Puck Lake hike in the Sky Lakes Wilderness brings high-mountain magic

Every year, I wonder whether Puck Lake can manage to give me one more magical afternoon. And every year it succeeds. The shallow 24-acre lake and its smaller cousin, Little Puck Lake, seem too close to a trailhead (2.2 miles) to be either lonely or pristine, yet here they are holding their own on the eastern edge of the Sky Lakes Wilderness with help from wilderness rangers who pull apart illegal fire pits (less than 100 feet from the lakes) and individuals who follow their lead.

At 6,450 feet, Puck is one of the highest lakes in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, accessible from a remote trailhead east of the Cascade Crest. To reach the Nannie Creek trailhead (6,000 feet), take Highway 140 to Westside Drive near milepost 38. Drive north for 12.3 miles to Forest Service Road 3484, and follow this smooth gravel road to the end (about five miles).

Views are not the strong point on the Nannie Creek Trail, but you will get a glimpse of the Klamath Basin to the east and another glimpse northwest toward Devil's Peak and Lee Peak as you climb up switchbacks that gain 500 feet in just over a mile. The trail climbs through a shaded draw filled with medium-sized mountain hemlock, western white pine and Shasta red fir. The dry forest floor contains little beyond dead branches and prince's pine.

The second mile descends slightly through a fire-ravaged clearing that's dense with saplings and a carpet of tiny red huckleberry plants with berries that are small, intensely flavored and harder to pick than larger blue huckleberries.

As the trail rises slightly, Puck Lake appears through the trees to the right (north). This is your cue to look for an obvious unmarked trail that passes a small tarn on its way to Puck's southern shore. The ground has been trampled to dust at the site of a rustic sign that announces this is a restoration site and we should not camp here.

"We limit signage to allow self discovery," says Dwight Johnson, recreation manager for the Klamath Ranger District of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. But this sign serves an important purpose. "It reminds us that it doesn't take much to impact a lake," Johnson adds.

The mosquitoes were formidable a few weeks ago when heather bloomed along the banks. Now, the mosquitoes are confined to the shadows and the margins of the day.

Last weekend, a soft breeze kept every single mosquito away, and warm sunlight was better than a towel for drying off after a swim in water that isn't head-high until you get well away from shore. I wonder if my sunscreen and insect repellent will harm Puck's startling clarity and vow to take precautions in the future.

No dramatic peaks reflect off the surface of Puck, just sky and lodgepole pines that color the water a vivid turquoise on a clear day. On a still day, you can see a current across an otherwise glassy surface, but you can't see the ripple's source.

Hikers have worn a path around Puck's western and northern sides to a narrow saddle that separates Puck from Little Puck, a colder, shadier pond. You can continue on a logical but less clearly defined path around the bigger lake's eastern side and cross dried up bogs for an easy circumnavigation.

For dramatic views of Luther Peak and Pelican Butte, you will need to hike one mile further west on the Nannie Creek Trail to switchbacks through blasted white rock that lead to Sky Lakes Basin and the steep Snow Lakes Trail.

A Klamath Ranger District topographic map details eastern approaches into the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

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

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