One can spend a lifetime rambling through the Cascade and Klamath mountain ranges and never see another peak that looks anything like Josephine Mountain.
Forming a long, orange/red divide between the rugged Rough & Ready watershed to the south and historic Josephine Creek to the north, the bizarre geology of the mountain is evident at first glance — but discovering its other secrets takes a little digging.
There is no easy way to the summit of this strange peak. One might be tempted to take the old mining road up Canyon Creek, but it will get you nowhere near the actual mountaintop. This historic route on the north side of Josephine Mountain was first established during the heady boom days of Oregon's gold-mining rush. Following the discovery of gold on Josephine Creek by Lloyd Rollins in 1851, mining camps sprang up along the Canyon Creek watershed on the north side of Josephine Peak, only to disappear when the boom went bust.
The fabled Josephine Mountain Trail that once led through the middle of these wildlands also has largely disappeared. Some of the trail was destroyed by mining dozer tracks out of the Rough & Ready Creek area, and other remote sections of it simply faded away over time. While the discerning eye can pick out faint trail grades and even the occasional trail marker or blaze, for all intents and purposes, most of the Josephine Mountain backcountry must be explored off-road and off-trail.
The southern end of the Josephine Mountain Trail follows a mining track uphill from Rough & Ready Creek in a long series of steep climbs and switchbacks, finally reaching a Mars-like ridge where the strange orange and red peridotite geology begins to dominate. Rare and hardy spring wildflowers provide a vivid contrast to the arid, stark landscape. From this remote ridge, one can hike to the little-visited Alberg cabin, which is perhaps the very last of the old mining cabins still standing in the greater Kalmiopsis area. The "Alberg Ridge" also accesses a refreshing headwater tributary to Josephine Creek surrounded by old-growth Port Orford Cedar, but it is still several miles and a great deal of elevation gain to the actual summit of Josephine Mountain.
The bizarre geology of the burnt-orange peridotite rock formations on the mountain shoulders defy easy description. As with much of the Siskiyou Range, Josephine Mountain rose up from the ocean floor largely due to plate tectonics. Unlike the rest of the serpentine geology of the region, Josephine also boasts an extremely rare metallic rock appropriately named "josephinite." The origins of josephinite are still the subject of some debate and plenty of weird theories. It has been argued that it came from outer space as a meteorite, but most geologists now believe that the unique mixture of nickel and iron is in fact an alloy pushed up from the deep interior of the earth by a "hotspot plume." Yet the exact origin of this strange, mineralized rock remains one of Josephine Mountain's more enduring secrets.
The best bet to actually reach the mountaintop is to come at it from the Babyfoot Lake trailhead to the north and hike in about 6 miles to the lovely Cold Springs campsite on the edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Cold Springs is inside the designated wilderness, but the Josephine Mountain summit is about two miles outside of the wilderness, in an Inventoried Roadless Area that is part of the Kalmiopsis Wildlands.
Cold Springs lives up to its name, which is a good thing because it is the only reliable water source for miles. The site also boasts a magnificent old-growth Douglas-fir forest that makes for very pleasant camping. I've heard of people trekking from Cold Springs over Josephine Mountain all the way down to Rough & Ready, but I sure wouldn't recommend it. Just reaching the summit with a daypack (containing plenty of water) from Cold Springs is a difficult endeavor that requires off-trail orienteering, good physical condition and route-finding skills. But it can be done.
The view from the 4,764-foot summit of Josephine Mountain offers unusual contradictions and ironies. One can contrast the verdant ranches and farms of the Illinois Valley with the steep canyons and recovering post-fire forests of the wild South Kalmiopsis. The rushing headwaters of Rough & Ready, Josephine and Canyon creeks appear very close as the crow flies but are nearly unreachable by foot because of the harsh terrain. It is a place like no other.
In his seminal book on the Klamath Mountains, "Hiking the Bigfoot Country," John Hart describes the appealing paradoxes and mysteries of Josephine Mountain as a unique "mixture of harshness and gentleness, hostility and beauty."
It is a potent mixture, to be sure, and to experience it firsthand is an unforgettable and special privilege. There simply is no other place like the strange and wonderful Josephine Mountain.
George Sexton is conservation director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.