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High Cascades Hiking Oregon Sky Lakes/Mountain Lakes Area Trip report

Sky Lakes Wilderness – Badger Lake Trail

After spending the night camped by Zeb Lake in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness we packed up our tent and headed back down the Varney Creek Trail to the trailhead and our waiting car. Our plan was to spend the next two nights in the nearby Sky Lakes Wilderness and do some exploring in that area. We drove back to Highway 140 and headed east toward Medford for 12 miles and turned right onto Fourmile Lake Road (a.k.a. Forest Road 3661) and drove another 5.7 miles to the Fourmile Lake Campground where we parked at the Badger Lake Trailhead.

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When I was penciling this trip out I had originally considered staying at the campground but the thought of being in such a popular car campground wasn’t very appealing so the plan I settled on was hiking into to one of the other lakes along the Badger Lake Trail. We threw our packs back on and set off on the trail hoping to find a quieter, more private place to set up camp. The trail led away from the campground to a junction with the Twin Ponds Trail which connects up with the Pacific Crest Trail near Squaw Lake.

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We turned left following the Badger Lake Trail as it passed through a forest of lodgepole pine.

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The trail veered back toward the campground to a crossing of Fourmile Lake Road near the campground entrance then swung away again into the forest and meeting up with the Rye Spur Trail which travels to Lake of the Woods.

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We crossed Cascade Canal .8 miles from the trailhead. The canal was built and Fourmile Lake dammed to drain the lake west toward Medford instead of to its original eastward route to Klamath Lake. At the canal there was a post with no signs attached and a road running perpendicular to the trail. There was no obvious continuation of the trail on the far side of the road so I checked the GPS map which showed the road making a small loop and the trail picking up on the far side of that loop. We decided to go around clockwise since that direction led us toward Fourmile Lake and we hadn’t had a good look at it yet. After climbing up on some of the boulders along the dam we were able to get a glimpse of the large lake.

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The road made the loop just as the GPS had shown and we picked up a clear trail heading to the left into the forest. There was also a clear trail coming from the right which we decided we would follow when we were headed back to the trailhead. For now we headed left and soon entered the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

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Fourmile Lake was once again hidden by trees until we were about three quarters of a mile from the canal. Finally a couple of side trails led to driftwood piles along the shore and views across the lake to Mt. McLoughlin.

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The best viewpoint was down a short path about .9 miles from the canal but we didn’t go down that trail until the following day. We were focused on finding a campsite and getting out from under our backpacks. The first lake after Fourmile Lake we came to was Woodpecker Lake. Located about one and three quarter miles from the canal this little lake was on the right hand side of the trail.

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We stopped briefly to see if there were any campsites that were too good to pass up but we didn’t see anything obvious and we were starting to notice a few mosquitoes so we continued on to nearby Badger Lake.

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Badger Lake was less than a quarter mile from Woodpecker Lake and it was a little larger than it’s neighbor. We weren’t seeing any campsites along the southern end of the lake nor did there appear to be the usual use trail going around the lake anywhere. We continued on the trail along the lake for a few hundred feet without seeing anything. Looking back across the lake we thought the terrain on the SW side looked like it might be suitable for campsites so we decided to head back and check out that area. We headed cross country through the forest near the lake and did manage to find a few spots that clearly had been used as campsites at one time but they all looked like it had been awhile. We set our packs down in the best looking spot and did a little further exploration before deciding that we had identified the most suitable one.

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After getting camp set up we strapped on our daypacks and continued on the Badger Lake Trail. We planned on going at least another 1.9 miles to Long Lake and then possibly continuing an additional 1.6 miles to the Pacific Crest Trail where we would only be .6 more miles from Island Lake and the Judge Waldo Tree.

When we reached the northern end of Badger Lake we discovered a couple of established campsites but we were happy with the spot we’d picked. Just beyond these sites the trail crossed a small stream connecting that connected Badger Lake to a long meadow with a lily pad pond.

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As we passed along the meadow we began seeing some wildflowers including several bigelow’s sneezeweeds.
Arnica

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Columbine

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Aster

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Yarrow

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Bolander’s madia

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Bigelow’s sneezeweed

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The trail had been skirting the meadow, but some large piles of blowdown had forced a reroute through the meadow where we had to carefully watch our step due to the presence of frogs. Having to go slow through the meadow made us easier targets for the small number of mosquitoes that were still present.

