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Sneaking in one last late-season hike on the PCT

It was sweet, sneaking in one last hike in the Southern Oregon Cascades before the snow flew.

The snow was slow in coming this year, but just a few days before we got our first big dump of the season there was time to enjoy a snow-free hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

It was chilly, with the morning low dipping into the teens, as we started along the PCT from the Summit parking area off Highway 140. Our southbound trek paralleled the western side of Brown Mountain, the 7,311-foot, lava-strewn shield volcano. It was cool, but that crisp, chilly weather came with clear skies, which meant frequent and luscious views of Mount McLoughlin, then lightly flecked with only patches of snow.

But even more unexpected were pockets along the trail where the sun doesn’t shine. In those sections we walked on trail impacted by frost heave, defined as “an upward swelling of soil during freezing conditions caused by an increasing presence of ice as it grows toward the surface, upward from the depth in the soil where freezing temperatures have penetrated into the soil.” Translated, that resulted in areas along the trail where our feet sank and inch or so deeper into the spongy mix of dirt and ice.

The hard frost also produced dazzling ice formations on rocks and trees. The formations came in googolplex varieties — sometimes appearing like zillions of columns of prickly pointed ice crystals, sometimes like longer feathery frozen nodules. Lightly iced-over boulder fields looked like they had been spray-painted white, while some rocks looked like they were wearing mittens. Other times the ice gave an eerie texture to rocks sprouting green, gray and black lichens. But even more chillingly appealing were packets of fragile, hand-sized, stalagmite-like, frozen-together ice cubes.

In lightly iced sections, the contrast between the lava rocks’ rough ‘n tumble and the layer of crushed red cinders used to help create a walkable trail was heightened. It’s said the section of the PCT along Brown Mountain was the most expensive to build. And, hiking the trail, it’s easy to accept that claim. Extensive sections of the PCT along Brown Mountain were carved and dynamited through mounds of black lava, and that contrast is heightened with dustings of snow. In areas free of snow, looking back where the trail curls along the mountain slope, it’s hard to distinguish the path of the trail.

We hiked a bit over three miles, passing the point where the PCT stops crossing the lava flows and begins transitioning into a Douglas fir forest. Continuing south, it’s about 5-3/4 miles to the Brown Mountain trail intersection, nearly 7-1/2 miles to the Brown Mountain Shelter and about 9-1/2-miles to the Dead Indian Memorial Highway trailhead. After a lazy lunch, our group headed back.

The next time we visit the Brown Mountain section of the PCT, here’s hoping it will be on cross-country skis.

The well signed Summit parking area is located on the north side of Highway 140 between Lake of the Woods and Fish Lake at milepost 28.5, just east of the Klamath-Jackson County line. When plowed, the large parking area has room for up to 75 vehicles, a vault restroom and provides access to several trails, most notably the Pacific Crest Trail. Oregon Sno-Park permits, either day or season passes, are required between now and April 30. The parking area is about 41 miles from Medford.

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

Margo McCullough hikes along the PCT, with Mount McLoughlin in the background. Photo by Lee Juillerat
Art Knight, left, and Jerry Inman follow the PCT through a lava flow section. Photo by Lee Juillerat