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Overlooks on the way to Aspen Butte in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness provide views of Lake Harriette, the area's largest and deepest lake. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

Aspen Butte is off the bucket list

There are places I've long wanted to visit but, for an array of reasons, never have.

At least Aspen Butte is finally off my never-visited list.

There's no easy way to visit Aspen Butte. At an elevation of 8,208 feet, it's the tallest of four overlapping shield volcanoes in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness. And because it's within a wilderness, the only way is on foot or horseback.

The shortest route is from the Clover Creek Trailhead. So on a recent morning — one that was sunny but cold enough to require long pants, gloves and down jackets — that's where Niel Barrett, his cousin Mason Aspera and I met with some of Niel's Ashland hiking friends: Marc Heller, Barbara Hansen and Ineke Warmerdam.

Shortest is deceptive. About three hours later, perched atop Aspen, Marc's GPS unit showed a one-way distance of 6.3 miles and an elevation gain of 2,455 feet. We could have taken a cutoff that would have shortened the hike by a mile, but instead took a longer route past Clover Lake.

For years Niel and others have regaled me with lavish descriptions of the views from Aspen Butte. They weren't exaggerating. There's a wealth of delights, sights like the spiky peaks of Mount McLoughlin and Mount Thielsen, the snowy slopes of bulky Mount Shasta, fiercely blue lakes, distant Gearhart Mountain, stunted whitebark pines and, most of all, a dazzling panoramic highlighted by Upper Klamath Lake and the Klamath Basin. On a rock are faded knife carvings, including one semi-readable etching with an inscription, "Thom Elliott 1909." There are no traces, however, of Aspen Butte's years-ago forest fire lookout.

Aspen Butte is also a place to view Mountain Lakes' geology. Within easy view are glacial cirques, remnant mountain peaks, a huge volcanic plug and other features.

For years the Forest Service and others described the area as being the remains of a single 12,000-foot-high mountain that erupted, comparing the creation of Mountain Lakes to Crater Lake's formation from the explosion of Mount Mazama. Those theories have changed.

Instead, geologists are now saying that Aspen Butte is the tallest of four overlapping shield volcanoes. They theorize four peaks within the wilderness — Aspen, 7,979-foot Mount Harriman, 7,785-foot Crater Mountain and 7,741-foot Greylock Mountain — were shaped and carved by glaciers that created large cirques and removed most of the original summit area.

A mile north of Aspen Butte is 7,882-foot Mount Carmine, which geologists say is not a separate volcano but is the highest remnant of the north flank of the Aspen Butte volcano that's divided by two glacial cirques.

The Mountain Lakes Wilderness, located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, has a unique distinction — it's the nation's only square wilderness, at 6-by-6 miles. In 1930 it was one of the three original "primitive areas" designated in Oregon and Washington national forests. And in 1964, when the Wilderness Act was enacted, the 23,071-acre area became one of the nation's original designated wildernesses.

From atop Aspen Butte it's easy to see — literally and physically — why Mountain Lakes merits special attention. But it isn't just about the view. Getting there is a challenge, but it's also a delight.

The Clover Creek Trail climbs steadily uphill, sometimes along bubbling Clover Creek but mostly through a dense forest canopy. About 2.2 miles in, a newly installed sign marks the Clover Creek Cutoff Trail. Instead of taking the trail, which literally cuts off a mile, we continued on, up and past Clover Lake to the signed junction with the Mountain Lakes Trail and turned right. Past the junction where the Clover Creek Cutoff Trail meets the Mountain Lakes Trail (which loops 7.5 miles around the wilderness interior), we reached a saddle overlooking Lake Harriette. It's always worth the time to gaze down at Harriette, the area's deepest, largest and most beautiful lake.

The unsigned turnoff for Aspen Butte — the Forest Service is considering adding a sign — follows an unmaintained but mostly evident trail. Occasional rock cairns help, especially along crossings over clunky rocky sections. The route stays mostly below the ridgeline as it works its way, about a mile, to Aspen's summit.

If peeking out from Aspen Butte isn't on your to-do list, it belongs there. Just don't wait as long as I did.

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

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