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A monumental trail

Thanks to crews of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, backcountry hikers can now trek 80 miles between two of Southern Oregon’s most iconic destinations — from Pilot Rock in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, across the Red Buttes Wilderness to Oregon Caves National Monument.

The journey connects two stunning national monuments and opens up access to some of the most wild and beautiful country on the West Coast.

The route, called Cascade to Caves, uses 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from Pilot Rock to Cook and Green Pass, says Gabriel Howe, founder and executive director of the Siskiyou Mountain Club.

From there, he notes, “it continues on the Siskiyou highlands along a commanding complex of rocky summits rising higher than 7,000 feet. Then it drops into an expansive basin peppered by cedars so big they’re often mistaken for California redwoods.

“Then the route rises back to the high Siskiyous before reaching a labyrinth of marble veneered caves — Oregon Caves National Monument — that were once under the sea.”

The PCT portion is well-maintained, but the western part was run down, choked with 12 miles of thick brush and over 1,000 fallen logs that had to be cut with a two-man crosscut saw because chainsaws are banned in the wilderness, Howe says.

The huge project took four years, $50,000 from REI, the club’s 800 members and the U.S. Forest Service, plus close to 10,000 hours of “rugged labor” of more than 40 volunteers, interns and crew from the Klamath National Forest.

As part of its mission, the Siskiyou Mountain Club pledges to keep up maintenance at least every three years on a half-dozen “signature trails” it has brought back to life in southwest Oregon, Howe says.

“This trail straddles the ridge system. It’s alpiney. When you’re up at the summits, you really get the sense you’re on top of something. The views are extraordinary. You’re able to see the Cascades to the east and the Coast Range to the west. It’s something unparalleled, special, enchanting, some of the most spectacular and vast landscape west of the I-5 corridor.”

The trail takes you through “untouched primeval forests, mountain lakes, ridgetop springs, panoramic views and an experience more remote and wild than most thru-hikers are used to,” he notes.

Howe has to carefully screen people for the club’s wilderness conservation corps, as he looks for “a young, special breed, who think they are doing a higher purpose through hard work and are willing to make a commitment to a real challenge that very few people are up for anymore. It’s pretty incredible work, equally grueling and romantic and taking a huge level of sacrifice. They could be out partying and having the summer of their lives, but they’re choosing this. We have a 40 percent washout rate.”

The club grants interns from college a $1,000 per month scholarship to repair old trails. One, Laina Rose, worked 10 days on and four days off in her 2019 season in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area, using old-fashion crosscut saws and hand tools, said Howe, in a news release. Her crew backpacked their own food and supplies into remote work sites and labored in summer heat, at one point having to clean out miles of fallen, fire-killed logs.

“The area was beautiful,” she says. “Lonesome Lake stands out. The azaleas were blooming, and the mornings at the lake were amazing. I woke before dawn and put in 12-hour days to see the project through.”

Howe rates the trail moderate to difficult, “not for people glued to their phones. They may have a hard time. You need to be willing to look up and look around at the landscape — and leave your phone in the car. People now are so accustomed to looking down at phones and following a dot on the screen. If you do that in the backwoods, it’s easy to lose your wits and not notice junctions and major landmarks, and all of a sudden, you’re off course.”

Next year, the club will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and is planning group backpacking trips on their signature routes, including the Cascade to Caves route. You can sign up and see route maps at www.siskiyoumountainclub.org/signatureroutes/.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

A hiker takes in the views in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area, part of the are traversed by the new Cascade to Caves Trail. SMC photo
Pilot Rock stands tall in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The new Cascade to Caves Trail connects the monument with Oregon Caves National Monument 80 miles away. BLM photo