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Marble Mountains paradise

Autumn's chill may be in the air, but if you're still hankering for a taste of paradise before winter, you can find it in a short hike into Northern California's Marble Mountain Wilderness.

A steep but short trail will take you to 5-acre Paradise Lake in the shadow of 7,405-foot Kings Castle mountain.

Although only two miles long, the ascent - an elevation gain of 1,100 feet to the 6,200-foot level - is arduous during hot summer days. But in the cooler air of early autumn, it is more easily manageable, and you may have the jade-green lake all to yourself in the bargain.

Kings Castle, which hovers as a scenic backdrop to the lake's clear waters, used to be called Marble Mountain, giving its name to the wilderness in which it resides.

Later the peak was renamed to avoid confusion with Marble Valley and Black Marble Mountain - two other wilderness landmarks.

For hikers familiar with the Sierra Nevada to the south, the Marble Mountain Wilderness Area will feel like familiar ground, even if the peaks are less soaring, with the highest, Boulder Peak, topping out at 8,299 feet.

The wilderness, part of the larger Klamath Mountains, boasts rock going back to the Mesozoic Era 200 million years ago.

The range is dominated by granite, giving it a light gray tone much like the rock in the High Sierra. But the Marbles also include an assortment of other rock types, notably serpentine, a granitic rock lacking calcium and rich in heavy metals, which also is abundant in the Siskiyous to the north.

If you haven't been to the Marble Mountains before, Paradise Lake is a good introduction. The trail to the lake is described in two Art Bernstein books, "Hikes of the Marble Mountain and Russian Wilderness Areas, California" and "90 Best Day-Hikes."

To get to the trailhead, take I-5 south to Yreka and turn onto Highway 3. Drive to the town of Fort Jones, then turn right onto Scott River Road and follow it to Indian Scotty Bridge. Cross the bridge and follow Canyon Creek Road (Road 44N45) past the Lovers Camp turnoff toward the trailhead. A quarter mile before reaching it, the road crosses the south fork of Kelsey Creek.

If the water seems forbiddingly high, you may prefer to park there. The trail consists of a series of steep switchbacks winding through trees, but opens up gradually as you climb, with the lake basin appearing suddenly near the end of a long upward curve.

The area around the lake is primarily meadow, with occasional patches of mountain hemlock and Shasta red fir. The lake is green and shallow, but goes as deep as 15 feet near a low rock face at the end of a long green incline. If you feel ambitious after cooling your feet in its water, you can scramble up to the top of Kings Castle.

For an even longer hike, backtrack to where the trail intersects the Pacific Crest Trail just below the basin. A walk of about five miles along the PCT will take you into the Marble Valley and a more extensive view of the 227,000-acre wilderness.