Seeking to escape the smoke early last month, our small group, led by Bill Van Moorhem, hiked into the Mountain Lakes Wilderness by its least-used route, the Mountain Lakes Trail that begins near the Highway 140-Dead Indian Memorial Highway junction near Lake of the Woods.

The trail, which follows the Seldom Creek drainage before climbing through a mountain hemlock/subalpine forest, sees far fewer users than the vastly more popular Varney Creek and Clover Creek trails.

Varney Creek, Mountain Lake's most used trailhead, accesses several lakes — Eb and Zeb, Como and Harriette, the wilderness area's largest, most beautiful lake. In contrast, because the Mountain Lakes Trail is the longest to the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail and doesn't directly lead to lakes, it's relatively little used.

Because of its location and the appeal of larger wilderness areas that include portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, including Sky Lakes Wilderness, the Mountain Lakes Wilderness is often overlooked. Likewise, few know of its claims to fame. Along with being one of the original wildernesses created in 1964, it's the nation's only square wilderness, with its borders forming a 6-by-6-mile, 36-square-mile township.

It's also unusual because the story of how the lake basin was formed has changed. Until recent years, it was believed Mountain Lakes was the remnant of a 12,000-foot mountain that, like Crater Lake, erupted and transformed into a caldera, leaving behind eight prominent peaks and 20 mostly small lakes. But geologists have revised their theories, now saying the area was a cluster of four overlapping shield volcanoes shaped by Ice Age glaciers that carved lakes along cirque bottoms.

The Mountain Lakes Trail follows one of those basins, gradually climbing alongside Seldom Creek to a bridge crossing where it soon leaves the stream and mostly travels through a shady forest. There's also a section where the trail leaves the trees and wanders along a meadow before returning to its forested route.

According to Forest Service maps, it's 5.1 miles and an elevation gain of more than 2,000 feet from the trailhead we used (or 6.5 miles from the Rainbow Bay trailhead by Lake of the Woods) to the junction with the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail, an elevation of 7,400 feet. I've made the hike to and around the loop trail other times, but this day we chose a shorter outing.

About three miles from the trailhead, we followed an unsigned, undeveloped side trail a short distance to Lake Waban. At the shallow lake we spotted elk and deer tracks and dodged zillions of teeny hippety-hoppety frogs along the muddy lake shore, then munched lunch on logs with views of nearby Graylock Mountain.

Although it's off the trail, Lake Waban looked too tempting to be ignored. Sure enough, our explorations revealed several campsites, three hidden in the trees and, even better, a single, freshly used site with a fire ring, stumps for sitting on, unused split firewood and a grand lake view.

It was early afternoon, we were in no hurry to return, and our maps showed a series of lakes farther off the trail. So, using his GPS unit, Bill led the way cross-country about a half-mile to a deep blue, more enticing unnamed lake, one actively dimpled with feeding fish. Just as some of us were ready to jump in for a cooling swim, we instead followed Bill, our GPS Pied Piper, over a short rise to Weston Lake, a larger, shallower but less suited for swimming lake. Its muddy shore was riddled with animal tracks, including bear tracks.

Back on the Mountain Lakes Trail, the mostly downhill hike back to the trailhead passed quickly. With our off-trail detours, various personal units indicated we had extended our hike, originally planned as a 6-mile round-trip to Lake Waban, to about 8 miles.

Studying the map, Bill noticed another off-the-trail lake, Avalanche, farther up and farther off the Mountain Lakes Trail.

Hmmm ... Maybe next time.

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.