On a hot, sunny day, the ultimate reward of a hike on the Varney Creek Trail is a swim in Lake Como, floating lazily on the back while taking in views of Whiteface Peak and Aspen Butte.
The Varney Creek Trail is the most popular route that accesses the Mountain Lakes Wilderness. It’s a 4-1/2 mile trail that passes through shady pine forests, gradually gaining elevation as it works its way to, across and then alongside its mostly hidden namesake creek, and then continues south to its junction with the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail.
Ed and Zeb lakes are a short distance to the north, while two larger, prettier rewards, Como and Harriette lakes, are southeast of the junction.
While the Varney Creek Trail isn’t wildly scenic, it has its moments, especially a “miracle mile,” where the trail is seasonally flanked by meadows and rocky fields bursting with wildflowers. This time of year it’s colored with amazingly abundant red-hued splashes of paintbrush and scarlet gilia and dabs of purple threadleaf daisies.
Lake Como, slightly more than a half-mile from the loop junction, is one of 20 or so lakes in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness Area. At seven acres it’s the area’s third-largest. Another mile or so up the trail is dazzling Lake Harriette, often rightly proclaimed “The Queen of Mountain Lakes” because of its size — nearly 36 acres — and setting.
Because it was a crazy, lazy and — due to regional fires — slightly hazy day of summer, our group plunked down for lunch alongside Como.
For some of us, lakes are meant for swimming, and Como’s waters were delicious. For others, lakes are meant for fishing, and some — brook and rainbow trout — were jumping.
Como is a favorite overnight stop for backpackers who set up camp and the next day hike the 8-1/2-mile Mountain Lakes Loop Trail. From Como, hikers heading north climb a short, steep hill that overlooks then drops down to Lake Harriette.
The trail curls around Harriette’s northeast shore, eases up the lower slopes of Mount Carmine, then climbs its southern rim. The climb pays off with views of lakes, including Como, and peaks before switch-backing past a junction with the Clover Creek Trail, an elevation of 7,000 feet, then continues steeply west to a junction with the third trail that accesses the wildernesses interior, the Mountain Lakes Trail, at an elevation of 7,400 feet. Working its way back to Como, the loop trail gently climbs to a pass near Whiteface Peak and then dips downhill to Eb and Zeb lakes and the Varney Creek Trail junction.
The loop hike is one that’s been done other days — and is planned for future days. We settled for a more relaxed Varney Creek trailhead to Lake Como round trip, a distance of 10.2 to 11 miles, according to our group’s differing tracking devices.
But when it’s a lovely, sunny and — most surprisingly of all — mosquito-free day, the real goal is getting out or, in the case of a lake like Como, getting in.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.
To reach the Varney Creek trailhead from the Rogue Valley, take Highway 140 east. Past Rocky Point, near milepost 48, watch for signs and turn right onto Forest Service Road 3637, go 1.8 miles, then take another left onto FS Road 3664. The trailhead is 2 miles ahead at the end of the road.