Visiting the vultures above Vulture Rock
Our timing was perfect. Just as we worked our way up a steep, tree blanketed route, an opening suddenly revealed rocky, reach-for-the sky crags on the flanks of the towering prominence. The, within seconds, large birds swooped overhead, gliding and soaring in the thermals.
Probably. After all, the skyscraping area we were looking at is Vulture Rock.
Vulture Rock is more than a single rock. It’s actually a series of ragged, craggy side-by-side rock spires. At its high point, Vulture Rock is only an unintimidating 6,054 feet. What makes reaching the summit challenging is a potentially stumbly, mostly do-it-yourself path to the boulder field below the top. From there it’s a freestyle climb using hand- and foot-holds to clamber and scramble up the steep, rock-choked slope.
On a clear day the reward is a 360-degree panorama of views, including Old Baldy and Aspen Butte to the east, Mount McLoughlin and Brown Mountain to the north, Mount Shasta to the south, and Mount Ashland and Howard Prairie Lake to the west. Unfortunately, on this day smoke-filled skies darkened significant sightings of everything except semi-shrouded Baldy. Ironically, Old Baldy might need a name change. It no longer lives up to its name because trees obscure views from its summit. Only remnants remain of its former lookout tower, which was built in 1924 and removed in 1961.
Leading the way to Vulture Rock were Hans Kuhr and Diane Barrack, who made several reconnaissance excursions before finding what they regard as the best route. From our parking area, we began a short six-tenths of a mile walk along a fading-away logging road that becomes a lightly traveled path. We followed it steadily uphill to a point where a section of Vulture Rock peers through the forest canopy. Occasional ribbons on trees helped point the way along the lightly traveled way trail. From there it was another three-tenths of a mile to the sprawling field of boulders.
Hans and Diane said the faint use trail is relatively new and eliminates most the former bushwhack route. Although less used than a route that begins from the nearby Pacific Crest Trail, the trail we followed offers impressive “Wow!” views of Vulture Rock’s side-by-side jagged points, hoodoos and spires that explode up toward the rock’s upper sphere. It was from there we watched vultures gliding in the thermals, seemingly patrolling for possible meals.
They flew overhead as we carefully clambered across the field of jumbled rocks.
Where the route to the top seriously steepened, Hans and another hiker halted while the rest of us set aside our hiking poles and began the climb, described by some as a high Class 2 or low Class 3. We scrambled and slithered, using hands, rear-ends and legs while moving up exposed, technically easy but steep boulder-clogged slopes to the summit.
Making it look easy were Jim Wayman and his appropriately named dog Happy, who is frequently shown smiling ear-to-ear on Wayman’s Facebook pages. Happy and Jim seemed to easily — and Happily — soar up to the summit crags.
Because of the lack of views, our summit stay was relatively brief, just long enough for sips of water and quick snacks. As is common, the way down, which again required yoga-like maneuvers of often neglected body parts for support and balance, was more challenging than the climb up.
Instead of doubling back to our cars, Diane led the way another half-mile through another faint use trail from the boulder field to — Surprise! — a signed junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. As various Facebook posts have noted, the sign along the PCT says simply, “Vulture Rock 0.5 ML” with an arrow. Signs normally indicate a trail, but no easy-to-follow path from the PCT leads to Vulture Rock.
Because it was early, we followed the PCT toward Old Baldy, stopping for lunch at an overlook where, unfortunately, because of the pervasive smoke there was little to see. After doubling back to the Old Baldy sign and junction, it was another mile along the well-developed path, one lined with mushrooms, ferns and other vegetation. Shortly before reaching the road, lazily grazing Black Angus cattle watched us pass. From the road it was a short walk to the parking area.
Climbing Vulture Rock, both going up and down, was challenging but not seriously intense. It’s best not to be dead tired or dead meat, which might result in becoming fodder for a vulture’s snack attack.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-880-4139.
To reach the trail to Vulture Rock from Ashland, drive east on Dead Indian Memorial Highway past Howard Prairie Reservoir. Turn right on the Keno Access Road and continue about four miles to where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road. Park there along the road, or continue a short distance southeast to a parking area on the left, then hike back to the trail and hike east on the PCT, away from Howard Prairie Lake. The obscure, unmarked trail discussed in the story begins at the parking area. Walk around a fence that blocks the road and follow an obscure path, which has occasional flagging. Good hiking shoes and hiking poles are recommended.