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Last chance for hiking the Sky Lakes?

Photo by Lee JuilleratSections of trails reached via the Cold Springs Trailhead pass through areas burned in 2017.
Photo by Lee JuilleratIsherwood Lake is a worthy and popular desgination.

Was it this year’s last chance to hike in the Sky Lakes Wilderness?

Who knows? With the onset of winter storms, just getting to the Cold Springs Trailhead in the southern section of the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area, a 10-mile drive on a gravel road from Highway 140, could be dicey. And, once there, trails into the wilderness might soon disappear under blankets of snow.

But if sporadic warm weather spells continue there still might be time to get out and go.

Hoping for the best, friends and I made the drive to the trailhead Monday and started off on a 7.5-mile loop hike that included views or stops at Natasha, Elizabeth, Isherwood and the Heavenly Twins lakes. Two days earlier, Neil Zingg of Klamath Falls made the same hike and posted a Facebook video showing a snowy trail and the words, “last hike of the year.”

Amazingly, we saw only small patches of snow along with some yards-long sections of swampy sections of trail filled with water and ice where, most likely, the snow had melted.

Like Neil, we started from the Cold Springs Trailhead, which quickly enters the designated wilderness and, about a half-mile from the parking area, reaches a junction with the continuing Cold Springs and South Fork Creek trails.

The Cold Springs Trail continues northwest in just less than two miles to a T-Junction with the Sky Lakes Trail. The trail west leads to nearby Deer Lake and later connects with the Pacific Crest Trail. East leads to the Isherwood Trail junction or continues to the Heavenly Twins.

The South Fork Creek Trail aims more directly north, reaching Lower Heavenly Twin Lake, where it meets another leg of the Sky Lakes Trail. The trail west continues past the turnoffs for the Isherwood and Cold Springs trails and also heads north to the Seven Lakes Basin and its several lakes, including Trappers and Margurette.

At the junction we took the Cold Springs route. Both the South Rock Creek and Cold Springs trails pass through areas fried, scarred and blackened by 2017 forest fires. The damage is real and devastating, but there’s a certain fascination viewing the remnants of crinkled, weirdly contorted, charcoaled trees and stumps. In some areas the remains of fire-ravaged trees require detours or carefully stepping over trail obstacles.

But on this brisk, late fall day, with billowing clouds playing peek-a-boo with snippets of blue sky, there was a sense of tranquility and calm not found in the heat of summer.

Past the burned area the landscape revived, the forest again alive and green. In about two miles the trail dead-ended at the Sky Lakes Trail. We headed right about a quarter-mile to the Isherwood Trail turnoff. The trail quickly reaches Lake Natasha, a choice destination for lunch or overnight, but we continued past Lake Elizabeth before reaching Lake Isherwood.

Isherwood is a popular summer destination, with several excellent camp and picnic sites for day hikers or backpackers. Unlike warmer months, when lake swims are part of Isherwood’s appeal, we only paused long enough for lunch before continuing on, enjoying other views of the half-mile long lake.

According to “Abbott Butte to Zimmerman Burn: A Place Name History of the Rogue River Forest,” the name Isherwood remembers Felix Isherwood of Portland, who accompanied Judge John Waldo’s 1888 horseback trip along the Cascades from the Three Sisters to Mount Shasta. As the expedition’s junior member, Isherwood was tasked with carving the group’s names on trees at each camp. Although no such tree has been found at Isherwood — it may have fallen long ago — a fading-away carving is still found on the “Waldo Tree” at nearby Island Lake.

The Isherwood Trail passes by some seldom-visited lakes with lightly traveled, unmarked forks leading to Liza, Florence and Ruden lakes. We skipped those, continuing about three-quarters of a mile from to another junction with the Sky Lakes Trail. We headed south along and past Upper Heavenly Twin Lake to a junction with the South Creek Trail. If we’d continued on Sky Lakes Trail, we could have returned to the Cold Springs junction, but seeking different perspective we took the South Rock Creek Trail back to Cold Springs.

Just as we’d seen earlier, the forest gave way to more blackened terrain, the trail again occasionally littered with fallen trees. At the remains of one fire-scarred survivor, a tap on its fragile stub generated a soft groan as it flexed earthward. At several heavily burned areas, openings created by the fires exposed southward views of Upper Klamath Lake and the Mountain Lakes Wilderness.

Light rain fell as we drove off. Ever-changing weather forecasts predict more wet weather with rain or snow. Most likely, as the proverbial saying goes, we’ll have to wait until next year.

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