After two partially successful attempts – hikes of Aspen Butte and Mount Ashland – to get above the wildfire smoke that has been choking Southern Oregon and Northern California for several weeks, we were finally faced with Mount McLoughlin, the sixth highest Cascade peak in Oregon. At 9,495 feet, it just had to be high enough to be above the smoke. It just had to be (sob)! If I (the LovedOne having demurred on a grueling ascent in favor of air conditioning at home) got above the smoke, I would (hopefully) be rewarded for the nearly 4,000 of elevation gain this summit demands (making it one of the toughest hikes in Southern Oregon) with BIG VIEWS in all directions. It would also be the first time in many years that I’d climbed it under totally snow-free conditions – which, to me, makes the climb both easier and harder for different reasons.
The Mt. McLoughlin Trailhead is located off Highway 140 about halfway between Medford and Klamath Falls. It’s on the Fremont-Winema National Forest so there’s a $5 trailhead fee (for which you get a nice pit toilet with toilet paper). The Mt. McLoughlin Trail (USFS #3716) starts from the southwest end of the parking lot (there used to be a sign here but some drooler stole it), crosses the Cascade Canal, a man-made channel which moves water from Fourmile Lake to the Rogue Valley,
and soon arrives at the wilderness boundary and the Forest Service’s warning sign – which is absolutely worth reading if you aren’t familiar with this peak’s excentricities. For example, this hike starts on one forest (the Fremont-Winema) but soon enters another (the Rogue-Siskiyou), which is good to know should you have to call for help.
The trail runs level for about 1.5 miles, then becomes increasingly rocky as it starts its relentless climb to the summit. There’s a small, waterless campsite at about 7,000 feet and from here I got my first view of Fourmile Lake to the northeast and of the smoke filtering in to the Klamath Lake area from nearby wildfires.
Around 8,000 feet the trail starts emerging from the trees and from here I caught sight of Mount Shasta to the south, barely visible above the staggering amount of smoke from the wildfires in Northern California.
At about 8,200 feet, the official trail ends at a sandy saddle – a good place for a break – where I got my first good look at the summit, now only 1,300 rocky feet above!
What I also got from here were distressing views of the wildfires (Spruce Lake and Blanket Creek) blowing up near Crater Lake to the north,
and from numerous wildfires to the west of Mount Shasta in Northern California.
When there’s no snow up here, the use trail up from the saddle is pretty obvious and is marked with little white paint dots here and there. Other use trails can tempt you out on to McLoughlin’s south side but sticking as close to the ridgeline as possible is the way to go (both ascending and descending). When all this is covered with snow, it’s just a steady climb up (with skis, snowshoes, or boots) – no dodging in and around boulders – which I find is easier if you’re comfortable on snow.
In summer, the last 400 feet is gravel scree, which sucks the life out of each upward step. In winter, it’s a smooth climb but one that can be icy and interestingly exposed over McLoughlin’s southern slopes.
And then, mercifully, I was on top. Until 1939, there used to be an active fire lookout up here. It was no longer in service after 1940 and the harsh weather on the summit over the years since has pretty much obliterated it – only some bits and pieces remain.
I’d gotten an early start so the entire climb up had been under pleasantly cool conditions, with what smoke there was getting less and less with each step up. The air on the summit, while thinner, was (as hoped for) clear, fresh, and smoke-free. The big views in all directions were, however, very sadly dominated by wildfires and their attendant layers of smoke.
I would have spent more time of the summit, but wanted to get down before the air temperature warmed toward triple digits in the afternoon. Going down, I got one more view of the North Pelican fire blazing away on the slopes of Pelican Butte to the northeast.
Because of the rocky trail, going down wasn’t all that much faster than going up. And by early afternoon, smoke had started infiltrating the forest and the air temperature had shot up into the high 80ºFs. Much of the trail lower down is in the shade of the forest but where I had to cross a sunny patch, I could feel the heat like an oven door opening. Gasp! There wasn’t much wildlife around except for one deer who I thought was paying a little too much attention to my sweaty pack straps.
Well, after a stiff hike (9.1 miles roundtrip; 3,900 feet of elevation gain), I got above the smoke, only to be seriously disheartened by big views of the many wildfires burning in our area. We seem to be in the grips of one of the worst fire seasons in recent years, with the outright suppression of the old days having to give way to “management”, with its tough choices as to where to hold the line, and eventally to restoration (but likely not back to the forests that I grew-up in). Fire and fire policy are enormously complex and controversial topics, but Stephen Pyne’s Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America is an approachable academic treatment of the topic, while Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn is an immensely readable story about the largest wildfire in U.S. history – and the one that got us started down the path of suppression. With fire, as with all things, change happens, but I am still going to mourn for the forests I once knew.