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Going with the flow on Brown Mountain

”Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!"

— Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss had it right. There is fun to be done on Southern Oregon trails, including many in our backyard.

Fun can be done on the Brown Mountain lava flows, a section of the Pacific Crest Trail that begins from the Summit Sno-Park on Highway 140 between Klamath Falls and Medford.

I joined members of the Southern Oregon Happy Trails meet-up group for what was originally planned as a six-mile out-and-back. It transformed into a longer trek — 10 miles for some, up to 12 for others — but no one complained.

The place to go is a section of the PCT that wigwags around a series of lava flows that streamed down the flanks of Brown Mountain, an easily overlooked 7,311-foot mountain that's overshadowed, literally and figuratively, by neighboring Mount McLoughlin.

According to Stephen Harris, author of "Fire Mountains of the West," geologists estimate the mountain formed 12,000 and 60,000 years ago. After that, ice streams from Pleistocene-era glaciers eroded Brown Mountain's summit cinder cone, creating its indistinct bowl-shaped cirque.

An amazingly smooth path of red cinder cuts through a series of basalt fields. Trail builders somehow transformed a landscape of boulders and volcanic debris into a smooth, well defined route, one that is mostly used by northbound PCTers and, less often, by day hikers.

According to William Sullivan's seminal guide "100 Hikes in Southern Oregon," trail builders used dynamite to create the nicely graded trail that slices through otherwise impenetrable lava fields, making it possibly the most expensive section of the 2,400-mile-long PCT.

Our group originally envisioned the hike ending about 3 miles from the sno-park. But because the rock cairn described in Sullivan's guide never materialized, the lead hikers kept on, eventually halting for water and lunch after 5 to 6 miles — distances varied by various personal activity trackers and GPS units. Some about-faced after about 4 miles of one-way walking.

Along with the series of expansive lava flows, the trail crosses through forested sections, included stands of tall, old-growth Douglas fir. More impressively, the early miles also include dramatic views of pyramid-shaped McLoughlin, which seems to pop out from clearings like a monolithic giant.

The most dangerous aspect of the hike is crossing Highway 140, a road teeming with swift-moving vehicles. And, ironically, a surprise delight appears on the quarter-mile walk from the parking lot to the highway: the vociferously tumbling waters of the Cascade Canal, which diverts water from Fourmile Lake to Medford-area irrigators.

But the fields of tumbled, jumbled lava — and the smoothly carved trails that bisects them — are the surprises. The trail along the Brown Mountain lava fields is literally a place to go with flow. It's an unexpected delight, one that the prescient Dr. Seuss would likely enjoy for the fun to be done.

After all, as he also advised, "If you never did, you should. These things are fun, and fun is good."

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.


A hiker moves along the Brown Mountain trail with Mount McLoughlin in the distance. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Dynamite was used to blast a path through the lava flow on Brown Mountain, resulting in a red-cinder path in an otherwise inhospitable hiking zone. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]