Having gone to bed with smoke so thick that we could barely see the mountains a few hundred feet away, and wondering if the smart move would be to head home rather than push through the remainder of the Siskiyou Crest Adventure Trail, I let out an audible whoop as I unzipped the tent door to greet the morning light.
Wilderness! We can see the wilderness!
At some point during the night - I couldn't tell you when since I'd zipped up all the doors of the tent to keep as much of the smoke outside as possible - the wind direction shifted nearly 180 degrees. Blowing the pea soup out to sea, it resulted in the clearest morning of our trip, and certainly lifted our spirits as we prepped for our six-mile hike to Pearsoll Peak, the highest in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.
By 6:39am, we were on our way!
Following what we'd later discover was an old mining road, the trail wound its way along the Kalmiopsis Rim, gaining elevation at a constant - but reasonable - pace. All around us, views extended for miles farther than we'd been able to see the day before, and our heads were on a constant swivel as we soaked it all in. I can't convey the sense of glory and relief I had, especially after my apprehension the night before.
The winds blowing over the Siskiyou, some remaining smoke had still settled into the Illinois River Valley to the east.
With the sun at our backs, the Kalmiopsis Wilderness stretched far and wide to our west. (Oh, and there's the Tacoma in our camp, nestled into the saddle below.)
We expected the road to deteriorate as we climbed, but to our surprise, it was in good condition - even actively maintained - in areas that would naturally wash out due to the presence of drainages and springs that were still sending water down the mountain.
We'd discover the answer to this mystery later, but for now we wondered if we'd somehow missed the route that might have allowed us to engage in some good old-fashioned "American Hiking." You know the kind with a skinny pedal and 4WD.
Of course, we were enjoying our time on foot, as we'd had plenty of driving over the previous two days.
One of the springs was cascading over an outcropping of green serpentinite before entering a newly installed culvert under the road.
Around each of the springs - and as far as we could see along their waterways - life was abundant. California Pitcher Plants seemed more spectacular than the curated display we'd seen the previous day. Wild blackberries - smaller and more delicious than the Himalya variety found in supermarkets - were perfectly ripe. And orange tiger lilies dangled daintily over the rushing water, all manner of pollinators partaking in their bounty.
Complete with a bow tie!
The perfect after-breakfast snack. So tasy!
Tiger lily trio.
We passed five springs - the only ones along the route - in just under a mile. From there, the trail leisurely switched back and forth a couple times, our rate of elevation gain nearly constant from the time we left camp to our emergence on a narrow ridge where we got our first glimpse of our destination.
Who says the California state rock can't vacation in Oregon? (Serpentinite)
As with many lookouts we've visited, the one on Pearsoll Peak seemed to have attracted that which it was designed to prevent.
This ridge - devoid of trees and rich with views - was my favorite segment of the hike.
All closed up.
The view into the wilderness was only getting better.
Across the ridge, the road crossed a scree field. This was the first place where it started to seem a little sketchy - not due to width, but because the lower track had started to slide down the hill over the years and it was reasonably off camber. Passable? Perhaps. But, "it wouldn't be fun backing down this section if there's nowhere to turn around," I remarked to my hiking partner to copious nodding.
And then, maybe 500 feet beyond the scree field, we reached the end of the road. From there, nothing but a footpath continued on to the lookout, still more than 500 feet above us.
It wasn't obvious at first, but as I glanced around - wondering why the road ended at this particular location, I realized that we were standing at the bottom of an old ore chute. Above us - and below it would turn out - adits plunged into the mountain, discarded waste rock well-camouflaged by the already-crumbling hillside.
All that remains of an old ore chute from the Pearsoll Peak Chromium Mine.
A few old nails - waiting to be used, or collected by visitors like us?
Having identified tailings piles a hundred feet up the hill, we had a couple options - the easiest would be to ignore the possibility of an explorable adit and continue on up to the lookout. The funnest (that is a word), would be to scramble up the hillside to investigate.
