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  • Packing in

    Tips for backpacking your way into the Southern Oregon backcountry — and beyond
  • Scott Keith has been backpacking the woods of Southern Oregon and Northern California for 30 years and he still sounds like a kid in a candy store.
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  • Scott Keith has been backpacking the woods of Southern Oregon and Northern California for 30 years and he still sounds like a kid in a candy store.
    "It's like a big circle," he says. "The Rogue Valley is the center. Within a couple hours or so you can get to the Marbles (mountain range) and the Klamaths and the Trinity Alps in California, the redwoods at the coast, the Cascades, some of the most beautiful rivers in the world ... You couldn't pick a better place."
    Just look at the map. The southern Cascades, a geographically young string of volcanoes, rise just east of the Bear Creek Valley. The wild Siskiyous lie to the west, the mysterious Klamaths to the south, and Crater Lake, Oregon's only national park, is to the north.
    With such an embarrassment of riches, especially if you're new to the area, or new to backpacking, how do you know where to even begin?
    "Talk to somebody who's been there before," Keith says. "Get a hands-on report."
    There's a good chance that such reports will lead you to one of the region's designated wilderness areas. The last remaining wild lands in the nation, these are defined as places of "primeval character" where you enter as "a visitor who does not remain."
    In other words, no dirt bikes, no ATVs, no snowmobiles. No restaurants or restrooms. No pizza delivery. But plenty of bears, snakes, bugs, weather.
    And the best thing about that would be?
    "It's gotta be the views," Keith says. "You get up on a ridge, or a peak, and you can see ridge beyond ridge beyond ridge off in the faint distance. If you get atop Mount Shasta, you can actually see the curvature of the Earth."
    Again, the map. This is a mountainous part of the planet. Each wilderness has its unique character, but most (although not all) are associated with high country. The Sky Lakes Wilderness stretches from Mount McLoughlin north to Crater Lake National Park. Nearby are the Mount Thielsen, Mountain Lakes and Rogue-Umpqua Divide wildernesses. The Mountain Lakes Wilderness lies to the east toward Klamath Falls, the Soda Mountain Wilderness just to the south of Ashland.
    The sprawling Kalmiopsis Wilderness is to the west, flanked by the Wild Rogue Wilderness to the north, and the Red Buttes and Siskiyou wildernesses to the south. Also south but nearby are the Marble Mountain, Russian and Trinity Alps wildernesses and the wilderness areas at Mount Shasta and Castle Crags.
    Each has its personality. The Sky Lakes Wilderness is known for its 200 lakes and its 200 gazillion mosquitoes. The Siskiyous are carved by wild rivers.
    The Soda Mountain Wilderness, in the heart of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, lies at the intersection of three distinct biological regions.
    Here, the fir forests of the Cascades meet the cedars of the Siskiyous and the sagebrush of the high desert in one of the most biologically diverse spots in the United States.
    If you're just starting out, Keith recommends a one- or two-night stay in a beautiful area with a short, well-marked trail.
    "You can head up to Mount Eddy," he says, "if you only want a short hike to a couple of beautiful lakes. Or hike into Sky Lakes on the Cold Springs Trail."
    At 9,025 feet, Mount Eddy is the highest peak in the Klamaths. When you see Mount Shasta on your left driving south on Interstate 5, Eddy is the big mountain to your right. The alpine lakes below Eddy are known for their seasonal profusion of wildflowers. It's an easy 6-mile hike (round trip) to Middle Lake from the Parks Creek Trailhead off Stewart Springs Road.
    If you're ambitious, you can add a rather strenuous hike up the mountain on a well-marked trail. This doubles the distance and adds almost 2,000 feet of climbing but rewards hikers with a knock-your-socks-off view of Mount Shasta from the summit.
    Expect lots of people in the summer.
    The mile-high, 113,000-acre Sky Lakes Wilderness is almost a glacier-created world of its own, with many ways in and out, and a network of trails that intersect here and there. Drive east on Highway 140 over the Cascade summit to milepost 41. Turn left on Forest Road 3651 and watch for signs for the Cold Springs trailhead.
    The hike is only about three miles to the Sky Lakes Basin. The area is so popular it may bring to mind an old Yogi Berra-ism: Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded. Actually, it's usually only crowded in August and September, when the legendary mosquitoes have died down somewhat.
    Of course, what constitutes a crowd is relative. In a wilderness of many thousands of acres, running into a dozen people in a day may feel crowded. But aside from uber-popular areas such as Mount Eddy and Sky Lakes, you're likely to have lots of elbow room.
    There's a demographic twist to thank for that. Backpacking surged when thousands of young people took to the wild in the wake of the turbulent '60s. But backpacking numbers haven't kept pace with the growing population since then, even though there's been a revolution in hi-tech, lightweight, user-friendly equipment.
    "I think the pendulum swings," Keith says. "The '70s was the heyday. In the '80s and '90s, I think people collected a lot of toys.
    "Now, a lot of people are starting to realize how many good places there are. But you can still come back from a backpacking vacation completely relaxed."
    Who backpacks today?
    "A whole cross-section," says Keith, who when he isn't out in the woods owns and runs the Northwest Outdoor Store next to the Medford Bi-Mart. "It's people out of college looking for adventure, older guys looking for rejuvenation. Tons of couples are going out together. Lots of the time a few buddies getting together."
    Keith estimates 40 percent of the backpackers he sees are women.
    In a welcome development for a hobby in which you essentially carry your home around on your back, gear has gotten much lighter over the years.
    "A 60-pound pack used to be the norm," Keith says. "Now it's 40. For ultra-lites and Pacific Crest Trail through hikers, it's 20."
    Keith advises desk jockeys not to suddenly throw 30 or 40 pounds on their backs and strike off into the mountains.
    "Take some day hikes," he says. "Hike Table Rocks with a pack on a couple times a week. Going up and down a mountain is different from a sidewalk."
    Keith says the list of common beginner mistakes includes carrying too much stuff, not getting an early-enough start to reach your destination with plenty of daylight left, and making camp too near lakes and streams. There are more mosquitoes near the water.
    Besides, today's backpacking etiquette calls for pitching tents away from trails and no nearer to the water than 200 feet.
    Outdoors-oriented stores stock excellent guidebooks to local trails by William Sullivan, Art Bernstein and others. Read the trail descriptions carefully, noting the details of use, seasonality, distances, restrictions, dangers and the like.
    Bring rain gear, water (and/or a good water filter), food, a knife, waterproof matches, fire starter (Vaseline-soaked cottonballs work well), a first-aid kit, flashlight, compass and map.
    A GPS is no substitute for a topographic map (available at ranger stations). Campfires are frowned upon — and illegal during summer fire season — as is taking dogs into the wilderness.
    Once you've gone all primeval, take only pictures, leave only footprints.
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