After several stormy days in otherwise bucolic Southern Oregon, today opened to near perfect bluebird conditions – sunny, crisp, and clear, with just a hint of clouds for contrast. Rummaging through our list of low-altitude, snow-not-ready-yet-for-snowshoes, Winter hiking options, we came up with the Payette Trail (USFS #970). This hiking and mountain biking trail runs for about nine nearly level miles along the eastern shore of Applegate Lake, an Army Corps of Engineers managed reservoir on the Upper Applegate River. The reservoir’s pool elevation can change by 100 feet or more annually in response to seasonal rainfall. So it looks like a real lake in mid-summer but a large mud bathtub in mid-winter. Nonetheless the trails around it are good ones, and all offer some pretty vistas if you accept the “lake” for what it is.
We did this hike as a shuttle, leaving The LovedOne’s car at the French Gulch Trailhead (ample paved parking but no amenities) and then driving around to the Manzanita Trailhead (limited dirt parking, no amenities) near the south end of the lake. From here, the Payette Trail descends on an old road,
to a signed junction where it leaves the old road, continues down to just above the high water level, levels out, and starts offering views of the lake. The popular Da-Ku-Be-Te-De Trail (USFS #940) runs along the west side of the lake here and eventually joins the Collings Mountain Trail (USFS #943), which passes the world famous Bigfoot Trap near its north end.
The Payette Trail then continues on along the edge of the lake. It’s mostly level for its whole length, which makes it popular as an easy, beginner mountain bike ride.
Just past Panther Gulch, the trail swings around a headland and heads east. From the headland, we got a glimpse back at the Red Buttes, now showing a foot or two of fresh snow from our recent storms (snow that will, come Spring, find its way into this lake).
All of the vascular plants have retreated into winter-time senescence, so, once again, we were encouraged to focus on the inherent beauty of the too-often overlooked, reviled, or just eaten (after a light sauté in butter) fungi.
Once the trail passes the headland, the view to the north opens up, and we could pick out peaks (Little Grayback, Baldy Peak) associated with popular low-altitude hikes starting in the Applegate Valley.
The trail then continues through mixed stands of oaks, pines, firs, and madrones,
with openings that provide some interesting abstract views of the lake and its shore.
Interspersed with these big, abstract views were much smaller ones of the mushrooms. Beetles had bored small holes in a tree – either before or after it had fallen over – then spores had found their way into these dark, moist, near perfect growth habitats and sprouted into a field of one inch tall mushrooms. Ah, yes, no niche goes unfilled…
The trail then continued along,
to Tipsu Tyee campground (USFS), which is accessible only by trail or boat. The USGS map shows it well up-slope of the lake but now it’s right on the lake’s high waterline.
From the campground, the Harr Ridge Trail (USFS #947) climbs southward up to the ridgeline to where it leads to a cluster of other small trails: the Culy Trail (USFS #947A), the Cut-Off Trail (USFS #946), and the Squaw Point Trail (USFS #946A). Known collectively as the Viewpoint Trails [not to be confused with the Viewpoint Trail over on the Latgawa Peninsula], they swarm around the point between the main lake and Squaw Arm and provide more views; but not all of these trails are well signed or signed at all. We continued on from Tipsu Tyee,
to where we could look up the Squaw Creek Valley, with the creek’s braided channels in the foreground (only visible at low water) and snowy Squaw Peak on the far horizon. The old lookout atop Squaw Peak, reached via the Little Grayback Trail, is one of our favorite close-by hikes.
We then passed Harr Point Campground (USFS), crossed Spring Gulch Creek,
then the very robust bridge over Squaw Creek,
went through the Payette Trailhead parking lot at the head of Squaw Arm and, after a short stretch of old road,
rejoined the Payette Trail.
After passing a junction with one of the several trails (USFS #972) on the Latgawa Peninsula between Squaw Arm and French Gulch Arm,
we came into view of the dam itself,
negotiated a now unsigned (the sign having been torn away by some drooler) 5-way junction on a headland between the main lake and French Gulch Arm, descended past the primitive Latgawa Cove Campground, continued on to cross a small wooden bridge over French Gulch Creek,
and emerged unscathed at the French Gulch trailhead. Then we rewound the car shuttle and headed home, having put in another “tough” (but totally amazing) day hiking in Southern Oregon. NOTE: If you don’t want to do a car shuttle or an out-and-back hike, you can use an old road (as described here) to make a loop starting at the French Gulch or Payette (at Squaw Arm) trailheads, out to the Manzanita trailhead, and then back on the Payette Trail.