Elk Lake (Red Buttes Wilderness) 14-Oct-2018

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California

Elk Lake (sometimes called Moraine Lake) is one of six little lakes clustered at the southeast end of California’s Red Buttes Wilderness. Such high-elevation lakes are rare in the Siskiyou Mountains because this range was largely unaffected by lake basin-forming Pleistocene glaciation. [1] Lily Pad is the easiest to access, with Towhead and Echo not far behind. However, Hello, Goodbye, and Elk take some effort to visit. I wanted to see what it would take to reach Elk and also see what impact the 2017 Abney Fire had had on Cook and Green Pass and the stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) running west from there. The LovedOne demurred on yet another hike likely to involve bushwhacking and boulder flogging, opting instead to design a quilt.

It would be an understatement to say that Elk Lake isn’t visited very often. The California Department of Fish and Game reported (in 1969) that Elk Lake received occasional light stocking to take care of very light fishing pressure. Very light indeed! Online research turned-up only one description (Dave’s) of how to reach it from the PCT and that involved climbing over the saddle northeast of Red Butte and making your way down the steep slopes (and around the cliffs) on the north side. Reaching that saddle wasn’t particularly easy and from above (and later from the side) the slope down looked hard. Map-gazing suggested an easier (relatively speaking) way via the notch just south of Point 6532 – that was the goal of today’s exploration.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Elk Lake from the saddle northeast of Red Butte

Forest Road 1055, which had been closed for most of the summer due to fire damage, was now open and the drive to Cook and Green Pass through a partially burned forest was uneventful. Except for the scary signs, the pass itself looked fine,

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Ominous portent at Cook and Green Pass

but within a dozen feet of leaving the trailhead, the effects of the fire became obvious.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Fire damage along the PCT
Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Fire damage along the PCT

Parts of the forest looked untouched, in other parts smaller trees were gone but older trees looked like survivors, while in vast swaths to the south everything was incinerated. But the fire did have a salutary effect on ground cover, which brought out the deer, which brought out the hunters. It was definitely a day to hike swaddled in day-glow orange.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Looking at the burn mosaic from the PCT
Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Incineration along the PCT

The demarcation between burned and intact forest was just south of Cook and Green Butte and from there, the PCT was as I remember it. I could now see my goal – the notch in the ridge south of Point 6235.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Red Butte (red arrow) and the notch south of Point 6235 (white arrow)

From the junction of the PCT and the Horse Camp Trail (USFS #958),

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
View of Mount Shasta from the junction
Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Looking up the ridge from the junction

I worked my way up the ridge toward the rocky slope. I was fortunate to find a faint use trail on the north side of the ridge that got me completely around the mesquite and other brush clogging the ridge. Going up the slope was a matter of finding the easiest, least brushy, line through or around the boulders. I got blocked a few times but there was always a work-around and nothing got higher than YDS Class 2.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
A path of least resistance up the slope
Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Echo Lake from high on the slope

From the notch, I could see down to Elk Lake (some 800 feet below),

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Elk Lake from the notch

west to Preston Peak in the Siskiyou Wilderness,

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Red Butte (red arrow) and Preston Peak (black arrow) from the notch

and east to Mount McLoughlin.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
Mount McLoughlin (white arrow) with Echo Lake below

In front of me, however, was the bouldery, brushy slope going down some 800 feet in 0.3 miles to the lake.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
The tangled slope to Elk Lake

It isn’t a steep slope (getting here had been steeper) but negotiating it looked like an 800-foot, 0.6 mile (round-trip) pain in the butt just to see a small lake. My enthusiasm for enduring this additional suffering quickly evaporated. If you want to reach Elk, I think that this is the easiest way to do so, if you give easiest a very liberal interpretation.  Looking around, I spotted a cairn, which pointed me to a faint use trail going straight down a chute toward Echo Lake. This might be a third way to Elk Lake, either all the way up from Echo Lake or by cutting into the chute from the ridge. Either way, it looks steep, loose, and a likely bowling alley – where you are one of the pins.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
A use trail points DOWN to Echo Lake

Retracing my steps down was easier than finding my way up and I was soon off the slope and going down the ridge. From there, I could look back and see my route versus the one(?) coming straight up a chute from Echo Lake.

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
My route (black arrow) versus the one (red arrow) up from Echo Lake

Maybe one day Elk Lake will call to me again but, for today, finding a practical way to that notch was enough of a hike (6.1 miles; 1,700 feet of elevation gain).  Sad about the burned forest, though – it’ll be missed (at least for a generation or two).

Elk Lake Red Buttes Wilderness California
My route to the notch above Elk Lake

[1] Reid, IS. Amphibian, Fish Stocking, and Habitat Relationships in Siskiyou Mountain Wilderness Lakes, California and Oregon. Northwestern Naturalist 86: 25-33 (2005)

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