Yamsay Mountain is a huge, sprawling (and fortunately now dormant) shield volcano with a glacier-carved crater on its northeast side. It sits 35 miles due east of Crater Lake National Park, at the border of Klamath and Lake Counties. Yet, despite its height and size (it covers 75 square miles), Yamsay is barely visible above the surrounding hills and forests. What makes it interesting as a hike is its size: it’s #73 on the list of Oregon’s highest peaks, #15 of the peaks that share a history of Cascade Range volcanism, and #14 on the list of Oregon’s most prominent peaks (where prominence is the elevation of a summit relative to the surrounding terrain). All this listing makes the peak attractive to peakbaggers and view-obsessed hikers (like us). It’s also a popular winter cross-country ski route. And the recent placement of a geocache near the summit has attracted yet another group of visitors (Yamsay geocache). So it’s a bit obscure but not unpopular.
We decided to approach Yamsay’s summit via the short (but perhaps less aesthetic) trail from the west rather than the longer (17-mile round-trip) trail from the east (eastern approach). To get to the western trailhead, we turned east off US Highway 97 on to paved Silver Lake Road (County Road 676) and proceeded east to just past milepost 21, where we turned south (right) on to gravel/dirt Forest Road (FR) 49 at the sign “Jackson Creek 5 Miles.” We followed FR 49 past the Jackson Creek Campground and then turned left on to dirt signed FR 4972 at 5.3 miles from Silver Lake Road. We went along FR 4972 and then turned left on to signed FR 4973 at the “Marsh View Trail” sign and continued on FR 4973 to the trailhead – 10.7 miles from Silver Lake Road – following the most obvious two-track route all the way. All of these two-track dirt roads were in good condition, with no washouts or high centers, and would be easily passable by 2WD cars (when dry). We had been warned about car-scratching brush encroaching on FR 4973 but found it to be largely avoidable (i.e., we came away unscratched). The trailhead has parking for 4-6 cars and is defined by the huge berm blocking further progress by cars.
The summit was the site of two now long gone fire lookout towers. The “trail” is the former lookout access road that has been heavily carved with berms (water bars) and can also be burdened with naturally fallen trees. The amount of work that went into digging these berms seems way out of proportion with either road decommissioning or erosion control – it all looked like overkill to us. Other reports we consulted when planning this hike spoke about the tedium of going up and down theses berms and of struggles to cross the many downed trees. We didn’t find either of these – berms or trees – to be hiking impediments. The berms are now old and have either begun to settle or to be filled-in relative to the old roadbed – so some up and down but not much. As for the downed trees, either the USFS or volunteers have done a lot of clearing of past falls.
There had obviously been recent tree falls but these were either small enough to easily step over or around or could be avoided by detouring into the open forest on either side.
Higher up, just after the road makes its first big turn to the northeast, both the berms and the downed trees abated, and the going got even easier.
While the old road/trail proved to be much easier than expected, the weather did not. We had fantasized about spending some time on a sun-drenched summit – enjoying a snack and the view and maybe looking for the geocache. But we hadn’t reckoned with the smoke rolling in from the northeast from the ever expanding Gap Fire in Northern California or the passing of a weak cold front with clouds and a few raindrops (or a deluge if you were right under one of the convection cells). So, as we gained the summit, we could look west and see both a rosy haze on the horizon and a wet fate approaching. Sigh.
We got to the summit, only to find that the original (and only) summit benchmark had been chopped away and stolen (obviously by some drolling idiot of a loser). Two benchmark witness markers (from 1932 and 1968) were, however, still present.
There were, over the years, two lookout towers on Yamsay’s summit. An 80 foot steel tower was built in 1929, then replaced in 1961 with a 20 foot treated timber R-6 tower, which was removed in the late 1970s by burning. Heavily spalled concrete footings are all that remain of the 1929 tower. One had to admire the dedication it took to climb an 80 foot metal tower on top of an 8,000 foot mountain if thunderstorms were on offer!
The footings for the 1961 20-foot wooden tower were in better condition but are still all that remains of it (except for lots of old nails).
The view was not what we’d hoped for, since it was obscured by clouds aloft and smoke below. Mounts Thielsen and Bailey, to the northwest near Crater Lake, were the only ones unique enough or big enough to emerge from the smoke layer.
To the east, we could dimly make out the summit of the Gearhart Wilderness (details) through the clouds and smoke.
It was unwelcomingly cold and windy on the summit, so, after a really quick snack, we started down. But, since hiking isn’t immune to irony either, within 20 minutes of our leaving the top, the deluge moved safely (for us) off to the south, clearing out some of the smoke as it went,
then the clouds started to shift,
and soon sunlight was streaming down on the trail,
and the day we had hoped for (weatherwise) was in full swing by the time we were 0.25 miles from the trailhead. Double sigh.
Not the weather we’d wanted but still an interesting hike (6.8 miles round-trip; 1,600 feet of elevation gain) to a somewhat overlooked mountain, with the added extra of some old lookout history. Worth doing for those reasons alone but even better if there’s a sunny view from the top!