with blue lakes and silver cliffs. It's also home to the Sky Lakes' best day-hike.
From the Blue Canyon Trailhead, the trail drops a gradual two miles to Blue Lake, a spectacular spot for an afternoon of lunch and fishing. Just 0.8 mile up the trail is Horseshoe Lake, another excellent option for fishing.
The drive to the trailhead is wonderful, as well, taking in views from every direction and including some of the best vistas of Mount McLoughlin. This is an excellent hike for kids.
Directions: From Medford, follow Highway 62 north for 15 miles to Butte Falls Highway and turn right. Follow the highway for 15 miles into Butte Falls. One mile outside of town, turn left at a pointer for Prospect Highway and follow it for nine miles. Turn right onto Lodgepole Road 34 for eight miles and continue straight onto Forest Road 37 for 5.3 miles of pavement and two miles of gravel. Finally, turn left on gravel road 3770 for five miles to a trailhead on your right.
Ascending to the highest point in Southern Oregon is not easy by any stretch, but the fact that it doesn't require any technical climbing and follows a fairly simple route to the summit makes this one of the more popular Cascade peaks for average climbers.
The hike is 11 miles round-trip with roughly 4,000 feet of climb, which means you'll want to be in good shape before giving it a try. The route climbs 4.1 miles up a well-established trail, the views getting better with each step, to a saddle at 8,200 feet. From here, the route gets steeper as it follows the ridgeline 1,200 feet to a summit that looks down upon the blue footprints of the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
Directions: Follow Highway 140 to mile marker 36. Turn left, following a Fourmile Lake pointer, onto Road 3661 before veering left onto 3650 and a large and well-established trailhead.
Zach Urness is a reporter for the Salem Statesman Journal.