X marks the spot

Mount McLoughlin may have set a new mark for deceiving hikers over the weekend when nine people in three separate groups lost their way during the descent and had to be rescued at considerable expense and risk to search teams. It's time for the Forest Service to revisit its long-standing reluctance to mark the trail to McLoughlin's summit.

We're all for preserving "the wilderness experience" and keeping wild places as pristine as possible. But when a mountain regularly draws 100 climbers a day on summer weekends, and up to 10,000 visitors a year by the Forest Service's own estimate, it's clear its popularity has overwhelmed its wildness.

At some point, common sense should trump the wilderness ideal.

All but the first quarter mile of the trail up the mountain lies inside the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area. Federal law already limits to 12 people the size of groups making their way to the top. But it's a rare summer's day when one can get up and back down without encountering other hikers.

As well-traveled as the trail is, it can be hard to find the correct route on the way back down, and hikers frequently are lured to take what looks from above like a shortcut. It's not. Search and rescue crews get about 15 to 20 lost hiker calls every year. Sometimes they can talk the person down based on landmarks they can see. At other times, search crews must respond to find lost people and help them off the mountain.

Federal rules prohibit signs or markers that interfere with the wilderness setting. On McLoughlin, hikers have added their own by painting rocks, building stone cairns or tying ribbons to tree branches. Forest Service personnel spend time and effort removing these.

That may actually be a good thing, because unofficial markers may be as confusing as no markers at all. But a few carefully positioned, unobtrusive, official markers would go a long way toward preventing hikers from straying.

It's probably unrealistic to expect an act of Congress just to allow painted rocks on a mountain in Southern Oregon. But there ought to be a way to acknowledge that, in the case of Mount McLoughlin, members of the public have voted with their feet and made it such a popular destination that safety should overrule efforts to preserve a solitude that no longer exists.

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