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No snow makes Marble Mountains accessible early

The iconic backcountry wilderness hike to Marble Valley is a bucket-list destination that attracts nature lovers from far and wide. I’ve arrived during summer months to find dozens of rigs at the trailhead parking lot and stiff competition for prime camping spots. Never did I think I would hike the 16-mile loop up Red Rock Valley, follow the Pacific Crest Trail north through Little Marble and Marble Valleys, and descend down Canyon Creek without seeing another soul on the trail.

Normally in mid-March much of the Marble Loop should be under several feet of snow, but with climate change and drought, who knows what normal is anymore? Two buddies of mine and my trusty trail dog decided to see if the mountain snowpack was so depleted that an early spring marathon march to the wilderness area’s most iconic geological formations was possible.

After a toasty Friday night campfire at the Lover’s Camp trailhead, we hit the trail on a misty Saturday morning wondering how much of the long route would be snow-free and how much post-holing through snowdrifts awaited us. A mile in we reached the wilderness boundary and forded Red Rock Creek. The easy ford provided a hint that there wasn’t going to be much in the way of snow recharging the watershed this year.

The north-south ridge system that the Pacific Crest Trail follows through the Marble highlands is like no place else in the world. Over millions of years of geological history, the limestone and peridotite have been subject to heat and pressure resulting in metamorphic marble and serpentine formations that dazzle the eye. A vibrant fire history has contributed greatly to the renowned biological diversity of these mountains in the very heart of Klamath country. It is a special place that defies easy description.

After dropping down into Little Marble Valley and skirting the Marble Rim into Marble Valley, the loop trail descends through Sky High Valley and along Canyon Creek for miles, eventually leading back to the Lover’s Camp trailhead. It's an ambitious day hike any time of the year, and one that deserves to be done over several days to allow for side trips to the networks of lakes, meadows and mountain tops that call for exploration and offer the best kind of backcountry adventure.

If our much-needed winter mountain snowpack is really a thing of the past, it’s a bittersweet pleasure to remedy cabin fever with a long, rewarding early spring hike into the Marble wildlands. Maybe March is the new May.

Getting there: Unlike many regional mountain hikes, the much-visited Lover’s Camp trailhead is easy to find, and the road is paved all the way there. Take Interstate 5 to the southernmost Yreka exit, which is signed for CA-3 and Fort Jones. Follow highway CA-3 to Fort Jones. In Fort Jones hang a right onto Scott River Road in between Ray’s Market and the Forest Service Office. Follow this road to the Forest Service boundary and keep an eye out for a large sign directing you to the Indian Scotty Campground and uphill toward the Lovers’ Camp trailhead.

George Sexton serves as conservation director for KS Wild.

Zola appears tiny against the big trees on the trail to Red Rock Valley.
Black Marble Mountain in the Marble Mountains Wilderness. Photo courtesy of George Sexton