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Hidden lakes spice Sky Lakes exploration

The Isherwood Trail is always a favorite.

Why? Because the Isherwood Trail isn’t part of the often heavily traveled Pacific Crest Trail, which stays in the lake-less higher elevations of the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area, it sees few PCT thru-hikers.

But don’t expect to be alone. Like other trails providing access to the Sky Lakes Basin’s many enchanting lakes, the Isherwood Trail is well known and frequently visited by day hikers, horse users and backpackers.

There’s good reason for the trail’s popularity. Although it’s only 1.3 miles long, the trail passes alongside three impossible-to-miss lakes — Natasha, Elizabeth and Isherwood. And, with a little off-trail venturing, easy side trips reveal other lakes and a lovely marsh.

Lake Liza appears on maps, but it’s seldom visited because it has no signed trail and it’s not visible from the Isherwood Trail. Thanks to Niel Barrett, who was flexing his GPS skills, we found Liza hidden by trees very close to the Isherwood Trail and Isherwood Lake. Liza is a small but scenic lake, with one section of its waters tucked against a pocked rock wall.

Staying off trail, we were surprised to find a lily pad-filled pond colored with brightly blooming wocus, large yellow water lilies. On many lily pads were gatherings of busily buzzing dragonflies.

It took a little more effort to locate Lake Florence, a shallow lake that, like the lily pond and Liza, is located off the northern side of the Isherwood Trail. Like Liza, Lake Florence has rock walls with can-you-see-them stone faces. Although most Forest Service maps show Liza, none I’ve seen show Lake Florence, which Niel found on his GPS map.

His GPS also showed two more small hidden lakes but, driven by hunger, we decided to wait to discover them on another outing.

Because Florence and Liza lakes are hidden, they’re little visited. Until our outing, Niel, who’s in his 60s and is intimately familiar with obscure trails and lakes throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California, had never seen either lake. They’re also easy to overlook because of the other obvious, larger and truly enticing lakes along the Isherwood loop – Natasha, Elizabeth and Isherwood.

Getting to the Isherwood Trail is part of the challenge. Most hikers begin by driving to the Cold Springs Trailhead, located on a gravel road nearly 11 miles north of Highway 140 near milepost 41. From the trailhead, the Cold Springs Trail goes north about three-quarters of a mile before intersecting with the South Rock Creek Trail. (The South Rock Creek Trail offers a more direct route to Heavenly Twin Lakes, about another 1-1/2 miles.) The Cold Springs Trail continues another two miles through stands of lodgepole pine and hemlock before intersecting with the Sky Lakes Trail. From there, by turning right it’s about a third of a mile to the well-signed Isherwood Trail turnoff.

The Isherwood Trail pays immediate dividends. It’s only a few steps to the shore of Lake Natasha, a lake that illuminates clear blue skies in its sky-blue waters. Located on the west side of the trail, it’s a tempting place to stop for lunch or a swim, or an overnight camp. Slightly farther along the trail is Lake Elizabeth, a smaller lake that also features alluring resting spots.

The trail’s signature attraction is Isherwood Lake, a half-mile-long gem of pristine water. Among the lakeside stopping points are obvious campsites, including two spacious enough for several tents. Some of the Sky Lakes Basin’s best swimming opportunities are available at Isherwood. For those and more reasons, Isherwood’s western shores are favorite places for picnicking day hikers and backpackers.

Our side trips to Liza and Florence came next. As we learned, Liza is just steps away from one of Isherwood’s campsites via a faint, seldom-used trail.

The Isherwood Trail ends at a junction where it rejoins the Sky Lakes Trail. The trail continues north to Trapper and Margurette lakes and beyond. Because it was a day outing, we angled south, soon paralleling Big Heavenly Twin Lake. The largest of the Sky Lakes Basin’s lakes, Big Heavenly has several excellent resting places and campsites hidden off both sides of its shores.

Continuing south, the Sky Lakes Trail cuts between Upper and Little Heavenly Twin lakes then continues west to the previously mentioned Isherwood Trail junction near Natasha. After a refreshing but too brief swim in Little Heavenly, we backtracked to the signed Sky Lakes Trail junction with the South Rock Creek Trail for 1-1/2 mile return hike to the Cold Springs Trail junction.

It’s an instructive hike, one that’s both depressing and distressing, but also one that sparks hope and optimism.

The first third of the South Rock Creek Trail goes through a gentle forest, at one point just skirting trees blackened by the 790 fire, a 2014 conflagration that burned more than 3,000 acres in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, including a massive swath between Little Heavenly and the Cold Springs Trailhead. There’s no avoiding the fire damage. Traveling south, after about a half-mile on the 1-1/2-mile-long trail, scars blacken the remains of the still badly charred forest. The devastation becomes even more appallingly evident and devastating along the final third of the distance, where back burns fried the land, leaving behind an ash-filled landscape that will likely take decades or longer to recover.

But compared to a two years ago, the area is showing hints of recovery. Some is evidenced by pockets of appropriately named fireweed, purplish-red flowers that thrive in burned-over lands, along with sprinklings of columbine, bleeding hearts and other wildflowers.

One of those other wildflowers colored the trailside as we said farewell and returned to the Cold Spring Trailhead. Among the harbingers of recovery were pinkish-pale purple wildflowers that bloom in late spring to summer and are fittingly named farewell to spring.

Isherwood Lake commemorates Felix B. Isherwood of Portland, one of Judge John B. Waldo’s companions during an 1888 horseback trip along the Cascade crest.

According to “From Abbott Butte to Zimmerman Burn: A Place Name History and Gazetteer of the Rogue River National Forest,” Isherwood was a young Portland merchant who was invited to join the expedition between the Three Sisters and Mount Shasta as a junior member of the expedition. His duties included carving the group’s name on a tree at each camp, including what is known as the Waldo Tree by Island Lake in what is now the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

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

Luther Mountain rises north of Big Heavenly Twin Lake. Photo by Lee Juillerat
A convoy of women ride horses through a badly burned section of the Cold Springs Trail. Photo by Lee Juillerat