Stepping Through Time: Hiking In The Applegate

May 29, 2014

The Applegate is a small region of the Siskiyous, but it provides the outdoor explorer with a vast array of trails and views.
Credit Wikimedia Commons | Demis Map Server

  The hiking season is here!

I guess any season is hiking season in the Applegate area of Southern Oregon, but when the snow melts on the higher elevation trails and you can put on your hiking boots and take off for the mountains, excitement rises.

The Applegate is a small region of the Siskiyous, but it provides the hiker a remarkable variety of trails. You could, for instance, drive up Beaver Creek Road tomorrow and start up the Silver Fork Trail, a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail that climbs through shady woods before cutting sharply across steep open slopes. The grass will still be green, spilling below to the forest-filled valley as the hillside above rises treeless to the horizon. Lupine patches the grass in purple bundles. Brilliant yellow flowers, accompanied by lavender cousins, outline the shade of bushes. Across the deep valleys, in a stretched-out, blue-gray line with white streaks and caps of snow, is the Siskiyou Crest, from Grayback east to Whisky Peak and on to Kangaroo Mountain and the Red Buttes. From the Red Buttes dark green peaks continue the eastward line: Scraggy Peak, Dutchman Peak.

If you want vast views, the Silver Fork trail is perfect, but if you want deep maple forests rich with moss and greenery, take a summer walk through the Enchanted Forest at the end of Slagle Creek Road. If you want fall color, go back to the Enchanted Forest for a canopy of gold, or take the Middle Fork Trail from the upper trailhead. Descending, you’ll float down the trail as though falling through color itself: bright yellow broadleaf maples, scarlet vine maples, russet-red poison oak, pale yellow alders, pink-purple dogwoods. If you want wildflowers, you are rich in the Applegate—the Middle Fork Trail for spreads of calypso orchids; Frog Pond for silvery plumes of bear grass; Cameron Meadows for a bog full of tiger lilies; Silver Fork, Sheep Camp Spring, or the Tin Cup trails for masses of varieties; Grayback for meadows strewn with color even in late summer: Indian paintbrush, false hellebore, coyote mint, Oregon sunshine, mariposa lily, owl’s clover, yarrow, monk’s hood, and dozens of others.

If, on the other hand, it’s trees that send you into ecstasy, go on just about any Applegate Trail – Sterling Mine Ditch or Mule Creek for open areas of oaks, Frog Pond for the venerable cedar and fir ancestors, Sucker Gap for the dangling arms of Brewer spruce, a pre-ice-age relic. Not the least of the reasons to go to Miller Lake is to see the stand of Baker cypress there. Unique to the Klamath and Cascade mountains, Baker cypress is a rare tree, even in the region: there is a stand north of Ashland, a Baker cypress botanical area south of Cook and Green Pass, five or six isolated stands in the Klamath, and the trees at Miller Lake. Including a few stands in Lassen and western Siskiyou counties, that’s it, for the world.

Miller Lake is also good if you want a swim, but even Kettle Lake along the Silver Fork Trail does nicely, and the best thing about the Horse Camp Trail is that it passes by, or ends at, Echo Lake, a small, brown-but-clear lake in a glacial cirque under No Name Peak (its real name). Once you wade beyond the muddy bottom, you’ll find it a fine little swimming pond and the scenery—a short rock wall, wildflowers on the bank—worth the swim (as though the swim were not its own justification).

If what you’re after is a stunning view of Mt. Shasta, take the Tin Cup Trail up to Slaughterhouse Gap (check with the Forest Service for permission to go through the locked gate on the road). As you climb over the top of the ridge to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, you’ll see Mt. Shasta placed before you like a mirage, perfectly framed down the valley at the top of which you might sit to eat your lunch. The other Cascade Mountains rise and fall with earth-gripping reality, sensible and understandable, while above them with ethereal unreality, like a digital photo enhancement, shimmers Mt. Shasta. The trail above Miller Lake, Silver Fork Trail, Sheep Camp Spring, the trail above Hinkle Lake—all give you views of the astonishing Mt. Shasta, but none is quite so jaw-dropping as the view from Slaughterhouse Gap.

For 360° views, hike up Stein Butte, which looks down on the Applegate Lake on one side and Elliott Creek on the other with the Siskiyou Mountains all around but Mt. McLaughlin there, too, to remind you that you’re in the Klamath Knot, where the Siskiyous collide with the Cascades. Or, with more effort, climb Mt. Elijah, from which, if you’re lucky and there are no fires in Southern Oregon or Northern California to dim the air with smoke, you might see as far as the ocean. Or, for a view well earned, hike up Grayback Mountain, on top of which you’ll be standing at 7050 feet, the highest point in the Applegate and higher than you could ever stand anywhere east of the Mississippi.

