My Adventure: We spent our anniversary on a mountaintop
10 years ago this month, my wife, Jill, and I got married. By then we’d been hiking in and out of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness for a few years, but we’d never managed to cross it, because the interior trails were so horrendous.
On our honeymoon we decided we were going to rebuild a route that went from one end of the 180,000-acre wilderness to the other. Over drinks on a balcony in Greece, we vowed in September 2009 that hell or high water we were going to maintain a route that we’d identified but had never hiked in full.
The next decade went by fast. We did clear that 26-mile route. Soon thereafter, the Siskiyou Mountain Club reopened a 50-mile loop. Then spokes, or feeder trails, started reaching out from there, and the SMC grew and moved on to another 300-plus miles of backcountry trail complexes in the Sky Lakes, Wild Rogue, Red Buttes and Siskiyou wilderness areas that our organization promises to maintain once every three years.
These were not 350 miles of new trails. They were old trails that at some point became forlorn, usually burned over, then slowly rebuilt by trail crews that have been swinging Pulaskis, pulling saws, swearing, sweating and bleeding for almost 1/10th of a century from deep in the Siskiyou backwoods.
Jill and I went out to hike one of those trails that neither of us ever had a couple nights before our 10th anniversary. We climbed to the top of Mount Billingslea, a 4,000-foot peak precisely in the middle of nowhere in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
We started from the Onion Camp trailhead on a Tuesday afternoon. We left our two kids, Carter, 8, and Azalea, 5, at home with my sister. When we got to the Kalmiopsis Rim, the sky started showering, the clouds rolled in, and we looked at each other.
“Why do we keep doing this?” she asked.
“You wouldn’t have to twist my arm to go get a room in Port Orford,” I replied.
But no, Jill said, “We’d better just do it.”
As we climbed from there to Eagle Mountain along Kalmiopsis Rim Trail 1124, the weather got worse. Our original plan had been to follow that trail about 12 miles to Lucky Creek.
“If we get up to the junction with Pearsoll Peak and it’s still pissin’ rain, I say we camp there.”
At Pearsoll there is a lookout with a hatch door. The shutters remain locked up, but it’s a good shelter.
Jill agreed, and by the time we got to the junction with Pearsoll Peak Trail 1125, it was raining harder than ever, so up toward its namesake we ascended.
We crawled in through the little hatch door and stayed there for the night. From Onion Camp we hiked about six miles. The next morning the clouds broke up and we began the 1,200-foot descent to Granite Springs.
By the time we got there, we were soaked to the bone by wet brush, but the skies were clearing. From there Kalmiopsis Rim Trail 1124 veers west over a roller coaster-like elevation profile, up and down steep peaks, around Granite Butte, and eventually to Lucky Creek. There we got water.
Just a couple of years ago the trail was gone. SMC’s field director turned the Kalmiopsis Rim Trail 1124 into a classroom for each annual crop of SMC interns. We used it as a classroom because the hike in is a tough baptism. There were plenty of logs to learn on, thick brush to clip, and many linear feet of trail bench for interns to rebuild.
But we’re going to have to find a new classroom now, because in 2019 our interns got it done. So last week, Jill and I were hiking into Lucky Creek along a red carpet of sorts. Hundreds of logs lay bucked next to the trail. Lots of the tread was freshly cut The brush was gone.
Mind you, this is not the Pacific Crest Trail or a dreamy path through an overdeveloped recreation area. This is a primitive path through a primitive place, and a very nice one at that.
Finally, after scrambling to the top of Mount Billingslea, it seemed Jill and I had reached the apex of the Kalmiopsis, though it’s not the area’s highest peak. Pearsoll is. But Billingslea is smack dab in the middle of it all. To the north we saw the flow of the Illinois River. To the east, a compilation of mountains reaching as far as the Cascades. To the south was the mysterious and very large Tincup Creek drainage. Looking west was a view of the Pacific itself.
Jill, myself and the Siskiyou Mountain Club are not the first ones to have found Billingslea intriguing. Old USGS quad maps show a trail leading there as early as 1917. And there are lots of reasons I could share why remote, rugged, dead-end trails like this are important.
But I’ll spare you just this once and politely suggest you go take a hike to Mount Billingslea and see why.
The hike back to Pearsoll was punishing, having to traverse that roller coaster elevation profile, and then climb the final 1,200 feet from Granite Spring back to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness’s highest summit. And from Pearsoll, as the sun shed its final rays, Jill and I could take stock of the 1,000,000-plus acres of wilderness the organization we started 10 years ago now works in.
It felt like we were watching out over a once-forgotten kingdom. But it didn’t feel like my kingdom, or Jill’s, or Siskiyou Mountain Club’s. The trail kingdom is yours.
The next morning Jill and I hiked back to the car and spent the rest of our 10-year on the coast. It was a vacation I won’t ever forget.
To hike Mount Billingslea or somewhere else in Jefferson State’s wilderness kingdom, start with the Siskiyou Mountain Club trailfinder (http://siskiyoumountainclub.org/trailfinder). The interactive planning map distinguishes trail conditions and is best used from a desktop. Use it to plan hikes, then take a Forest Service or USGS map with you into the field.
Have fun. Be safe. Submit a trip report. Always Leave No Trace. And long live the backwoods trails.
Gabe Howe is executive director for the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Email him at email@example.com.
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