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Fall in the wilderness

Cool but not yet shiveringly cold nights. Crisp, blue, high-mountain lakes that ripple and shimmer from afternoon breezes. Fields of scarlet-colored huckleberry plants.

There’s much to see hiking and backpacking in the Sky Lakes Wilderness this time of year. Fall is a transition season when areas like the Sky Lakes Wilderness see fewer visitors and, even better, the stinging swarms of mosquitoes are gone.

The possibilities are many. The Sky Lakes Wilderness area spans 113,849 acres along the Cascade Crest from its southern boundary near Highway 140 about 27 miles north to Crater Lake National Park. Most of the area west of the Cascade divide is in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, while lands west are part of the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

I recently joined three members of the Klamath Basin Outdoor Group for a two-night backpack into the Sky Lakes Basin. Over three days we hiked 21-plus miles, including a 9-mile loop day hike. We followed the Divide Trail from our campsite at Margurette Lake, climbing 1,000 feet to the Pacific Crest Trail, where miles of burnt forest flank the trail as we headed north to the Snow Lakes Trail. In about 2-1/2 miles we returned to the Sky Lakes Trail and back to camp.

The outing began a day earlier. After shuttling cars, we left the Cold Springs Trailhead in early afternoon for the 6-1/2 mile hike to Margurette. Two of us broke off from the Cold Springs Trail to take the parallel South Rock Creek Trail, which passes through stands of lodgepole pine and mountain hemlock literally fried by fires. Some were seemingly bleeding red blood while others burned so hot that only contorted shells of once healthy trees remain.

From Heavenly Twins Lakes, where the fires ended, it’s a pleasant walk due north past Trapper Lake to nearby Margurette Lake. We appreciated Margurette and Trapper lakes even more during the following day’s loop trek from panoramic viewpoints along the Divide Trail that look down on both waterbodies.

The tug up the Divide Trail to the PCT in the shadow of Luther Mountain includes steep sections cluttered with rocky outcrops. At its junction, the northbound PCT passes through hellishly charred forests. There are hopeful signs of renewal — brightly colored wildflowers that seem almost fluorescent in contrast to the sprawling, blackened and devastated landscape.

Then down the Snow Lakes Trail, losing more than 1,000 feet as it weaves east along unnamed lakes, past a junction with the Nannie Creek Trail, then south along Martin, Wind and Snow lakes, and in eyesight of Donna Lake before returning to Margurette. One of the trailside lakes appeared to be covered with a thin sheet of cream-colored ice. A closer look revealed the shallow waters were speckled with pine needles to help create the illusion. That wasn’t the only surprise. Even better, while descending the trail we seemingly tap-danced over fields of “singing rocks” that chimed a delightful cacophony of dissonant sounds as we stepped over them.

That night, clear skies gave way to clouds. Views from our tents were illuminated by distant flashes of lightning. The rain came later, beginning as a drizzle before exploding into outbursts that tattered our tents and, happily, ended by morning.

After drying our tents and gear — and after slurping warm cups of tea, coffee and cider — we zigzagged 1,300 feet down the 5-1/2-mile long Cherry Creek Trail. It winds through a region carved by glacial action and, this time of year, is colored with patches of flamboyantly flaming red huckleberry bushes. There were creek crossings, some easily made on bridges, others where we tippy-toed along rocks across unbridged sections often impassable during the high water periods of spring and early summer.

The Cherry Creek Trail fascinates because it travels through several different ecosystems. From its starting point near Margurette and Trapper lakes, the trail steeply descends through forests of Engelmann spruce, Shasta red fir and Douglas fir. At lower elevations are openings with toweringly majestic Ponderosa pines. And in the miles approaching the Cherry Creek Trailhead, the mixed conifer forest transitions to more Ponderosa and lodgepole pines and Douglas and grand firs.

Yes, the days are getting shorter and the nights are cooler. But with a little luck weather-wise, there’s still time to explore areas like the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

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

PHOTO BY LEE JUILLERAT Miles of burnt forest are spread across and beyond sections of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
PHOTO BY LEE JUILLERAT Flaming red huckleberry plants in the Sky Lakes show their fall brilliance.