We decided to do both - in that I started scrambling, and @mrs.turbodb called up to find out if I'd discovered anything interesting.
Well look what we have here...
Could have used a bit more safety juju.
Definitely looks safe from the inside. What could possibly go wrong?
After describing the situation with the collapsed adit - and having watched my slippery ascent up the scree-covered hillside - @mrs.turbodb decided that she was good down on the trail, but surprised me by asking a question that I hadn't even considered:
"Do you want to just keep climbing up to the lookout from there, while I take the trail?"
My answer should have been obvious and quick. After all, I'd just seen the lookout as we'd walked across the ridgeline saddle. But, looking up the crumbling hillside, it seemed like it might be doable to pick my way up. Pulling out my route navigation device - an 8" Lenovo Tab M8 FHD that works really well with the topo maps on Backcountry Navigator XE - the ascent didn't seem that much worse than the ascent of the trail, so I decided to give it a go. Assuming it worked, I'd have only about a quarter the distance to travel as my companion, and I wouldn't have to find a way back down to the trail.
Now, before I continue with the story, I feel it is important to highlight two elements of that last sentence.
- "Assuming it worked" - we all know what they say about "assume," but in this case I was the only one involved. So, perhaps I was twice the (dumb)ass that I might normally be.
- "I wouldn't have to find a way back down" - even from my current position, I was already concerned about downclimbing my way back to the trail. What idiot would continue up when running into an impassable section above would necessitate going even farther back down. Oh, right, this guy between the keyboard and screen.
Hindsight of course is 20/20, and as I climbed up the next hundred feet, I quickly realized I'd made a mistake. Unfortunately, this is where point #2 came into play. Plus, knowing she had a longer distance to go than I did, @mrs.turbodb was nowhere to be seen as I started picking my way down the loose, 65 degree slope.
It only took a descent of about 15 feet for me to realize that "down" was really not an option.
And so, up I went, grabbing every piece of vegetation I could, testing each crumbly piece of Serpentinite before transferring my weight. It was slow going. I cut my hand on a rock. The wind picked up as I skirted a narrow ledge. I was dumb enough to let go of everything so I could snap a couple photos.
Doesn't look so bad from this angle, but I can assure you that this little tree exists on the edge of an abyss.
Eventually I reached a shallower ridge leading up to the lookout. I'd survived. I quickened my pace in the hopes that I could at least salvage a win by reaching the top first. And then @mrs.turbodb popped her head around the lookout and asked me if I was OK, adding, "My route was amazing, through the most beautiful garden-like setting."
I just smiled - a mixture of defeat and success - as I climbed up the final 15 foot ledge to the lookout.
The point at which I knew I wasn't going to die. Oh, and a nice view.
There are certainly worse places to take care of business.
From the top, the views overlooking the Kalmiopsis Wilderness were endless. These were not large mountains, but they were wild.
Lee Wetzel | L.O. | 1954
Initially, as we walked around the exterior, it appeared that the lookout was all locked up. We'd expected as much from the descriptions we'd read, knowing that - at the very least - it had been abandoned as an active lookout sometime between its installation in 1954 and its restoration by the Illinois Ranger District and the Sand Mountain Society in 1994. In fact, prior to this building, a cupola-style lookout was erected onsite in 1920, as reported in the local paper:
We have at last completed the Pearsoll Peak Lookout house; it is one of the ready cut standard type and it sure is a real house. We bumped up against a few minor mistakes which caused not a little grief, for instance, the plans call for tower windows size 33 1/2" x 38" but when we came to fit the windows we found they were 30"x38". A lot of swearing naturally followed. Further, the bevels on the quarter round were all cut only on one side; four of the jack rafters were four inches too short. Most unfortunate, while the table for the fire finder conforms exactly to the specifications, it is at least 14" too low. On a downward slope of 45 degrees or more, one could never sight the base of a fire looking through the sights of the alidade.July 1920, Siskiyou Bulletin
Then, as I more closely inspected the steel bars securing the shutters, I noticed that they could be lifted out of the way without the need for a key, allowing the shutters to be raised and the door to be opened. A few minutes later, we were inside!
