King Spruce Loop (Sky Lakes Wilderness) 19-Aug-2015

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon

This is a short hike to a neat lake and a big tree – but not one with much in the way of views. Hence it had fallen down on the to do list. But smoke coming from large wildfires to the north (near Canyonville, Oregon) and the south (in California) was severely limiting visibility. So a lake and a tree seemed like a fair trade for views. The Seven Lakes Trail (USFS #981) is probably the most popular and most used western approach into the Seven Lakes Basin of the Sky Lakes Wilderness. It’s a little rocky but has recently received maintenance that removed this year’s crop of fallen trees, making it an easy cruise.

About two miles up the trail, I came, once again, to Frog Lake, which, on this hot, smokey day in August, had its water level down a few feet.

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Frog Lake

Trail #981 continues east to a saddle just north of Venus (peak), where it junctions with the Devils Peak Trail, and then descends to a junction with the Alta Lake Trail (USFS #979). A little down and north on that trail brought me to Lake Alta, which managed to look cool and refreshing in the day’s rising heat. Only about four miles from the trailhead, this long lake has several great campsites at a crisp altitude of 6,800 feet.

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Alta Lake

But even it was showing the effects of years of low snow and little rain.

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Alta Lake

The #979 runs along the east shore of the lake, then heads north from the lake’s northern end. From here, I got a look back at Lucifer (peak) on the smokey horizon.

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Lucifer from Alta Lake

The #979 is only lightly maintained – probably by volunteers – but is open and easy to follow. It passes Boulder Pond, which has been known to hold water as late as September (but not this year),

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon
Boulder Pond (dry)

before reaching a junction with the King Spruce Trail (USFS #980). The Forest Service’s description of this trail – which I read after I got back – is both grim and somewhat contradictory – is it open or closed? It certainly hasn’t received any maintenance in a long while and is suffering from fallen trees, overgrown vegetation, and worn and slumped tread. But it wasn’t too hard to follow now but is obviously slowly slipping away. 😥 I was a bit surprised to find the springs shown on the map actually flowing – even in this dry year!

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon
The springs near King Spruce Camp

The original reasons for this trail may have been to access the springs at the head of the Sumpter Creek drainage, as a lower altitude way to reach Alta Lake, or to reach King Spruce Camp. Forest Service employees gave it this name in the 1920s due to the large Engelmann spruce tree growing there, said to be one of the largest specimens in this species’ westernmost range. I saw a very large spruce tree – at least 10 to 11 feet in diameter – just off the trail but couldn’t be sure it was the official “King Spruce” or not. Still, it was the biggest tree I could see among several other large trees, so I’m taking it as the King (tree that is).

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon
King Spruce?

From the springs/tree it was only about 1.5 miles back to the trailhead and the end of what was an enjoyable – if not super WOW – loop hike (9.5 mile loop; 1,800 feet of elevation gain). Today, while the #980 is not truly impassable (it was not in the footprint of the 2008 Middle Fork Fire), it is definitely no longer being maintained. Lengths of it are overgrown with brush or covered with ravel, and it’s an obstacle course of fallen trees the last mile or so to its end at a junction with the #979. Yet the small cairns perched on trees along its tread attest to it still being used—whether by accident or intention is hard to say. So I’d probably not do the #980 again but Lake Alta is absolutely worthy of another visit! 😀 (Update: The Siskiyou Mountain Club removed approximately 100 logs near both ends of the #980 in 2017 and has plans to maintain it further.)

King Spruce Sky Lakes Wilderness Oregon
The King Spruce Loop

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