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Red Buttes offer conifers, wildflowers and more

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

It is hard to go wrong in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area.

The expansive forests boast some of the largest and oldest sugar pine trees on the West Coast. The meadows are strewn with wildflowers. The cold creeks are crystal clear and offer hidden waterfalls and swimming holes. But it is the mountain peaks that steal the show.

According John Hart’s seminal guidebook “Hiking the Bigfoot Country,” this scenic mountain range was once evocatively known as the “Applegate Alps.” These towering sentinels of the Red Buttes are composed of a rust-colored peridodite rock formation that divides the Rogue River Watershed to the north from the Klamath River Watershed to the south. It is a stunning mountain landscape that can take one’s breath away.

One of my favorite routes in the Red Buttes Wilderness starts at the Frog Pond trailhead in the headwaters of the Middle Applegate River. It is wild country. The trail climbs a steep two miles to a wet meadow called Frog Pond, which more than lives up to its name with a cacophony of happy croaking amphibians amongst the water lilies.

From Frog Pond, the faint mountain trail switchbacks over a ridgeline and drops into Camaron Meadows, which put on a lovely show of spring wildflowers. A more adventurous option is to bushwhack to the summit of Mount Emily for a 360-degree view of the high country, with the rare treat of being surrounded by old-growth forests that have never been subjected to logging or road construction. One can continue down the saddle to the west and meet up with the Sweaty Gulch Trail (I’m not making up the name) and loop back to the Frog Pond trailhead on the Middle Fork Applegate Trail. It is a difficult and ambitious route to be sure, but one that offers some of the finest hiking in the Siskiyous.

There are few places in the world that can boast of the conifer and botanical diversity found in the Red Buttes. On a recent afternoon I observed 10 species of old-growth conifers and over 20 different kinds of wildflowers in bloom. The myriad of habitat types, the dramatic range of elevation and the east-west orientation of the mountains make the Red Buttes a melting pot of biodiversity and also provide a crucial hedge against the effects of climate change on wildlife. As the range and habitat for at-risk species shifts, the Red Buttes Wilderness provides the space for wildlife to find their new niche. These mountains are a botanist’s wonderland and a hiker’s dream.

We are fortunate to have the Red Buttes Wilderness, and its continued wellbeing is not a given. Much of the rest of the Siskiyou Crest has been heavily impacted by logging and road construction. The Red Buttes are one of the last places in the Siskiyous where hikers, birders, hunters and explorers can experience mountains, forests and rivers that remain wild and untrammeled.

Pretty much everyone who has ever visited the Red Buttes Wilderness has fallen in love with it. All one has to do is put one foot in front of the other, and the joys and rewards of our few remaining wild places will wash over you.

The mountains are calling — let’s go!

George Sexton is conservation director for the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Looking north into Oregon from the Siskiyou Crest in the Red Buttes Wilderness. Photo by George Sexton