In 2006, when I made my first venture into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, it wasn't exactly welcoming of me.
The 2002 Biscuit fire had left the eastern edge of Oregon's third-largest wilderness completely blackened. Fire-killed trees clogged the remote trails, signage was burnt and the maps I used were only marginally accurate. I got lost. Thick fog lifted from the canyons like a blanket, saturating the charcoal forest in a dewy, thick haze.
But I also found some exceptionally compelling destinations, one of them being Babyfoot Lake. If it hadn't been for those discoveries, I may have never gone back. This 5.5-mile difficult loop brings the hiker beyond Babyfoot Lake and around its rim, giving a more challenging experience than hiking straight to its inviting shore.
This trail is also a starting point for longer hikes into the Kalmiopsis interior. Be prepared to walk over logs and through brush. Buy the Kalmiopsis and Wild Rogue Wilderness Map online or at the ranger station, or download the Josephine Mountain Quadrangle for free from http://store.usgs.gov. Use the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest road map to find the trailhead.
This trip should be reserved for competent map readers; others could easily get lost in a maze of logging roads or in the depths of this remote, vast and rugged wilderness. Tell someone where you are going.
About 3.75 miles south of Selma on Redwood Highway 199, set your tripometer and head west on Eight Dollar Mountain Road. At about 2.8 miles, cross a green bridge; the road will go to well groomed gravel. You're now on Forest Service Road 4201. Ascend and follow the road through live forest and onto a burnt ridge, ignoring junctions with any other roads. If by 17 miles on your tripometer you haven't found the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead, a wrong turn was made. The trail is on the parking lot's south side.
The trail immediately enters a stump field that was once part of a very controversial logging project. Look beyond the stumps and observe what is happening now. Within about 500 feet, the trail enters native forest that was left to recover naturally. Not only is this forest native, it is new.
At about .3 miles, there is a junction. Heading right and northwesterly will take you straight to Babyfoot Lake, but head left on the Babyfoot Rim Trail No. 1125. The trail immediately ascends steeply.
At about .8 miles are views of the Canyon Creek and Little Chetco watersheds, which are wild, roadless and vast. The strange, bright colors these mountains assume are products of unique soils that were once part of oceanic crust and earth mantle. Catch your breath and continue on; things only get steeper.
During my first excursion to Babyfoot Lake, hardly any of the growth seen now was present. In 2011, between the abundant saplings, giant rhododendrons, bear grass and other life, this slope is starting to feel like a real forest. These burgeoning woods prove that while the Biscuit fire was a big deal to us, it was just another day in the life of this ancient ecosystem.
At about the 1-mile mark, there is a confusing switch in grade. The trail un-intuitively heads left, steeply over an outcrop. Heading right will go nowhere. This ridge offers panoramic views. Don't miss the easily missed shots of Babyfoot Lake almost due north. You are on the lake's southern, rocky rim.
The trail assumes a southwesterly direction along this sharp ridge and past an old mine tailing. At about 1.6 miles, the trail heads suddenly and steeply downhill and due west into an old road bed. You are now on the Kalmiopsis Rim Trail (No. 1124). Head north. Heading south will take you into the Kalmiopsis' deeper recesses.
While this road is an easily distinguished trail, it's not in good shape. Dead trees lean over the tread, sometimes making travel difficult. Use extreme caution. Even a small tree can be part of a larger structural phenomena that when interrupted could send logs, and people, flying down the hill and to the hospital. You should by now have the feeling this is no walk in the park.
At about 2.25 miles, the road traverses springs through some old mining projects. There is an old mining track heading west; ignore it. This area of the fire was especially hot.
The road starts descending at an easy grade and makes its way around large draws. In these riparian zones are live forests reminiscent of what things must have been like before the Biscuit. These mixed groves of old-growth resting at the Chetco River's headwaters serve as seed banks to an entire watershed. The blanket of saplings under them is evidence of that.
At about 3.2 miles is a junction with trail No. 1124A, which is the foot path you'll take straight to Babyfoot Lake. The junction is well marked but usually missed, so don't pass it; doing so will bring you on a long march to Onion Camp, miles away from nothing.
Trail No. 1124A is a narrow path over fragile outcrops and loses its definition often. If you get confused, just stop, look around and keep your wits. These outcrops glow with flowers in the spring. Trails on steep grades like this also receive the most torment from dead, falling logs, so be careful and take this section slowly and with consideration.
At about 3.6 miles the trail comes to a flat area and, at least to the untrained eye, loses definition. Keep heading northerly and look for large stone steps crossing the outlet of Babyfoot Lake. Keep your eye out for the lake, too. If you find yourself at Babyfoot Creek, head upstream and uphill to the lake.
Babyfoot Lake is a swimmer's paradise. In spring, the water is too cold for most. But on hot days, this mountain lake is a paradise. And while Babyfoot Lake is a somewhat popular destination, crowds are rare and hardly anyone hikes the loop.
Around its edges grow a rare conifer, Brewer's Spruce. It can be easily identified by its long, droopy branches. This ice-age relict grows only in the Siskiyou and this particular population is famous among conifer lovers.
Take a look at the topography around the lake. It looks like a giant stadium. During the last ice age, these high slopes were the only places in the Siskiyou that glaciated. Naturalists call them glacial cirques, and they can be found — not always in such accommodating forms — throughout the region on north-facing, shaded ridges.
After spending some time at the lake, find the path on the northeastern shore that heads straight back to the trailhead. Getting back takes about 30 to 45 minutes.
Many forest users from before the Biscuit fire have dismissed this once-lush destination as a tree graveyard. I never saw Babyfoot Lake before the Biscuit, and that's OK with me. Live, old trees are great. But experiencing an old-growth forest, in its history and homeostasis, could never be as exciting as seeing this new one reshape. Out with the old and in with the new.
Freelance writer Gabe Howe lives in Ashland and is founder and chair of the Siskiyou Mountain Club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org