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PHOTO BY LEE JUILLERAT

The Dome appears like a large thumb in the Gearhart Wilderness.

The heart of the Gearhart

Call it the heart of the Gearhart.

The view from a high saddle overlooks the east basin of the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness, with views of Gearhart Mountain’s 8,370-foot summit, meadows that form the upper boundaries of Dairy Creek and The Notch, an 8,120-foot pass.

The Gearhart Wilderness, one of the nation’s original designated wildernesses, is relatively small in size, 22,684 acres, but it feels larger. Located north of Bly, it’s partly in Klamath County but mostly in Lake County. That means it’s far enough away from population centers that it’s seldom crowded. It’s said that years ago, Playboy magazine ranked the Gearhart as one of the nation’s 10 least-visited wilderness areas.

Low visitation is just fine for people seeking solitude in an evocatively beautiful setting. While the view from the saddle, about 4-1/2 uphill miles from the start of the Gearhart Mountain Trail, is stunning, hiking to the overlook offers a variety of delights.

The rewards begin almost immediately. It’s only about three-quarters of a mile to the Palisades, where stratified andesite has created a mish-mash of geological features. The trail slices through a portion of the 10-acre area, which invites further exploration. The Palisades is a perfect classroom for studying firsthand the whims of nature with its array of no-two-a-like convoluted rock outcrops, balancing rocks and rock walls seemingly stacked layer by layer by a bored alchemist.

Past the Palisades the terrain quickly changes. Following a brief downhill, the trail advances up through dense forests of Ponderosa pines and white fir. It’s an area to stop and sniff. The peeled-back bark of the Ponderosa smells like vanilla. Scratch a white fir leaf for a hint of lemon. And the sage gives off its fragrant aroma.

Some trees are cloaked with florescent, neon-green moss. Rock walls and outcrops offer softer-colored green lichen. Near trailside springs are aspens that shimmer and tingle. Bark-stripped trees killed by bark beetles reveal curious etchings, like some unsolved form of hieroglyphics.

As the trail gains elevation, views to the east semi-obscured by tree canopies revealed glimpses of rocky ridges, some oddly contorted, others standing straight and tall. Mostly hidden was one of the area’s prominent features, The Dome. We were tempted to explore, but continued on, past other westward viewpoints looking into the Upper Sprague River Valley and Campbell Reservoir.

At the saddle, at viewpoints surrounded by wind- and weather-tormented whitebark pines, we looked east into the basin below Gearhart Mountain, one carved by basaltic lava flows, stream erosion and glaciation, processes that geologists estimate happened 6 million to 8 million years ago.

We had considered continuing another 1-1/4 miles to either The Notch or, cross country, to Gearhart’s summit. Instead, knowing that fall days are short, we decided to take an off-trail detour along the ridge overlooking the Dairy Creek drainage. It was a good decision. The Dome appeared like a large thumb. Lichen-lined walls, most of them green but some flecked with spots of red, rose abruptly like side-by-side pillars.

We didn’t make it to Gearhart Mountain’s summit or The Notch. Next time.

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

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