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Autumn trek to high-mountain Hogan Lake

Fall may be the best hiking season, and it’s all the more precious because the window can be so short — especially at elevation.

Above 5,000 feet, snow can begin to pile up as early as October in Southern Oregon and Northern California, making it important to take advantage of the clear skies and moderate temperatures of September.

Last weekend we decided to tackle an eight-mile out-and-back day hike into the Russian Wilderness in the Klamath National Forest that featured two lakes, long views from granite ridges, big trees and high-mountain meadows.

The hike to Hogan Lake starts at the Taylor Lake trailhead, an easily accessible spot at 6,400-feet elevation two miles from Etna Summit in Siskiyou County, California, barely two hours from Medford.

The first half-mile of the trail to Taylor Lake is smooth and flat, designed by the Klamath National Forest so that families with young children, elderly less-mobile visitors, and wheelchair users can access Taylor Lake, a 12-acre, 35-foot-deep water body in a picturesque basin. Wheelchairs with wider tires are recommended, because the trail surface is packed earth and the gradient is 1% to 2%, according to a flier we downloaded from the Klamath National Forest website.

We saw one angler at Taylor Lake casting for eastern brook trout — the only person we would encounter the entire day — but our destination was Hogan Lake, located three-and-a-half miles deeper into the Russian Wilderness, a 12,000-acre jewel tucked between the Marble Mountain Wilderness to the north and the Trinity Alps Wilderness to the south.

The trail to Hogan Lake splits off to the right just before Taylor Lake and begins a steady ascent through mixed-conifer forest loaded with sugar pine, numerous species of fir and giant cedar trees. The trail switchbacks 400 feet above Taylor Lake in one mile until it levels off on a rocky ridge at about 7,000 feet that offers big views of the surrounding mountains. We could see smoke rising in the distance from the Lime fire, burning in steep terrain west of Interstate 5, but the air was clear and the views were long from where we stood.

From there the trail dropped a bit over 1,000 feet over the next 2-plus miles, through a landscape that includes a lightly burned forest and a grassy meadow where the trail can be difficult to follow at times, according to some hiking guides we consulted.

We had no problem following the trail through the meadow, which led to the banks of Hogan, a crystal-clear, 7.4-acre lake in a bowl surrounded by towering granite peaks. We peeled out of our packs at a campsite near the water and were happy to learn that the lake was warm enough for a long, leisurely swim. After our first swim, we decided to hike a quarter of the way around the lake to the right where a granite shelf dropped straight from the bank into deeper water, letting us jump in and climb out without having to step through the foot-sucking mud along the shallower shore near the campsite.

We ate our lunch on the sun-warmed stone and were tickled to see that the bushes along that side of the lake were thick with fat, ripe huckleberries. As we sat there watching dragonflies swirl above the water and a hawk circle over the basin, we heard cowbells, evidence that cattle grazing remains a part of the wilderness experience in Northern California.

Use of wilderness mountain meadows for livestock grazing dates back to pioneer days in Siskiyou County, predating the establishment of the Klamath National Forest in 1905 and the much later creation of the Marble Mountain, Red Buttes, Russian, Siskiyou and Trinity Alps wilderness areas.

The 1,000-foot climb out of the Hogan Lake basin got our heart rates going a bit, but the switchbacks were gentle enough that we didn’t feel burdened by the ascent to the ridge dividing Hogan and Taylor lakes. The descent to Taylor and the flat half-mile trail from there to the paved trailhead parking lot went by quickly, leaving us with the sense that it had all gone by too quickly — not just this hike, but an almost perfect summer remarkably free of 100-degree days, lightning storms and the fires that have plagued the past several summers.

Reach Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski at 541-776-8784 or dsmigelski@rosebudmedia.com.

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IF YOU GO

Take Interstate 5 south to Yreka, California, and exit at the sign to Fort Jones. Follow CA-3 south for 26 miles, past Fort Jones toward the town of Etna. In downtown Etna, turn right on Sawyers Bar Road and continue 10 miles to Etna Summit, where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road.

Roughly one mile past the summit, you’ll see a sign for the Taylor Lake trailhead on the left. Follow Forest Service Road 41N18 for 2 miles to a paved parking area with a vault toilet.

A hiker and her dog traverse a high-mountain meadow near Hogan Lake in the Russian Wilderness. David Smigelski/Mail Tribune
Taylor Lake is just a half-mile from a paved parking area, and the trail to the lake is suitable for families with young children. Photo by Nancy McClain