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Backpacking into the Seven Lakes Basin

Bushwhack to Lake Ivern seemed like a good idea at the time
Photo by Lee Juillerat Steve Underwood, left, and Dan Hawkes chat at our campsite overlooking Cliff Lake.
Photo by Lee Juillerat Steve Underwood soaks in the views at Cliff Lake in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

Editor’s Note: Part one of a two-part story. See part two in next Friday’s Oregon Outdoors.

SKY LAKES WILDERNESS AREA — After studying the map, it seemed like a good idea.

Based on the Forest Service’s Sky Lakes Wilderness Area map, the distance from the Middle Fork Rogue River Trail to Lake Ivern is only about a half-mile. The contour lines indicated some downhill but, what the heck, we are experienced hikers.

It was our second day of a four-day backpack into Sky Lakes’ Seven Lakes Basin. A day earlier we had hiked to Cliff Lake after meeting up at the Sevenmile Trailhead, the eastern entrance into the wilderness area. We — Dan Hawkes, Steve Underwood and I — made a late morning meetup with my daughter, Molly, who had made the drive from Eugene with her joyfully rambunctious dog, Loki.

From the trailhead it was about 5-1/2 miles to Cliff Lake, the Seven Lakes Basin’s most popular lake in the Seven Lakes Basin. Even on a weekday the trailhead is a popular launching spot for backpackers, hikers and hunters, as evidenced by the cars, pickup trucks and a larger camper-van that filled the small parking area and caused us to park down and off the road.

Before the Sevenmile Trail reaches its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, it passes through stands of lodgepole pines. After about two miles, at its junction with the PCT, we headed through forests of mountain hemlock and Shasta red fir.

A lone backpacker we had met on the trail was spending a single night at a spacious, beautiful lakeside campsite on Cliff Lake’s south shore so, following Molly’s lead, we found another site for our four tents — a bench overlooking the lake. From our balcony-like setting, along with overlooking the lake we enjoyed eye-popping views of Devil’s Peak and, even more dramatically, a knob below the peak that sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb.

Molly heard the “eek-eeks” of pikas, or “rock rabbits.” Some of us caught sight of a bald eagle gliding over the lake, nearly at eye-level opposite from our campsite. Patrolling overhead were “camp robbers,” would-be food poaching gray jays.

After a cool, crisp night and breakfast, we headed off. The Seven Lakes Basin Trail took us past South Lake then climbed steadily on the Alta Lake Trail to its namesake lake. Alta is an unusually long, straight, skinny lake, narrow enough that it’s possible to hurl a rock across its width. A side trail near Alta’s north end led to a ridge and Violet Hill, where views peer over several Seven Lakes Basin lakes. Although semi-obscured by lingering smoke from distant forest fires, faraway summits included Union Peak, Mount Scott, Llao Rock and needle-topped Mount Thielsen.

Continuing north and steadily downhill on the Alta Lake Trail, we passed a junction with the King Spruce Trail, which provides access from the Rogue Valley, then briefly angled east onto the Middle Fork Rogue River Trail. With Dan and Molly using GPS units for directions, we headed cross-country slightly north-northeast toward unseen Lake Ivern.

What originally seemed like a good idea, detouring to Ivern, didn’t seem so alluring as we bushwhacked over and around fallen logs, struggled over and around unyielding, bushy, dense understory and stumbled around love-to-trip-you brush. Alongside a bubbling creek, near fields of mostly past-their-prime huckleberries, we rested and reconnoitered.

The pathless way to Ivern was blocked by a forbidding hill. Heading downhill was ruled out because of the sheer drop-offs to the still unseen lake about 600 vertical feet below. So up we scrambled, gradually working our way along and around until, through the trees, blips of Ivern’s blue waters appeared through the trees. Eventually a faint, rocky path led to a lakeside resting place where we plopped down, gobbled lunches and, using water-filtering Steripens, refilled water bottles.

The hike back to Cliff Lake was somewhat anticlimactic. The Ivern Lake Trail was visible and easy to follow along subalpine meadows as it passed by Big Foot and another unnamed spring, semi-hidden North Lake and, in two miles, Middle Lake. In another half-mile we were back at our Cliff Lake porch. The total loop was between 9-1/2 and 10 miles, a distance that felt longer because of the unexpectedly challenging struggle to reach Ivern.

Looking back, despite the effort and knowing that none of us will likely do it again — what the heck — hiking cross-country to Ivern had been a good idea.

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