The Mountain Lakes Wilderness (not to be confused with the Sky Lakes Wilderness just to the north) is an exactly one section square (36 square mile) area that encompasses several lakes within a cluster of old (if they were not, you wouldn’t be reading this) volcanoes. Certainly the “squarest” wilderness area in Oregon. The Mountain Lakes Loop Trail (USFS #3727) circles the biggest lakes within the wilderness. We had previously explored it from the south via the Clover Creek Trailhead, enroute to a climb of the wilderness’ high point – Aspen Butte. The loop trail can also be reached from the north via the Varney Creek Trail (USFS #3718). With The Loved One out of action with a knee injury, I had to explore Varney Creek and hike the Mountain Lakes loop alone. 😥
With air temperatures in the valley hitting triple digits, I thought it would be cool enough over 6,000 feet for a comfortable hike. This was somewhat true until the afternoon when it got pretty hot even at this altitude (near 90ºF), a heat haze formed, and smoke from nearby wildfires started rolling in. But it was cool when I started up the gently climbing Varney Creek Trail through open forest,
across an area of intense trail maintenance,
and past small meadows still showing some greenery (but looking wilted by afternoon),
to a junction with the Mountain Lakes Loop Trail at about 6,700 feet. I did the loop counter-clockwise, so I turned west here and soon came to Eb Lake,
and Zeb Lake. There are a few small campsites at these lakes.
The trail then took me up to the saddle on the west side of Whiteface Peak and to the junction with the Mountain Lakes Trail (USFS #3721) coming in from the north. This is the one place where you can get a clear view (but with smoke haze) of Mount McLoughlin to the north.
From there, the loop trail took me southeast, first dropping slightly and then climbing back to the ridge at about 7,200 feet for a view of Lake Harriette from above.
I should note that the way that the #3727 shows on even the most current maps is not exactly how it plays out on the ground. Specifically, the maps show the trail contouring from below Whiteface Peak, past Point 7514, to the ridge above Lake Harriette. It doesn’t, as this would involve traversing some extensive boulder fields, across which I could find no evidence of a trail, old or new. Instead the loop trail drops down to about 6,800 feet (to get around the boulder fields) and then climbs back to the ridge. This disconnect between the trail as built and as mapped confuses more than a few hikers.
After viewing Lake Harriette, I continued along the loop trail to its high point on the ridge (where the use trail to Aspen Butte starts), then followed it down into the lake basin, over some quite rocky sections. With the exception of the lakes themselves, it was bone dry in the forest, with many places that had known water in the past but had seen none recently,
or were just patches of plant-choked water.
Lake Harriette is the largest waterbody in this wilderness, and was cool, clear, and inviting on what was becoming a hot day (so, yes, there was some splashing). The lake’s edges are rocky but I saw 2-3 decent campsites along its northern shore.
I then climbed out of Lake Harriette’s basin,
descended past Lake Como (2-3 small campsites),
and re-connected with the Varney Creek Trail north of Eb and Zeb. Then it was 4.5 easy but waterless miles back to the trailhead under a hot and hazy sky. Overall, a strenuous but fun hike (17 miles round-trip; 2,900 feet of elevation gain) through a pretty area but one that is now so, so dry – I could almost feel the forest crackle like old, dried paper as I hiked through it. One spark (or lightning bolt) and poof! But definitely worth a return visit if/when we get some rain to freshen it up a bit.