Green Gate Trail (part of the Pacific Crest Trail) in the Red Buttes won’t give you a 360º view, but you won’t care because it offers beautiful open vistas into the Applegate watershed on one side, the Seiad Valley on the other side, and, ahead, close-up views of Kangaroo Mountain and the Red Butte itself. This is a great trail for geology buffs or for anyone who just likes rocks. If you want to keep hiking (it’s the Pacific Crest Trail; you can walk to Mexico if you like or to Canada), you can go deep into the Red Buttes Wilderness—Kangaroo Spring, Lonesome Lake, Azalea Lake. There you’ll find the sort of landscape a lyrical writer from the Forest Service described in the Red Buttes wilderness proposal of the 1960s: “Deep in the heart of the green Siskiyou Mountains, directly astride the California-Oregon Border, lies an alpine region of quiet and surpassing beauty. Here are cirque and horn, sweet spring and green meadow; here polished faces of red rock plunge into lakes of exciting and incredible blue beneath snow fields that linger through the hot midsummer.”

If it’s history rather than geology that tickles your fancy, you could hike along the Sterling Mine Ditch, built by Chinese laborers in the late nineteenth century to bring water to the Sterling Mine near Buncom and recently improved by Siskiyou Uplands Trail Association in conjunction with the BLM; or go up the Butte Fork Trail to the site of a 1945 airplane crash. To mix a little mythology with your history, find the Bigfoot trap on the Collings Mountain Trail. Its trailhead is across from Hart-Tish Picnic Grounds at the Applegate Lake. If it’s summer and you need shade, take an old-growth trail, like Fir Glade in the Red Buttes, which begins in one of the loveliest old-growth forests you’ll ever walk through, mostly Douglas fir with an occasional enormous old cedar, some white fir—the usual Siskiyou Mountains mixed-conifer forest. If it’s early enough in the summer beautiful stands of wild azaleas will sweeten the air as you pass.

If you walk far enough into the Red Buttes Wilderness from the Fir Glade trailhead, you’ll get to Azalea Lake, though you might want to make that walk an overnight hike. But if you want a two-day hike without having to carry a backpack with food, tent, and bedding, try taking Sturgis Fork Trail up and over Mt. Elijah and down the other side to walk right up to the Oregon Caves Chalet, where you can eat dinner in the fine dining room, take the tour through the caves (if your feet aren’t too sore or your muscles too tired to climb all those steps), take a shower, sleep in a bed, and eat breakfast in the diner before walking back to your car at the Sturgis Fork trailhead the next morning.

If you’re thinking that you shouldn’t hike the trails that the recent Goff Complex Fire swept across, think again. The Cook and Green Trail, for instance, begins in a burn, but it’s not the devastation you might expect. Trees still stand, in a forest-like setting. Rocks are black and trunks are charred, but the trees are alive, the moss is vibrant, and greenery still thrives. A stand of canyon oaks has turned into a sepia sweep of trees, but after a short walk through that withered country, you’ll come to a knife-sharp visual edge where the vibrancy of green gleams in front of you. The burn you have just walked through seems but an old-time photograph of a forest. Turn around: browns and grays. Turn around again: living color. Here is the trail as you would expect it, a beautiful, mixed-stand forest of conifers, orange-barked madrones, gnarly canyon live oaks, mountain mahoganies, big leaf maples, an occasional incense cedar, and galaxies of vine maples. Not only is Cook and Green still a beautiful trail, but there is now the added fascination of seeing how a forest responds to fire.

As your feet walk on the Applegate trails, think about the feet that preceded yours. The feet of Native Americans were the first to stamp out many Applegate trails. If you are lucky, as some people have been on the Tin Cup Trail and the trail to Oregon Caves, you might find an obsidian arrowhead or scraper tool, proof of the trading between tribes, as obsidian does not naturally occur in the Siskiyous.

Later feet on these trails belonged to miners, cattlemen, and settlers, both men and women, who used the trails for the same reasons the indigenous people did – because the grazing was good, because water was available, because they provided access from point A to point B.

Still later feet belonged to Forest Service employees, who improved some old trails and made some new ones in the 1930s and ’40s to help with fire suppression. Crews would bivouac in bedrolls along the trails, which became important channels for communication and transport of materials and water. In a few places there were cabins for crews.

