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Finding our way to Siskiyou Peak

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Photo by Lee JuilleratNiel Barrett cruises along the PCT on the way to Siskiyou Peak.
Photo by Lee JuilleratFields of sulphur buckwheat line the trail on the way to Siskiyou Peak.
Photo by Lee JuilleratA Shasta red fir near Mount Ashland is loaded with its distinctive cones.

MOUNT ASHLAND — We had just started hiking when we met up with the first long-distance backpacker. Minutes later another passed by and, within a half-hour, several more.

We were headed west toward Siskiyou Peak from a trailhead near the Mt. Ashland Ski Area along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. On our way to the junction to Siskiyou Peak, we met a steady flow of backpackers — men and women, some in groups of two or three, many solo. They were headed east, working their way toward Interstate 5 and Callahan’s Mountain Lodge, a favorite stop for thru-hikers to grab a meal and spend the night, or, often, to try and catch a ride into Ashland to shower, resupply and eat something other than freeze-dried meals.

The PCT mostly follows a south to north direction from Mexico to the Canadian border. But in far Northern California, what’s known as the “Big Bend” takes PCT’ers west around Mount Shasta. The trail westward passes through the Trinity Alps and Marble Mountain wilderness areas before dropping into Seiad Valley and entering Oregon at remote Donomore Pass.

Once in Oregon, the PCT turns east and even dips briefly south while crossing the Cascades through the Klamath National Forest, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and Soda Mountain Wilderness before angling northeast near Hobart Bluff and resuming its northbound route through the Rogue River-Siskiyou and Fremont-Winema national forest toward Crater Lake.

The “Bend” takes nearly 300 trail miles to cover what would be 50 miles if on a direct north-south route.

From the state line, the PCT’s Big Bend goes 27 miles from Donomore Pass to the Siskiyou Pass on I-5. My friend Niel Barrett and I had originally planned a different hike. But on a smoke-free morning we altered our plans after Niel vigorously lobbied to instead hike the four-mile one-way section from Mount Ashland to Siskiyou Peak, calling it one of his favorite sections of the PCT. Seeing is believing. Now it’s one of my favorites, too.

From our starting point, the trail quickly moved through a conifer forest, many trees laced with Methuselah’s, or old man’s beards, and past aspen groves before reaching a series of springs, most but not all of them dry because of the ongoing drought.

Quickly the trail took on a special beauty, entering a corridor bordered by a profusion of wildflowers. Some I knew — larkspur, columbine, skyrockets and Indian paintbrush, delphinium, lupine and ranger buttons.

Niel identified other flowers in the passage and along the open meadows that followed as cow’s parsnip, yarrow, horse mint, various species of lilies, owl’s clover, monkshood, Bugalows sneezeweed. Impressive, too, where vast array of yellow buckwheat sulphur-flowers and Oregon sunshine.

Through the flower-filled thickets and along open ridges the parade of thru-hikers continued. Several told of being shuttled from sections of the PCT in Northern California to Seiad Valley because of raging fires that have closed large sections of the PCT.

About two miles in we saw the Grouse Gap Shelter, which is located off the trail and is mostly used by cross-country skiers during snowy winter months. In another two miles, Niel’s sister-in-law Barb Hanson and her husband, Richard Vanderwyst, led the way up a steep, clunky spur path to the 7,149-foot summit of Siskiyou Peak. On this rare, smoke-free day, the views from the trail had been dazzling, but from Siskiyou Peak they were spectacular, a panorama of peaks, some as far south as Lava Beds National Monument, some as dramatic as Pilot Rock, along with several in the Siskiyou Range and, of course, Mount Shasta.

The hike back to the trailhead was rewarding, too. Now traveling east, features hidden by the earlier westward hike came into view, including a section of the Wooley Creek Suite, a craggy section of tortured-looking granite peaks that includes what Niel said is imaginatively called Rabbit Ears. Geologists reportedly believe the section we passed near is part of the Wooley Creek Suite, enclaves of basaltic magma created 100 million years ago.

What we hiked was just a tiny segment of the Pacific Crest Trail. But it was enough to want to see and experience it again. And, as he proved again, when it comes to knowing hiking trails, Niel is a stand-up guy.

Editor’s note: The hike to Siskiyou Peak is in the Klamath National Forest, which is closed until Sept. 7 due to wildfires.

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