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High mountain waterfalls and giant trees on Red Blanket Trail

Late last summer a cluster of lightning strikes ignited a series of blazes in and around the Sky Lakes Wilderness that burned about 21,000 acres. One of the fires in that complex burned across the Red Blanket Trail, a high-mountain path that skirts the border between Crater Lake National Park and the Sky Lakes.

While those fires fouled Rogue Valley air for weeks, the effects on the Red Blanket Trail between the trailhead and Stuart Falls appear to have been minimal, clearing out the underbrush and leaving the giants of the old-growth forest largely intact.

The trailhead begins at roughly 3,900 feet about 60 miles east of Medford. To get there, take Highway 62 for 45 miles and turn right at Prospect. Drive through town and turn left just past the Prospect Hotel onto Butte Falls Road. In another mile turn left onto Red Blanket Road, then in less than a mile fork left onto the gravel of Road 6205. Stay straight for 11.5 miles and you'll dead-end into a parking area. For the last couple miles of the drive you'll see evidence of the burn, but the trailhead and parking area are essentially unscathed.

To reach Stuart Falls, which is at 5,450 feet elevation, you'll climb about 1,500 feet over 4.5 miles. Most of your ascent comes in the first two miles, but the switchbacks are humane and the climb is comfortable in the mostly shady forest.

Through these first miles you'll see evidence of the burn, with scorched trunks and thick deposits of ash in places, but already the wildflowers and understory are pushing through, and in late May morel mushrooms were thick along the trail and on the forest floor. At that time snow still blanketed the upper parts of the trail, which allowed a bear and cougar to leave evidence of their recent passage.

Once the trail levels out, you'll be on a edge of a canyon where you'll be able to hear the rush of numerous waterfalls. At this point you've left most of the burn area behind and the underbrush becomes thick again.

About three miles along you'll catch a glimpse through the trees of Red Blanket Falls as it cascades into the canyon below. You won't be able to get close enough to the falls to feel its spray without rappelling gear. But follow the trail as it skirts left for another 1.4 miles and you'll reach Stuart Falls, where you can get close enough to feel the temperature change and eat your lunch with the sound of water aiding your digestion.

You'll need to ford several small creeks on the hike. And about a half-mile before Stuart Falls you'll probably need to scamper across a large tree that bridges a creek that was flowing a little too fiercely to wade last month.

The mosquitoes are already sharpening their annoying little pokers up in the Sky Lakes, so a little Deet — or maybe a lot of Deet — would be a smart addition to your daypack.

For more information, see William Sullivan's "100 Hikes in Southern Oregon." You can pick up maps of the Prospect Ranger District and Sky Lakes Wilderness at the National Forest Ranger Station in Prospect or at the BLM-Forest Service headquarters at 3040 Biddle Road in Medford.

Reach Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski at 776-8784 or dsmigelski@mailtribune.com.