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When arrived at Long Lake it was easy to see how it earned its name.

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There were a number of campsites along the lake but no one was occupying any of them. We had passed a pair of hikers earlier that had been camped there and they said they didn’t see anybody while they had been there. It was only 1:45pm and we were feeling pretty good so we elected to continue on to Island Lake despite the increasing blowdown. There had been intermittent blowdown over the trail since the meadow, but beyond Long Lake the amount really increased.

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On the plus side the entire trail was relatively level and we managed to reach the PCT without too much difficulty.

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At the junction the Badger Lake Trail was hidden by blowdown.

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On the opposite side of the PCT the Blue Canyon Trail appeared to be relatively clear.

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A quick downhill .2 miles along that trail brought us to a junction with the Red Lake Trail and in another .4 miles we reached the unmarked side trail that led to some campsites and the Judge Waldo Tree.

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In 1888 a group of 5 horsemen led by conservationist Judge J. B. Waldo camped at Island Lake while riding from Willamette Pass to Mt. Shasta on what would become the route of the Pacific Crest Trail. While at the lake they carved their names in the tree (an act that current day conservationists would never consider doing now).

We took a break at the lake enjoying a snack before filtering some water for the evening. While we were getting the water we received a thorough fishing report from a young man who had been camped at the lake with his family. Apparently the fish had been going nuts over salmon eggs but they wouldn’t actually take the bait. 🙂

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When we were finished filling our water we started back toward Badger Lake. When we got back to Long Lake we stopped to cook dinner and watch a group of ducks that were paddling around the lake.

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In addition to the ducks there were a number of small birds flitting around the trees along the shore as well as a Douglas and a Golden-mantled ground squirrels.

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After dinner we returned to Badger Lake where the very top of Mt. McLoughlin was visible over the trees on the far end of the lake.

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Just like the previous night at Zeb Lake we were the only ones camped at the lake. It was indeed a lot quieter than it would have been at Fourmile Campground. We had managed another long day, 17.6 miles in all, and had big plans for the next day as well – summiting Mt. McLoughlin.

Happy Trails!

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/9319235@N02/albums/72157673108018195

Categories
High Cascades Hiking Oregon Sky Lakes/Mountain Lakes Area Trip report

Mountain Lakes Wilderness

We used a long weekend to take a trip down south to visit a pair of wilderness areas between Medford and Klamath Falls. We started our trip at the Varney Creek Trailhead located at the end of Forest Road 3664. To reach the trailhead we turned off of Highway 140 on Forest Road 3637 near milepost 36 for 1.8 miles before turning left on road 3664 for another 1.9 miles.
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Our plan was to take the Varney Creek Trail to the Mountain Lakes Loop and set up camp at either Eb or Zeb Lake then complete the loop using our daypacks.

The Varney Creek Trail begins in a fairly dense forest as it slowly climbs between Mt. Harriman and Varney Creek (which we could not see or hear).
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A little over a mile along the trail we entered the 36 square mile Mountain Lakes Wilderness. One of the 8 original wilderness areas in Oregon created by the 1964 Wilderness Act.
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At the 1.4 mile mark we came to an wet area that had seen a lot of blowdown. A pair of bridges helped keep us out of the mud created by some trickles of water.
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It was on our way out the next day when we realized that this was actually a crossing of Varney Creek.

