This year the Siskiyou Mountain Club announced the rehabilitation of a trail loop in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, around the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Rogue River.
With a lot of help from the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the Fremont-Winema National Forest, the High Desert Trail Riders — Back Country Horseman, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and REI, SMC removed about 5,000 logs from portions of the trails that had become impassable. They called it the Rogue Wolf Loop, and I set out to do it while the weather was still relatively cool and before any (hopefully no) wildfires closed areas or spoiled the air.
You could do the loop in either direction, but from elevation profiles it looked easier to descend the Middle Fork Trail on the second day rather than ascend it the first day (this proved to be true), so I did the loop clock-wise, starting from the Middle Fork Trailhead. From there, I had about a mile under a lush forest canopy before emerging into the damage caused by the 2008 Lonesome Complex fire. The trail, although obviously lightly used, was in good condition between the trailhead and its junction with the Halifax Trail.
I left the Middle Fork Trail for the Halifax Trail cognizant that I would either have to wade the Middle Fork (something I’m not keen to do most times and something that would be foolhardy to try at high water) or find a convenient log. As fate would have it, a truly gigantic tree had fallen across the creek. Finally one falls where you need it! Dry feet! Yea!
Once across the log, I found the continuation of the trail about 100 feet downstream. Thanks to the removal of about 1,500 logs, along with brushing and retreading, the Halifax Trail proved to be well graded and easy to follow as it switchbacked up the slopes above Halifax Creek. The 2008 Lonesome Fire was not a good thing, but hiking through its aftermath some 10 years on was not the horrible experience I’d expected. There was still some shade, a few views and, higher up, evidence of regrowth not only of low-growing shrubs but also of trees.
After 1,000 feet or so of climbing, I reached the east end of Solace Meadow, where I encountered the havoc wrought by last year’s Blanket Creek fire. The fire destroyed the old cabin that used to sit at the head of the meadow, but not the spring or the gloriously green meadow itself. The spring that feeds the meadow was still flowing well, so I got water here in anticipation of a long stretch of dry trail ahead.
The Halifax Trail ends here at a junction with the McKie Camp Trail, which runs north to the Stuart Falls Trail and south to the Pacific Crest Trail. Unfortunately, the 2017 fire had badly damaged the start of the southbound (rehabilitated) portion of the McKie. But I knew that it crossed the slope above the old cabin site, so I just went upslope until I intersected the faint tread that remained. The SMC had removed approximately 550 logs and lots of brush from the McKie between Solace Meadow and the PCT, so it got easier to follow the farther south I went. About 2 miles from the meadow, the trail passed back into unburned forest and, soon thereafter, intersected with the PCT near Maude Mountain. I stopped for a snack here and was soon passed by two groups of backpackers.
I went south on the PCT, which was a superhighway compared to the day’s earlier trails, past signed junctions with the Ranger Spring and Seven Mile trails, to a possible camp at Honeymoon Creek. But the water there was stagnant, so I continued south, to a junction with the Seven Lakes Trail, where I stayed left on the PCT to its junction with the Cliff Lake Trail, and then took that trail to a nice campsite at Cliff Lake. An option would have been to take the Seven Lakes Trail and camp at either Grass or Middle Lakes. At Cliff Lake, with the Sky Lakes mosquitoes doing their utmost to live up their blood-sucking reputation, I had a quick dinner followed by a retreat to my mesh tent for some sleep after a long, but good, day on the trail.
I don’t usually sleep well the first night out, so when I opened my eyes to find it still light, I thought I’d just dozed off. But, no, I’d passed out and it was now sunrise, not sunset — on one of the shortest nights of the year — and hence time to haul my carcass out of the tent and get back in the trail. The mosquitoes apparently got to sleep in, so I was able to eat breakfast and get packed without further blood loss.
I rejoined the Seven Lakes Trail a little ways south of Cliff Lake, then climbed past South Lake, and over some lingering patches of snow, to a signed junction with the Alta Lake Trail. The SMC had removed approximately 150 trees and brushed the entire route of this trail, so it was easy going down to Alta Lake, which I think may be the most beautiful lake in the Sky Lakes.
The north end of Alta Lake was the literal and figurative high point of the trip; it would be, as planned, all downhill from here. I followed the Alta Lake Trail north, past Boulder Pond and a junction with the King Spruce Trail, to a junction with the upper end of the Middle Fork Trail. I turned down that trail and proceeded to lose almost 2,000 vertical feet in a long series of switchbacks, interspersed with very few level spots. The first half of the journey down was on excellent trail, while the lower half was on rocky but otherwise good trail. It was a different story at the canyon bottom. Here the trail was first obscured by low-growing vegetation and sometimes crossed by trees felled by winter, then there was a delightfully open stretch under the forest canopy, and then the trail entered the area ravaged by the 2008 fire and got vague again. Here, Nature had recently dropped dead trees right on the trail and right where so much work had already been done to clear it. I navigated through this section largely by looking for the cut ends of logs that marked where trail work had been performed. It was slow going and I was heartily glad that this was at the downhill end, not the uphill beginning, of this loop.
By the time I got back to the junction with the Halifax Trail, the recently cleared section of the Middle Fork Trail ahead looked almost as good as the PCT! This cleared trail facilitated a speedy return to the trailhead, for a total trip was 27.9 miles, with 4,400 feet of elevation gain. More work needs to be done on some of the trails in this loop (in addition to ongoing maintenance) so, at the moment, there’s some navigating and bushwhacking required. Yet I was impressed by how good the trails were overall.
I was prepared to hate the burned areas but found them both compelling and cautionary. This worked as an overnight backpack but could be even better as a two-nighter. The only constraint is that reliable water sources are scarce between Solace Meadow and the Seven Lakes Basin. This might not be the trip for the beginning backpacker, but it could be one for those with a few trail miles on their boots who want to see parts of the Sky Lakes Wilderness few have seen in the last 10 years.
Bruce Hope lives in Medford and records his adventures at vanmarmot.org.
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