Our outdoors-loving visitors were surprised to hear that we don't spend more of our summers in the Sky Lakes Wilderness. It was calling to them from the map, just a short drive northeast of the Medford-Ashland area, straddling the southern Cascades roughly from Mount McLoughlin and Fourmile Lake in the south to Crater Lake National Park in the north.
What the map doesn't show is the Sky Lakes summer trifecta of crowds of hikers, horses and mosquitoes. That's summer construed as Memorial Day to Labor Day. But in terms of the weather, Southern Oregon summers are often something more like July to October.
By Labor Day, most of the crowds, most of the horses, and — crucially — most of the mosquitoes are gone. Which makes this prime time for answering the siren call of this 116,000-acre gem with its more than 200 bodies of water, courtesy of the retreating glaciers that blanketed the area in the last ice age.
The six-mile-wide wilderness stretches almost 30 miles north-to-south and can be entered from many points, especially on its east and west sides (pick up a map from the U.S. Forest Service). Our most recent hikes here until just the other day had been into the Blue Lake Basin northeast of Willow Lake, and on the trails around Fourmile Lake a little north of Highway 140.
But there are trails that pierce the wilderness from the east side of the Cascades that are surprisingly accessible to those of us on the west side. We did two of these as day hikes on two recent days.
Ambitious hikers with an early start could do both in a day, although most people with a long day at hand would probably choose to spend it hiking around one area, and not split the day up with a drive from one trailhead to another. Or better yet, backpack.
We weren't even thinking of the Sky Lakes Wilderness until lunch on a recent day, but we grabbed day packs, drove to the trailhead and hiked into the wilderness via the Nannie Creek trail. We spent the afternoon on the trail and still got home in time for a late dinner.
To get to the Nannie Creek trailhead, take Highway 140 toward Klamath Falls. Just past milepost 43, turn left on Westside Road for 10 miles, then left on gravel Road 3484 for about 5 miles (bearing left at a fork) to the end of the road. Ours was the only car.
The trail gains elevation through a series of switchbacks in a pretty forest of Shasta red fir and mountain hemlock, two species found here in abundance. In just over a mile-and-a-half the trail levels off and heads gradually down a bit less than a mile to the first attraction here, Puck Lakes, which lie a short walk north of the trail.
There's no official sign, but a small rock cairn somebody has built marks the spot to turn right and find your way along the path to these shallow lakes. These aren't swimming lakes, more like waders.
But it's a good spot to have lunch or a snack. Be sure to check out the little, thumbnail-size Cascade toads hopping about. They sometimes pose for pictures, but they're so tiny you'll probably need a telephoto lens.
When you return to the trail you can get back to your car the way you came or continue west, where there are some great views in about a mile. In another mile the trail hits the Snow Lakes Trail, with access to Margurette, Trapper and other lakes. Most of the trails here intersect with other trails.
We returned to the wilderness a few days later via the Cold Springs Trail. Take Highway 140 to milepost 41 and turn left at the large Cold Springs Trailhead sign. Go north 10 miles, staying on the main gravel road until it ends at a rustic campground with parking, a toilet and an old shelter.
The destination here is a complex of glacial lakes, most notably Heavenly Twin Lakes and lakes Isherwood, Elizabeth and Notasha. The Cadillac of a trail winds through giant firs. In just over half a mile you'll come to a fork, with the Cold Springs Trail going left and the South Rock Creek Trail going right. Either way works for a loop back via the other. We went right.
You'll pass through lots of huckleberry bushes, but it's a bad year for them, and we found no berries to eat. In just under two miles you'll come to Heavenly Twin Lakes, which probably are not the inspiration for Townes Van Zandt's "Heavenly Houseboat Blues," because the lakes are too shallow for houseboats. They do, however, offer views of Devil's Peak and Luther Mountain.
From here you can continue west past Lake Notasha and eventually loop back to your car via the Cold Springs Trail, or continue north along the east side of the larger Heavenly Lake for about half a mile, where Isherwood Trail comes in on the left. Follow Isherwood less than a mile to the shore of the spectacular half-mile long lake of that name.
An option here, especially if you're backpacking, is to take the right fork (instead of the Isherwood trail to the left) and continue about two miles to Trapper Lake and the basin mentioned above.
Isherwood is eminently swimmable and even boasts diving rocks. We stretched out on sun-warmed rocks to immerse ourselves in the silence. But, of course, there's no such thing, even here. The breeze made cat's paws on the water. Waves lapped at the rocks. A white-breasted nuthatch called and a chipmunk chattered as the wind sighed in the treetops.
The trail continues another half-mile or so past Lake Elizabeth and Lake Notasha, where our friends who were spending a few days set up their tents. If you're backpacking, remember that you must camp at least 100 feet from the shore of any of these lakes.
Just past Notasha, at a junction, go right a quarter-mile or so until you hit the Cold Springs Trail. Go left about two-and-a-half miles back to the trailhead.
Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at email@example.com.