We were now on the west side of the creek and for the next couple of miles the trail passed by a series of meadows to the left and dry, open slopes on the right. The majority of the wildflowers were finished but a few stragglers remained.
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Aster
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Fireweed
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Paintbrush
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Scarlet gilia
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Larkspur
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Near the four mile mark the trail began to climb a little more steeply up toward the Mountain Lakes Loop junction which we reached after a total of 4.4 miles.
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At the junction we turned right heading toward Eb and Zeb Lakes which were just under a half mile away. This section of trail climbed a little more steeply at first before leveling out some as it neared the lakes.
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The lakes are across from one another on either side of the trail. We noticed Eb Lake on our right first and headed over to see if we could find a good campsite.
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We hiked all the way around Eb Lake seeing a few possibilities but nothing that we were in a hurry to claim so when we arrived back at the trail we crossed over to check out Zeb Lake.
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We found a decent looking spot at the edge of a small burned area at the SW end of the lake. We set our packs down and decided to go counter-clockwise around the lake to see if there were any better locations. Along the way we encountered a grassy area full of small frogs.
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We swung out wider to avoid accidentally stepping on any of the little guys. After working our way around and passing through the burnt area we arrived back at our packs and decided that this would be our campsite for the night.
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After setting up camp we threw on our daypacks and continued on the loop. Beyond the lakes the trail steepened as it climbed out of the valley to a saddle between Whiteface Peak and an unnamed point.
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From the saddle the view included Klamath Lake to the east and Brown Mountain & Mt. McLoughlin to the NW.
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From the saddle the trail passed around Whiteface Peak through drier forest.
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Almost a mile and a half from the lakes we arrived at trail junction with the Mountain Lakes Trail.
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We headed left to continue the loop arriving at a second junction in another .7 miles.
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The right hand fork headed downhill a mile to Clover Lake and the Clover Creek Trail. We were feeling pretty good and since one of the reasons we take these trips is to explore the area we headed down toward the lake. The relatively small lake was full of activity. Dragonflies darted through the air and fish seemed to constantly be breaking the surface of the lake feeding on insects.
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We sat by the lake enjoying the action while we had a snack. When it was time to continue we took a look at our maps to locate an old trail that was no longer maintained. This abandoned trail would lead us back up to the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail about a mile from where we had left it. We had to continue downhill past Clover Lake for just a bit and almost missed the turn but a small rock cairn and an old blaze in a tree helped us locate it.
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Despite the trail no longer being maintained there weren’t too many obstacles and between the blazes and cairns, following it wasn’t difficult.
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After making it back to the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail we continued on quickly arriving at a viewpoint along the rim above Lake Harriette.
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Approximately a mile from where we had rejoined the loop trail a pair of large rock cairns marked a use trail to the summit of 8208′ Aspen Butte.
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The mile long use trail began up a wooded ridge before views opened up of our goal.
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The trail followed the ridge SE before heading up more steeply up the butte.
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It was in the mid 70’s and we were feeling the heat going up the exposed trail and we welcomed a little shade and breeze at the summit.
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The horizon was hazy in all directions but it was all blue skies above the wilderness. To the south was snowy Mt. Shasta.
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To the north the Sky Lakes Wilderness, the peaks around Crater Lake, and Mt. Thielsen lay beyond the Mountain Lakes Wilderness.
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To the northwest Mt. McLoughlin rose above the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
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Klamath Lake lay to the east.
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After another nice break we returned once again to the Mountain Lakes Loop which almost immediately began descending toward a junction with a trail down to South Pass Lake.
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We actually skipped this one since it would have added another 3.2 miles to what was already going to be a long hike. From this junction the trail gradually descended through open forest toward Lake Harriette.
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We had seen a number of hawks already when a large red-tailed hawk flew into a nearby tree.
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Just under two miles from the South Pass Trail we arrived at large Lake Harriette.
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We were looking for a place to filter some water and have dinner but there were two other groups of hikers at this part of the lake so we decided to check out another nearby lake. Echo Lake was just down a hill on the other side of the trail. We bushwacked down to this smaller lake only to find the shore a bit muddy. It was a pretty little lake but not what we were looking for in dinner spot.
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We headed back up to the trail and continued along Lake Harriette. At the west end of the lake an area had been closed to camping. This proved to be the perfect spot for dinner with a nice view of the lake which at times had a good reflection.
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Next to the lake here was a large rock covered slope with a couple of what appeared to be small caves.
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After having dinner and filtering some water we left Lake Harriette and passed over a low saddle heading toward Lake Como. Along the way we passed a small unnamed lake on the left which I somehow failed to get any photos of. A little over a mile from Lake Harriette we arrived at Lake Como.
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It was another .7 miles from Lake Como back to the junction with the Varney Creek Trail where we had begun the loop earlier that day and another .4 miles back to our campsite at Zeb Lake. We arrived back at our tent just before 7:30pm. The days hike had been approximately 17.4 miles and taken us just under 10 hours but we’d managed to see quite a bit of the area. One thing we noticed was that many of the area was very rocky and a lot of the trail had small to medium sized rocks in them making the ground uneven. Otherwise the official trails were all in good shape with little blowdown to navigate.

We had seen a handful of other hikers during the day but the only other people we had seen camping had been at Lake Harriette so we had Zeb Lake all to ourselves as we turned in for the night.
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Happy Trails!

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/9319235@N02/sets/72157673010323616