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Siskiyou Lewisia blooms on the rocky slopes of Kerby Peak. Photo by Lee Juillerat

Kerby Peak offers wildflowers, geology, history, exercise

It was early afternoon, and we were hungry. Deservedly so because we'd worked up an appetite. Depending on which guidebooks, signs or GPS devices you believe, it's 3 or 4 miles from the trailhead to the top of Kerby Peak, a 5,555-foot mountain in the Klamath Mountains of Southern Oregon. Even the summit elevation varies on maps and websites offering advice on climbing the mountain.

There's no disputing, however, that the hike is a beauty — and involves a steep, challenging elevation gain of about 2,600 vertical feet to Kerby's summit.

Our lunch stop, Kerby's broad summit area, offers a panoramic 360-degree view. The sights include a ring of spiring mountains, including Grayback Mountain and Big Sugarloaf Peak to the southeast, still snowcapped Mount McLoughlin to the east, and the corridor that cuts through the Illinois Valley. Sprinklings of hearty spring flowers seemed to soak in the sunshine. Just below the summit are some rarely seen Brewer's spruce, trees sometimes called weeping spruce because of their long, draping curtains of needles.

Along with dazzling up-close and faraway views, Kerby Peak has a history. According to information from the Bureau of Land Management, Native Americans and game animals were the trail's original users. A telephone line along the trail, which appears on 1915 maps, was built in 1916. An official state lookout was added in 1922. In the 1930s, men stationed at Camp Kerby, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, reportedly hiked the trail to maintain their physical fitness.

The lookout was burned down in 1966 after its ownership was transferred from the Forest Service to the Oregon Department of Forestry. It's said the decision to burn the lookout was made because its final tenant reportedly had a communicable disease, possibly shingles, which was also found in Selma, a Highway 199 community about 10 miles from Kerby Peak's trailhead.

Reaching Kerby Peak's flat-top summit remains a way to maintain physical fitness. The steep, beautifully maintained trail is definitely on the up-and-up. At lower elevations it has frequent switchbacks, making tight turns through dense old-growth forests. After about two miles of nearly nonstop climbing, the grade eases, sometimes following exposed manzanita ridges with eye-popping views. The last 500 vertical feet climbs a series of switchbacks past funky rock formations, including a balancing rock, large boulder with a small window, and a trio of smurf-like rock figures.

Savoring the sun and views, we lounged like lizards and wolfed down sandwiches, apples, energy bars, chocolate-covered nuts and whatever else we'd tucked in our day packs. We snapped cameras and cellphones, studied the remnants of the lookout and wandered around the summit area for close-up views of some of those eclectic rock formations, wishing a geologist could explain what we were seeing.

To our surprise and delight, trilliums and a bouquet's variety of other colorful wildflowers that weren't blooming on the trek up were open and basking in sunlight on our descent. The most amazing was one I later learned is the Siskiyou Lewisia, a flower that prefers rugged habitats. Its branched flower stalks with 10 glowing pink and white petals provided good reason to stop and gawk.

Except for flower stops, we trotted from the summit to the trailhead at a brisk pace. We had good reason. It was a long drive home, and the next attraction on the day's menu was dinner.

Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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