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Sky Lakes Wilderness: Cold Springs Trail

There are many ways into the Sky Lakes Wilderness, but none easier than the trail that starts at Cold Springs.

It's less than three mostly flat miles from the trailhead to the Sky Lakes Basin - one of the most popular destinations in the entire 113,000-acre wilderness area.

That's a good thing and a bad thing: People gravitate to easy trails. You should expect company if you use this route, especially over the weekends between now and mid-September.

All those feet take their toll on the landscape, too. The trail is wide, and as summer drags on, increasingly dusty. Late summer is prime time for Sky Lakes.

The clouds of mosquitoes that arrive in spring have dwindled to tolerable numbers, and the mile-high air is delicious when the valley sizzles under 100-degree heat. And of course there are the lakes - cool and clear and especially inviting after you've walked three miles on a summer day.

To get there, take Highway 140 east from Medford to Lake of the Woods. Continue over the Cascade summit toward Klamath Falls. Near milepost 41 turn left on Forest Road 3651, where you should see signs for the Cold Springs trailhead.

The road winds north on the margins of Pelican Butte, where plans to build a new downhill ski area foundered over environmental-protection issues such as eagle habitat.

Ten dusty miles up the road there's a campground with a piped spring that gives the area its name. Horses are allowed here, but mechanized equipment, including bicycles, is prohibited. The trail takes off through stands of Shasta red fir that are large (four feet in diameter) by modern standards.

The wildflowers are mostly played out by this time of year, but you may well find ripe huckleberries to help cut the dust on the back of your throat. After about .6 miles, the trail forks. The right fork, the South Rock Creek trail, reaches the lakes a little sooner, at the narrow neck of land between the Heavenly Twin Lakes.

The little isthmus provides the best panoramic view in this part of the wilderness. Looking north you'll see Devil's Peak at the opposite end of the wilderness area, just south of Crater Lake National Park.

The isthmus is a good place to decide the rest of the day's agenda. You could simply retrace your steps for a 4.8-mile loop, or you could continue west to make a 6.9-mile loop via the Cold Springs trail.

You can veer briefly off the loop to visit two more lakes, Notasha and Elizabeth. If you want the full Sky Lakes Basin experience, you'll have to add a 1.8-mile loop trail that passes Lake Isherwood and Lake Florence as well as Lake Elizabeth and Lake Notasha.

Adding this little loop turns the day into 8.7 miles - more than enough for many occasional hikers. If you want to minimize your encounters with other hikers, consider postponing your trip until after Labor Day or visiting during midweek. If you can wait until after the first fall rain settles the dust, or until late September, better yet.

Just remember that this is also popular hunting country, and deer season starts Oct. 1.