It had been a largely snowless winter, with few, if any, trails closed by snow. We had been doing a lot of hiking locally but got to wondering what conditions would be like in Northern California, after a week of no precipitation (much less snow) and temperatures rising into the 80ºFs. So we decided to do our first hike in the Marble Mountain Wilderness from the Lovers Camp Trailhead to see for ourselves. The Marble Mountain Wilderness is the second (going from north to south) of four wilderness areas (Red Buttes, Marble Mountain, Russian, Trinity Alps) that are west of Interstate-5 in Northern California. It’s east side is readily accessible from Interstate-5 and Highway 3 through Fort Jones.
Paved roads lead up to the Lovers Camp Trailhead, which is quite large (there’s a separate, larger equestrian trailhead too) – which indicates how popular this area is in season. When we got to the tralhead at 0930, the temperature was already 52ºF and rising – it felt like late June, not late April. It was a t-shirt day, all day. This is Hike #89 in Sullivan’s Southern Oregon (3rd Edition, 2014) hiking guide.
The Canyon Creek Trail (USFS #5532) heads up along Canyon Creek, through a nice forest canopy which was full of that warm pine scent we’ve come to associate with early summer in the wilderness.
The trail crosses a few small side streams, which could provide a cool drink but are not impediments to hiking.
After about 3 miles of ambling through the forest, the trail starts climbing more forcefully, up some granite steps thoughtfully provided for that purpose.
After crossing above a large waterfall (or cascade),
we came to the Forest Service cabin in Marble Valley. The cabin is still in use but not open to the public. In the background is the mountain of white marble that gives this valley (and this wilderness) its name. It’s so strikingly white that when we first caught sight of it as we approached the cabin we thought the mountain was actually snow covered.
The trail up Canyon Creek intersects the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at the cabin and this is where we found the first snow patch of the day – one of very few we found.
The temperature was in the mid-70ºFs at the cabin, with a nice breeze and no bugs, so we had lunch there before heading south on the PCT, which had been blasted through some of that white marble,
toward a saddle on the ridge between Little Marble Valley and the Big Elk Fork drainage.
On the ridge, the PCT junctions with the Marble Rim Trail (USFS #5559) heading north and the Big Elk Lake Trail (USFS #5557) heading west. Unfortunately, the attractiveness of the valley holding Big Elk Lake had been ravaged by a recent (2014) forest fire and we kept catching the sour smell of old charcoal wafting over the ridge at us. From the gap, we hiked a short way up the Marble Rim Trail to get a big view of the white Marble Mountains, with Black Marble Mountain off to the right. Up here, it was easy to see how the white marble had intruded into darker colored geologic features.
There was very little snow on the Marble Mountains Range to the east,
and only a little more in the heart of the wilderness to the south – mostly above 6,500 feet.
This was a leisurely, exploratory hike (12 miles roundtrip; 2,100 feet of elevation gain), so we didn’t push it to try to circle the lakes in the Sky High Valley – something to save for a later hike or (better) a 1-2 night backpack. So we retraced our steps from the gap – doing just a little cross-country to follow an abandoned trail – to the trailhead, thankful that our return was in the shade. All of the trails we were on were in good shape – recent maintenance was evident – and there was no appreciable snow on any of them. We’re making plans to get back here for a backpacking trip before summer temperatures set in (and before that big parking lot fills up!).