A short drive away, Squaw Lakes is a hidden winter jewel

It's a-60 minute drive to get there, but it feels a world away
Trees reflected in Little Squaw Lake.Courtesy Carlyle Stout

One of the open secrets of the Applegate Valley is Squaw Lakes. They are remote, but still close enough that in summer, locals throng their waters to camp, swim and hike. In winter, however, the crowds are gone and they become a secret again.

In late January, Barb and I did a five-mile loop around both lakes on an unseasonably sunny, warm, winter day with blue skies and no wind. The lighting, colors and reflections on the lakes were spectacular, a phenomenon that maybe happens once or twice in winter.

To get there, take Highway 238 to Ruch, turn left toward Applegate Lake at the junction, go 14 miles to the dam, then left across the dam to Forest Service Road 1075 and follow it nine miles to the parking area. A short hike from the parking area, 50-acre Big Squaw Lake lies nestled within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The water surface was a looking-glass, reflecting the majesty of an azure sky and a green forest of conifers. We walked counterclockwise around the lake, crossed a bridge spanning Squaw Creek and spied a small raft of mallards floating across a shimmering palette of pastel colors. The lighting and colors on the water were stunning — silver, pink, green, yellow, olive and orange. It was mesmerizing.

We encountered only five other hikers and two campers the entire day. There are 17 campsites around the lake, and you can reserve them in advance. All the sites are walk-in only, so there are no vehicles. To make reservations, go online to www.applegatelake.com and click on "reservations."

The real jewel here is Little Squaw Lake; it is absolutely breathtaking. At only 12 acres, it feels both intimate and wild. We followed a trail along Squaw Creek from Big Squaw Lake to Little Squaw Lake, and upon arriving were surprised and delighted to have the lake all to ourselves. It was late January, but the weather seemed like early April. We emerged from the creek, crossed a frozen meadow and were rewarded with a magnificent vista: a cobalt-blue lake ringed by bare, deciduous trees that were surrounded by a forest of Douglas firs. The entire panorama was reflected like a mirror on the lake. The reflections on the water were movements from a symphony, repeating and flowing from one to another. A copse of red alder was transformed into a Monet painting by the lake's surface.

Winter reveals a sublime beauty in the tree branches that is hidden in the other seasons. Each species of tree has its own unique color that glows in the winter sunlight with subtle hues, especially in the crown, of red, orange, yellow, pink, silver and purple; it is an exquisite spectacle to behold. At the far end of the meadow was a picnic table, and we stopped there for lunch, spending most of our time, gazing at the surreal reflections and colors of the trees. A sheet of ice held steadfast on the north side of the lake, but in the seam, we saw several fish rising, causing ripples in still water, silently expanding across the lake. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures circled lazily overhead, riding thermals while scanning for prey.

Squaw Lakes is only 60 minutes from our doorstep, but it is a world apart. Another wonder in the State of Jefferson.

Carlyle Stout lives in Ashland.

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