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Hiking the trail less traveled

One of the pleasures of living in Southern Oregon is that there’s always something new to discover.

Over the years I’ve hiked a guidebook’s worth of trails. But there’s always a new place to explore. The most recent discovery was Lake Harriette in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness Area via the Moss Creek Trail.

Unless you’ve saved some ancient Forest Service maps, don’t expect to find any indication that the trail, which was decommissioned decades ago, exists. To make it even more challenging, getting to the trailhead — an adventure itself — requires driving through signed private land. Most of the year a pair of access gates, located just off Highway 140 between mileposts 50 and 51, is locked. But Green Diamond Resource Company, the present landowner, allows access until Nov. 20. The closure will remain in effect until the 2021 opening of archery season. When the access gates are open the drive, a distance of about three miles, definitely requires a high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle because it follows a steep route that often rumbles and bumbles over tire-spinning loose rock and dirt.

Most people hike to Lake Harriette and other Mountain Lakes Wilderness attractions by the Varney Creek Trail. The Moss Creek Trail is definitely the trail less traveled.

The one-way distance to Harriette depends on how far a driver is willing to test his rig on the very challenging, unsigned road. One source lists the distance from the unsigned area where most people park to Harriette as 4.1 miles. During a recent hike, people with GPS units clocked the distance as about 4.5 miles, although some of us added at least a quarter-mile by parking lower on the hilly road. It’s a challenging hike, with a vertical gain of about 1,700 vertical feet along a route that’s little maintained and, in some sections, easy to lose.

Once past sections that follow old roads, the trail takes on a personality, weaving up through mostly dense forests. There are some rock cairns, blue paint markings and red ribbons, but following the trail requires concentration. Some previous users recommended carrying machetes to clear the way, but we found only a few narrow spots.

About halfway up we met two hikers, a husband and wife with two hold-them-in-your-arms sized dogs, on their way down after a successful fishing trip. We were surprised to see them, and they were shocked to see us. As the man said, “I didn’t know anyone else knew about this trail.”

One of the hike’s biggest delights is an unnamed peak that abruptly rises tall north of the trail. At occasional openings the apparently unnamed straight-up rock thumb that’s indicated on the Forest Service’s Mountain Lakes Wilderness map only as 6327, its elevation.

Based on the map, the trail passes by three unseen lakes, Coyote, Heinlock and Echo, before suddenly reaching beautifully blue Lake Harriette.

Our westside vantage of Harriette, which spans nearly 36 watery acres, featured a backdrop of the lake’s surrounding mountains, including 7,684-foot Whiteface Peak. A series of campsites line the lakeside, which is just off the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail. Harriette, like the rest of Mountain Lakes and the rest of the Southern Oregon Cascades, can be miserable because of swarming mosquitoes into late July or August.

But on this day Harriette’s quiet, bug-free lakeshore was an idyllic place to kick back, relax, munch lunch and, for one person, snatch a quick nap.

Access to the Moss Creek Trail is provided through a Cooperative Travel Management Area plan developed between Green Diamond, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, Oregon State Police, Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The objective, according to the plan, “is to retain public access for outdoor recreation on these private lands and to improve fish and wildlife habitat through seasonal travel restrictions. While no permission is needed to hunt and fish on these lands, it is important for visitors to remember that this is private land.”

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

A hiker kicks back and enjoys a lakeside view of Lake Harriette. Photo by Lee Juillerat