Bushwhack to Grayback summit takes planning

You won't find a trail to the top of Josephine County's highest peak, not even a well-worn way trail, yet many hikers who venture to the remote Upper O'Brien Creek trailhead scramble to the 7,055-foot summit of Grayback Mountain. The peak anchors the northern end of the Siskiyou Crest. It straddles the Applegate and Illinois River drainages and features sensitive plants on precipitous slopes.

Grayback's humped whaleback stands out on the horizon from such popular local summits as Wagner Butte and Grizzly Peak. Up close, the peak's back is a spine of chunky rock that falls away to the west in a series of false summits.

To reach the trailhead (4,600 feet), take Highway 238 to the Applegate Bridge at milepost 18, and turn south on Thompson Creek Road (Forest Road 10) for 12 miles. At a maze of side roads, turn right on FR 1005 and follow it four miles to the end. The final 1.7 miles are narrow and rocky.

The first mile of trail rises 900 feet. The shade from ancient Douglas fir and incense cedar plus two creek crossings cool the approach. The trail splits at 5,500 feet, where a straight (south) choice leads a level quarter mile to a Forest Service cabin and, behind it, to a meadow that shoots straight up to the summit through wildflowers, loose rock and dense manzanita. A cabin in the meadow burned to the ground a few winters ago.

Many guidebooks recommend a meadow approach to the summit, but we'll use a zigzagging trail to climb higher on the peak before veering off-trail for an eight-mile round-trip tour that feels more like a hike than a scramble.

From the trail intersection at one mile, turn right for a second mile of long switchbacks that keep you twirling between north-facing views of Big Sugarloaf Peak and west-facing views of Grayback. At 6,160 feet the Boundary Trail cuts south. This ridgeline trail continues 40 miles to the southern edge of the Red Buttes and intersects a trail to Oregon Caves. You can climb Grayback from a stair-stepped ridge off the Boundary Trail, but we'll head right (north) for a gentle rise toward 6,480-foot Windy Gap (.7 miles).

Keep an eye on the steep ground west of the trail and prepare to cut off-trail south and west as the steepness subsides and the ground opens in about .5 miles. The biggest drawbacks to this switchbacked approach are the inability to see ahead to the summit and the possibility of clamoring up the rocks too soon.

For a safer six-mile roundtrip hike that offers perspective, hike to the gap and continue cross-country to the obvious summit of cone-shaped Big Sugarloaf, where 360-degree views encompass the town of Williams to the north and the sloping profile of Grayback to the south.

The first time I approached Grayback from the Windy Gap trail, I summited four rock piles west of the benchmark and dubbed the false summits Grayback I, II, III and IV. To avoid this knee-buckling blunder, angle southward and slightly uphill while keeping the bulk of the woods below you and the rocky spine above you. When the rocks turn from stable gray blocks to white blocks, climb to the top.

The Kalmiopsis Wilderness dominates the west and the High Siskiyous, including Preston Peak's granite dome, rise to the south. You can look down on double-humped Red Butte and east to Wagner Butte, but brace yourself for vertigo-producing glances at the meadow and the Boundary Trail. Mount Shasta, Mount McLoughlin and the Crater Rim float in the distance.

Bring a windbreaker for protection against the summit's frequent stiff winds or the biting flies that gather on still days.

Bushwhacking is intrinsically dangerous. Hike with companions, and know how to use vital first aid supplies, a compass and maps, including a 7.5-minute USGS topographical map of the Grayback Quadrangle, available at Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland.

Another useful map is the Forest Service topographical map "Applegate and West Half of the Ashland Ranger District," available for $6 at local Forest Service offices.

More useful information on this hike can be found in "75 Scrambles in Oregon" by Barbara Bond or "Hiking Oregon's Cascades and Siskiyous" by Art Bernstein.

Mary Beth Lee is an Ashland writer. Reach her at gentlejourneys@ashlandhome.net.

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