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Lone Pilot Trail emerging in Soda Mountain Wilderness

Designated by Congress in 2009, the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area has a lot of history behind it. It's a kernel of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, a cornerstone of biodiversity and the scene of a crash between the ancient Siskiyous and the youthful Cascades.

And finding your way into the Soda can be tough.

You can thread around its northern boundary by way of the Pacific Crest Trail, or use the USGS 7.5-minute quadrangle Siskiyou Pass to find old roads that access the Soda's recesses.

Many of those roads haven't been touched in decades, leaving them full of logs and brush. But this summer, an 11.9-mile connection of those old roads is being converted into a modern hiking route called the Lone Pilot Trail. Via Hutton Creek, Slide Creek, Scotch Creek and Lone Pine Ridge, the trail connects with the PCT near Pilot Rock and Bean Cabin.

To reach the newly designated trail, hike south from the Pilot Rock Trailhead on the old road bed, pass the PCT and navigate correctly at a few unmarked junctions to reach the mainstem of Hutton Creek, which is about three miles from the trailhead and a good site for low-impact campers.

Between Hutton and Scotch Creek, there are a few more water sources, but the trail is currently brushed in and hard to pass in some sections. From Scotch Creek, ascend Lone Pine Ridge and connect back up with the PCT.

After rejoining the PCT, you can head west back toward Pilot Rock or head east toward Bean Cabin and a small parking lot at the end of Baldy Creek Road. When connected with the PCT, the route makes a moderately challenging 17-mile loop.

The Lone Pine Trail isn't currently signed, and some sections are not suitable for horses, mules or soft-soled hikers. But if you're a competent map reader looking for a challenge, seek this trail now and practice your land navigation skills at the junctions along the way.

"We wanted to create a challenging opportunity for people to head out and get away from the masses, to have a real wilderness experience," said Nick Schade, recreation planner for the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, about the Lone Pilot.

When wilderness areas becomes too crowded, they tend to lose their wild character and stop feeling like, well, wilderness. Providing solitude and primitive, unconfined recreation is part of Schade's mandate as set by the original 1964 Wilderness Act, and he believes the challenge is worth it.

"You get big views, and you travel down through tall, towering fir forests that haven't been cut before. Then you get into oak-chaparral communities, go in and out of juniper forests, through creek bottoms," Schade said. "The Lone Pilot Trail gives you a good taste of the monument and what is so special about it."

Other upcoming stewardship projects include partial and full decommissioning of roads in the wilderness area. Crews will be working on 23 miles of the Soda's 80-mile road system.

"We're removing culverts, putting banks back to natural slope, and allowing for water to flow so we prevent future blowouts and degradation to the streams," says Kathy Minor, acting assistant manager of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

The roads originally were built to facilitate fire-suppression tactics, but they haven't been open since at least 1995, Minor said. The process of returning areas to their natural state is known as "re-wilding."

Also planned in the Soda is a re-route of the Pilot Rock Trail, which will involve heavy rock work. Efforts on that should start in 2013.

Having a real wilderness just outside of town is great, especially in the heat of the hiking season when closer-in trails might feel like a zoo. And to a new generation uncertain about what public assets will still be around in the future, the Soda Mountain Wilderness is an enduring resource — and a treasure — that we can all count on.

If you're interested in seeing and taking care of the Soda, the BLM is hosting weekly volunteer work parties throughout July and August. Carpools meet at 8 a.m. every Thursday at the Shop'n Kart parking lot, 2268 Ashland St. Volunteers can expect to be back by 3 p.m.

Participants will work on trails, remove unneeded fences and improve habitat. Come prepared by wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirt, sturdy boots and bring at least 3 liters of water. Email Ian Tally at itally@blm.gov or call 541-618-2281 for more information.

Freelance writer Gabriel Howe is executive director and field coordinator for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at howegabe@gmail.com.

View of Soda Mountain Wilderness Area from Lone Pine Ridge. - Photos courtesy of Gabriel Howe