This trail is described in a few hiking guides for Southern Oregon, but those descriptions are more than a little out of date with its current state. Of course, I didn’t know that at the start, so this hike became a bit of an adventure rather than just a walk in the woods. There are no actual stairs, so it’s not clear whether “Golden Stairs” refers to the trail’s steepness, to the yellowish rock on some of the rock formations it passes, or to an alleged gold mine (there being no genuine gold mines in the Cascades) owned in ages past by the Abbott Brothers (who named a great number of places in this area).
Starting at around 4,000 feet, the Golden Stairs Trail (USFS #1092) climbs the southern ridge of Falcon Butte to an intersection with the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Trail (USFS #1470). From there, the #1470 goes west, past the Abbott Butte Lookout to its southern trailhead at Huckleberry Gap on Forest Road 68. So, to make a loop out of this, I planned to hide my bike at the Gap, drive around to the #1092 trailhead on Spur 550 (off FR 68), and then hike from there over to the Gap and coast back to my truck. What I should have remembered is that the #1092, while it eventually reaches the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness, is not itself in wilderness, but only on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. And that forest, particularly on the east side of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide, has a penchant for Off-Highway-Vehicle (OHV) “trails.”
To access these trailheads, I took Highway 62 north from Medford, Oregon to the Woodruff Bridge (FR 68) turnoff just past milepost 51. FR 68 is a two-lane paved road for about 5 miles and then becomes a good gravel road. It’s 13 miles from the turnoff to Huckleberry Gap and 5 miles from the turnoff to Spur 550. After hiding the bike at the Gap, I drove back to Spur 550 and up to what I thought was the #1092 trailhead. However there are two trailheads on Spur 550: one for OHV trail 23 (Golden Stairs Loop) about 1.4 miles from FR 68 and one for the Golden Stairs trail (#1092) itself about a mile further on. While it’s a little embarrassing to admit this error, it actually worked in my favor because OHV 23 is a very good trail and, because the OHV season is July 1 to October 1 (when it’s too hot to hike here anyway), I had it all to myself. Even if I’d started at the actual #1092 trailhead, I would have merged with OHV 23 within 0.5 miles.
Starting at the OHV trailhead adds a little distance to the hike but that’s not an issue because the trail is good. This is because the OHV clubs have to maintain this trail and they do a good job of it, keeping the effects of motorized use to a minimum. So it was easy going as I climbed through forest just below the ridge.
After about a mile in the forest, the trail emerges onto rocky ground,
past some unusual rock (basalt) formations (but I didn’t see any that were particularly yellow).
Now out of the forest, I got a view of the rocky face of Elephant Head to the northwest, which I would pass below on my way over to Huckleberry Gap. You can see it clearly from here but it looks much more impressive from the other side.
Mount McLoughlin was clearly evident to the south and even Mount Shasta could be made out, despite a light haze, on the far horizon.
Then the trail goes back into the trees, where the shade was appreciated as the day was now warming up.
Shortly thereafter I started smelling old smoke – like a recently doused campfire – and then came across long lengths of hose strung out along the trail. Apparently there’d been a small wildfire (too small to list on InciWeb) two weeks before. When I checked-out the actual #1092 trailhead after the hike, I found a small hand-lettered sign warning of this now two week gone fire.
After about 3.5 miles, OHV 23 made a sharp turn to the right and started back downhill. I’d been enjoying the quality of this trail so much that it hadn’t dawned on me that it would just end so abruptly.
Oh well. Now I was on my own with what little is left of the “real” Golden Stairs trail. The latest guidebook that includes this trail suggests that you stop here and retrace your steps. It doesn’t even show a trail past this point. And now I know why – because there isn’t much of one left. What there is basically follows along the top of the ridge but it obviously hasn’t seen much use or any maintenance for a very, very long time. There are short sections where it is somewhat evident (i.e., can be distinguished from game trails) but longer sections where you just have to stay on the ridge and hope that you’re still on the trail – and will find a discernible piece of it further along. But its trace does pass through a few open areas, with views of the peaks around Crater Lake to the east.
This faint trail wanders through tall timber and rocky openings for 1.5 miles until it merges with the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Trail (#1470) at an unsigned junction just below Falcon Butte.
There’s a much weathered sign (it’s barely readable even close-up in-person) at this junction but it doesn’t list the Golden Stairs trail. There’s no sign here pointing to the GS trail itself and you’d be hard pressed to guess (if you weren’t paying scrupulous attention to your map) that there’s even a trail junction here. So, after a snack and more DEET, I headed west on the #1470. All was well for the first 0.25 miles or so and then this trail also started to deteriorate and become a route finding challenge. The USFS considers the #1470 to be the primary route through the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness but our experience with it has been mixed: some good parts and many more that are hardly a trail anymore. I knew from a previous hike to the little pond below Elephant Head that the #1470 was sketchy over there but now I was to find that this stretch from the Golden Stairs trail to the little pond was even sketchier. I did catch a closer view of Elephant Head,
while I route-found the vague trail through meadows now exuberantly overgrown with this year’s crop of California corn lily and other greenery.
After some artful wandering – including lots of clambering over trees felled by last winter’s harsh storms – I finally reached the small pond (which Sullivan calls Elephant Head Pond), which was swarming with a huge number of tadpoles in various sizes (the smallest ones being referred to as “snacks” by the larger ones).
Elephant Head stands out much more boldly from this side.
Just past the lake, the trail crosses this long causeway, whose existence seems to attest to a time when this trail mattered and when resources were available to maintain it. Sadly, this no longer seems to be the case.
Westward of the pond, the trail climbs along the south (left) side of a series of meadows,
before topping out on a bare spot just before the signed junction with the Cougar Butte Trail (USFS #1432). The #1470 runs along the left side of this photo.
Then the #1470 faintly crosses some open ground and more meadows,
before connecting with the old road leading up to the now abandoned lookout atop Abbott Butte.
This lookout was first developed with a cupola cabin on a 15 foot tower in 1928 and then the present 20 foot timber L-4 tower was built in 1939. It’s now abandoned but, unlike other old lookouts that the Forest Service burned down or moved, this one was left in place to deteriorate at its own pace.
Abbott Butte is an easily accessible, and thus popular, short hike in the Rogue-Umpqua and so the trail to it from Huckleberry Gap is usually open and easy to follow. Unfortunately, this winter’s storms played havoc here too and the last two miles to the trailhead involved a fair amount of walking around or climbing over some fairly big fallen trees. Slower going than expected. After reaching the trailhead and recovering my bike, I enjoyed a very pleasant 8 mile downhill coast on FR 68, with a good view of Mount McLouglin along the way,
followed by a short, but stiff, climb back up Spur 550 to where I’d parked my truck. I then drove up to the “official” #1092 trailhead to see what I’d missed earlier in the day (like the sign about the fire). Total for the day: 11 miles with 2,300 feet of elevation gain while hiking and 8.3 miles while biking (mostly downhill with a little push at the end).
Despite some surprises – and forced errors – this turned out to be a really fun hike & bike loop. Navigating the obscure sections of the #1092 and the #1470 was actually fun – a good test of my hunt & peck route-finding skills. But the poor condition of these trails (particularly when compared to OHV 23) speaks (as noted above) to a time when hiking trails mattered and when resources were available to maintain them. Sadly, this no longer seems to be the case. Given that considerable resources were expended over the years to build and maintain these trails, it seems wrong to just let them slip away (a thought that could easily apply to other parts of our national infrastructure).