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Exploring a new trail on Spence Mountain

Our original plan was to hike a very pleasant Spence Mountain loop trail that begins at the Shoalwater Bay trailhead, follows alongside the bay, climbs gently up Spence’s west flank, then snakes downhill back to the trailhead.

It’s a 4-1/2-mile hike that’s easy, pleasant and scenic. It offers up-close views of some of Upper Klamath Lake’s marshes and, from its higher perches, sweeping views of the bay, lake, mountains framing the Mountain Lakes Wilderness, as well as Mount McLoughlin and Pelican Butte in the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area. It’s a hike I’ve done and enjoyed several times.

But this day, I wanted something different. Something new. Something more challenging.

A map at the trailhead kiosk showed a trail that wasn’t on my outdated Klamath Trails Alliance map. Every year KTA adds new trails. The new trail, the Spence Butte Trail, looked intriguing and, because of its distance, about 9-1/2 miles, challenging. Even more tempting, the trail meanders through a section of Spence Mountain I hadn’t seen. So, what the heck, I decided to check it out.

While the group of Basin Outdoor Group hikers followed the Old Eagle Trail east-northeast along Shoalwater Bay, I aimed north-northwest along the Mazama Trail. The first half-mile, which I’ve previously hiked and mountain biked, closely parallels Shoalwater Bay, offering ever-changing views of weather-bent aspen trees flanking the marsh and lakeshore. The trail moves inland until 1.1 miles from the trailhead it reaches Junction 11. From the junction, the Mazama Trail continues south, eventually to the Highway 140 trailhead. I took the newly built Spence Butte Trail, which was added to Spence Mountain’s ever-increasing trail network in late 2019.

It’s a trail that’s not frequently traveled, especially by hikers, partly because it’s new and, even more, because it requires a commitment. The Mazama/Spence Butte/Captain Jack/Shoalwater combination loop is about 9-1/2 of often up-and-down miles.

The upside of the Spence Butte Trail is that it pays immediate dividends, with expansive golly-gee-whiz views of the lake, forestlands, mountains and the still-snow-tipped Cascades. McLoughlin and Pelican Butte appear less frequently than from some of the other trails, but they reveal themselves more dramatically, often nestled and framed by fir, cedar and pine trees.

The 2-1/2-mile-long Spence Trail climbs steadily, eventually reaching Junction 5. It’s a junction with possibilities, especially for mountain bikers. It connects with two intermediate trails, South Ridge and Hooligan, which aim south, eventually to the Spence Mountain Trailhead alongside Highway 140. The junction is also the beginning of the North Ridge Trail, a one-way, mountain bike only downhill route that’s rated difficult and, from a semi-obscured viewpoint, looked suicidally steep.

After lunch, I followed the Captain Jack/Northridge Trail a mile to Junction 6. As topo maps show, the Captain Jack/Northridge follows a ridge that stays above elevator-shaft steep cliffs for a half-mile before gradually leveling off and in another half-mile reaching Junction 6. It intersects with another southbound trail, the Winema.

From the junction, my route continued along Captain Jack. It’s nearly two miles of mostly gradual downhill, winding through a cozy forest canopy. About two-thirds of the way down, a signed side trail goes on a few yards to the Modoc Trail. Both trails converge at Junction 7W. At the junction, which marks the end of the Captain Jack Trail, one arm of the Shoalwater Trail goes 1-1/3 miles north to Shoalwater Bay then turns west/southwest about 1-1/2 miles along the lake back to the Shoalwater Bay Trailhead. The other arm aims west and returns more directly, about 1-1/2 miles, to the Shoalwater trailhead.

On reaching the trailhead, the once-busy parking lot had only one other car. During my 9-1/2 miles I had seen no one — no hikers, no bikers. And that was fine. Because what I did see and experience was just what I wanted — something new, something challenging.

To reach the Shoalwater Bay Trailhead from Medford, go east on Highway 140 toward Klamath Falls. Past milepost 52, near the bottom of Doak Mountain, follow the signed Eagle Ridge Road about two miles to the trailhead, which has a large parking area, outhouses and that very helpful map on the information kiosk.

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

Aspens line the Mazama Trail near the Shoalwater Bay trailhead. Photo by Lee Juillerat
An arm of Upper Klamath Lake and Pelican Butte are visual treats on the Spence Butte Trail. Photo by Lee Juillerat