The feet of Civilian Conservation Corps workers of the 1930s and early ’40s left a mark on some trails as the young workers wrestled with rocks to build walls and buttresses to hold the trail in place across a gully or other difficult spot. You can still see these beautiful walls on the Cook and Green and other trails.

Think, as you walk, of the hundreds of individuals who have left a whisper in history and in whose footsteps you are walking—Knox McCoy, of legendary fame among folklorists; the Indian woman who drowned in Squaw Lake; Martin Ludwig Erikson, a man whose initials, MLE, unfortunately pronounceable as a woman’s name, became the name of Mt. Emily; the drunken hunters who thought the mountain was falling because of the steep lean of the peak they were on—now called Whisky Peak. It is good to remember, when we walk in the woods and through the meadows, up the mountain and across the rivers, that we step where other feet have trod, that we are a part of the history of these mountains just as were the people who came before us.

You cannot hike these trails from May through August without reeling from the beauty, variety, and lushness of the wildflowers. “How can it be?” you marvel. What is there about this Klamath knot of mountains that gives birth to such richness and such beauty?

Ask a poet and he will tell you that God had paint left over from the sunset for the scarlet gilia, wallflower, and wild rose; that stars from the constellations fell into the false starry solomon’s seal; that the summer-blue sky spilled into the hound’s tongue; that Southern Oregon’s brilliant sunshine poured its color into the flower we know by that name. He’ll tell you you’ll be able to remember the name “coyote mint” because this plant, a trickster like coyote, makes you think it’s a mint, but it isn’t. He’ll tell you that no peppermint was ever sweeter than the candy-striped lewisia. He’ll tell you, “Don’t ask why and how this beauty can be. Smell the Washington lily and grow ecstatic. Say, ‘Pipsissewa’ whenever you see the plant just for the pleasure of hearing its name. Lose yourself in the wild circus of color, shape, size, smell, and pattern of the flowers, a pandemonium so incongruously harmonious it sounds to your eyes like gigantic musical chords, a boisterous carnival for all the senses.”

A scientist raises her head from her immersion in the splendor. “Long, long ago,” she begins, and goes on to spin a tale of natural history and geology as enchanting as any fairy tale, as beautiful as a poem. As though the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains were indeed enchanted, the volcanoes and glaciers of old, she tells us, avoided this particular spot on the earth. Instead, the mountains were born as rocks under heat and pressure folded through time, folding and folding like the kneading of bread, and rising.

When glaciers covered much of the rest of the continent, many plants and animals found refuge in the Klamath-Siskiyous. Lying like an east-west giant, these mountains caught in the fingers of their ridges the southern end of the migration of some species and the northern end of the migration of others. Gathering up bits of coastal weather in the west and desert patterns in the east, the mountain range, like the original Earth Mother, took to her bosom hundreds of species, providing unique niches for their needs.

Having the largest area of serpentine soils in North America, these mountains are a center of diversity and endemic species, from the lovely, weeping Brewer spruce to the Applegate’s own eponymous gooseberry, which grows only on the Applegate hillsides. Nineteen of the thirty-two conifer species native to the Klamath Mountains occur in the Applegate, including the rare Alaska cedar, Baker cypress, and Pacific silver fir. The Applegate is home to all four conifer species endemic to the mountains of northwest California and southwest Oregon (i.e., they grow natively nowhere else) – Shasta fir, Brewer spruce, Port Orford cedar, and Baker cypress.

The scientist draws herself up proudly as she tells us, “The Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains have more different species of conifers than any other temperate forest in the world. Two hundred and eighty of the 3,500 vascular plant species found here are endemic. The Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion,” she ends triumphantly, “is considered a global center of biodiversity, is one of only seven Areas of Global Botanical Significance in North America (designated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature), and is proposed as a World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.”

We cannot but be impressed. Both the scientist and the poet open our eyes to the depth of meaning and beauty we see on the trail, whether in the graceful arms of the Brewer spruce or in the gut-wrenchingly deep blue of the gentian at our feet. And it’s all right here on the trails of the Applegate. All you have to do is put yourself there.

This article is taken from various chapters in Favorite Hikes of the Applegate: A Trail Guide with Stories and Histories, Diana Coogle’s new book, co-authored with Janeen Sathre.

Diana Coogle graduated in June 2012 with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon, where she studied and taught for seven years. She teaches currently at Rogue Community College. After more than 35 years of living on a remote mountain without electricity, she has joined the 21st century by installing electricity in her a new house on the same piece of land.