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Pilot Rock hike offers a geology lesson

Pilot Rock is one the Rogue Valley's most recognizable landmarks and one of the easiest to reach. The trail to this iconic basalt outcropping is less than a mile-and-a-half long and offers a diversity of stunning views and a lesson on regional geology.

Rising 570 feet above the surrounding landscape near Siskiyou Summit, Pilot Rock has long served as a navigational aid for travelers, be they the Takelma tribe — who referred to it as Tan-ts'at-seniphtha (stone standing up) — or early European explorers, who named it Emmons Peak after the leader of their 1841 expedition.

To reach the trailhead, consider a high-clearance vehicle because of the rocky access road.

Follow I-5 south to the Mt. Ashland exit at milepost 6. Follow Route 99 south for approximately 2.4 miles. Turn left at the BLM sign that reads "Pilot Rock Road 40-2E-33.0."

Stay left at the first intersection and turn right at the second intersection. After a total of 2.1 miles on this bumpy road, you'll reach a former quarry that now serves as the trailhead parking lot, elevation 4,909 feet.

As you step from your vehicle, look at your feet. You'll notice two main rock types, both volcanic in origin. The light, white rocks are tuff, formed from the debris flowing down the sides of a former volcano. Look closely and you'll see black specks. These are fragments of wood, indicating that this was a hot debris flow that incinerated wood and brush in its path.

The other rock type is basalt: dark red or brown and lighter on the inside. The darker coating is due to the oxidation of iron, a form of rust.

The tuff is lighter, in part, because it lacks iron. Basalt is formed from flowing molten rock rather than from a debris flow.

At the far end of the parking lot is the trailhead sign. Make sure you notice the nearby boulders the BLM has used to block vehicles from entering this old road to Pilot Rock. The boulder on the right has large black streaks embedded in it. Look closely and you'll see that these streaks are burnt, fossilized wood.

Hike on the old road for about three-quarters of a mile until you see a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail. Pilot Rock stands at the intersection of three important regions: the Cascades to the north, the Siskiyous to the south and west, and the Great Basin to the east. You'll find traces of all three in the trees along this trail, from Douglas fir to Ponderosa pine and incense cedar to juniper. This section of the trail is an easy hike, gaining about 200 feet in elevation.

The Pilot Rock trail follows the PCT for about 300 yards. To give your knees a break, this is a good time to get out your hiking poles.

At the next junction, follow the BLM sign for Pilot Rock. The trail now climbs quite steeply.

Less than a half-mile remains to the base of Pilot Rock, the last part of it a scramble through scree. In the next year, the BLM is scheduled to reroute this portion of the trail through the nearby forest where the footing is easier.

From the base of Pilot Rock on a clear day you can see Mount Shasta, Mount Ashland and the northern slopes of the Bear Creek valley.

It will require upper body strength, agility and a bit of bouldering to reach the 5,908-foot summit of Pilot Rock, but the views are well worth it. The hike ends at a long crack in the columnar-jointed basalt, and the crack is the easiest route to the top.

Several established technical climbing routes exist on the Rock, but if you're going to rope up, be advised that it is illegal to establish permanent anchor points.

The meadow below the summit to the southwest offers a great place for lunch and a different view of the summit. To reach the meadow on your return trip, turn left after a quarter-mile at an old gate.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

This boulder at the Pilot Rock trailhead contains large black streaks of burnt, fossilized wood. - Courtesy of Daniel Newberry