A trip to the Horseshoe Ranch Wildlife Area is not so much a hike as it is a celebration of the season's unusually vivid fall colors.
And this is the season to explore and savor a dazzling, fiery array of seasonal colors in the wildlife area near the Siskiyou County town of Hornbrook and Iron Gate Reservoir.
There's no way of knowing how long the brilliantly colored hues of red, gold and yellow will remain, so go sooner than later.
The colorful display begins from a well signed Horseshoe Ranch parking area near Iron Gate Reservoir along the Klamath River. There are no designated trails, although dirt roads make for easy walking.
It's just a short distance to a two-story, steep-roofed rock building, or spring house, that historically was used by ranchers and their families to refrigerate food by maintaining a steady year-around temperature to preserve meat, fruit and dairy products. The spring house is all that remains of a working cattle ranch that included a ranch house, outbuildings and a barn. Along with cattle, the ranch raised hay and had fruit trees.
Pat Graham, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, which owns and manages 5,017 acres of the wildlife area, says documents indicate the property was owned by Southern Pacific Railroad in 1898 and was established as a ranch in 1908.
After a change in ownership in 1976, it was designated as a wildlife area by the Fish and Game Commission a year later and transferred to CDFG in 1978, primarily to manage habitat for the Jenny Creek deer herd. Because of its remoteness, there are no on-site staff. CDFG land borders Bureau of Land Management lands, including the Soda Mountain Wilderness in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.
"We're trying to maintain what we have," Graham said of the area's management plan, noting it is open for deer, quail and turkey hunting during specific seasons. Although people sometimes may see 20 or 30 feral horses, the ranch is not a designated wild horse management area. Other wildlife include bears, mountain lions and, more problematic for hikers, rattlesnakes. During the spring, usually April to May, the area is known for its wildflowers, including the endangered fritillaria.
"People go out there and enjoy themselves," Graham said, capturing the purpose of our trip.
From the spring house, we crossed Scotch Creek to a dirt road that continues steeply north toward Pilot Rock just across the California-Oregon state line. We followed the road, savoring the pure pleasure of ambling along the tree-lined avenue alive with vibrant displays of gold- and scarlet-tinged leaves, some as red as fire.
After walking nearly three miles, our group left the road, hiking cross-country and climbing several hundred feet to a rocky knoll that overlooks the expansive ranch lands. Our reward included views of Pilot Rock and the expansive lands speckled with leafy trees, bushes and shrubs turned brilliant by the colorful seasonal display. After lunch with a view, we retraced our steps.
The dirt road, which had muddied boots in the morning, had been baked firm by the warming sun. The sun's rays brightened and illuminated the colorful tree canopy while a light afternoon breeze set the blaze of leaves dancing.
"The leaves as they spark into wild color just before they die are the world’s oldest performance art, and everything we see is celebrating one last violently hued hurrah before the black and white and silence of winter," Shauna Niequist, a best-selling author, wrote of fall and the scene we savored.
"Fall is begging for us to dance and sing and write with just the same drama and blaze.”
The dance and display of colors won't last long. Get there soon for the last dance of fall.