It was a mess in there. Apparently, a new group of volunteers are working to restore the lookout a second time.
First ones to sign the book in nearly a year! Little did we know that we'd soon meet the "K" of "N+K" who signed the same page, nearly a year earlier.
After poking around in the pile of tools for a few minutes, we stashed the documentation back in the tupperware we'd found it in and retraced @mrs.turbodb's steps down from the summit.
The garden of which she'd spoke.
As we were nearing the point at which we'd parted ways on the hike up (the upper tailings pile), we noticed a second tailings pile, accessible via a lower road.
We couldn't come all this way without inspecting the lower workings of the Pearsoll Peak Chromium Mine, and a few minutes later our curiosity paid off - a second adit, this one leading much deeper into the mountain.
Nice and wet inside. Surely that can't be good for the wooden supports.
"Supports." Six inches from the ceiling and rotten through and through. Definitely not supporting anything at all.
After venturing a few hundred yards into the mountain, I'd had enough. I can't be certain, but the tracks in this adit suggest to me that it was likely connected to the adit further up the hillside that I'd explored earlier in the day via a vertical shaft. Ore would be sent down the shaft and then moved via ore cart to a truck waiting at the entrance.
Retracing my steps to safety.
To the edge of the waste pile, and beyond!
It was a lot of fun exploring the mind, but @mrs.turbodb was relieved when I mentioned I was ready to go. Unlike me, she's not dumb enough to climb herself into places she can't climb down, or venture into adits that are "totally safe."
Headed back down across the ridge, still my favorite part of the hike.
This Fritillary flitted by as we worked our way down the switchbacks.
We reached camp just before 11:00am, both of us ready for lunch after our morning workout. And, with only about 60 miles of Siskiyou Crest Trail remaining, we decided that we might as well eat the tacorittoes we'd planned to have for dinner, easy to do since the Tacoma was still set up in camp.
Then, just as we were about to light the stove, I caught movement in my peripheral vision. Two hikers - their packs stuffed to the brim - appeared from the west. There was a trail into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness there - though not one I'd have considered hiking, and it turns out that our new friends were just as surprised to see us parked at the pass as we were to see them.
After warm hellos, we each shared our stories - these two, part of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, an organization that maintains all of the hiking trails in the region. They'd camped with a sizable group far below us the previous night, and were hiking their way along the Kalmiopsis Ridge Trail to shuttle two vans that we'd seen at the wilderness overlook we'd visited the previous afternoon.
Turns out that the woman in the group - whose name I've forgotten but starts with a "K," was the "K" of "N+K" in the Pearsoll Peak Lookout logbook, having visited nearly a year earlier!
Seriously, what are the chances?
After a few more minutes of chatting - the SMC folks extremely interested to hear about the road conditions we'd encountered in reaching Chetco Pass via mechanical means - we all bid each other well and settled back into our routines.
A long way to go back to the vans. Especially with those packs!
After lunch, we cruised back down towards the Illinois River, the remnants of the 2002 Biscuit Fire still scaring the landscape around us.
Upon reaching the river, there was only one thing on our mind - cooling off with a dip under the suspension bridge we'd passed on our way in the previous evening. Donning our swimsuits - one of us eased her way into the water, the other diving headfirst into the pleasantly cool pool.
We didn't do enough swimming on this trip, and we wore too many clothes when we did.
Refreshed, it was just a few minutes after noon when we stashed our already-almost-dry gear in the back of the Tacoma and began our climb up, and then along, the Illinois River towards a water crossing of Briggs Creek and the closest we'd get to the still-only-17%-contained Flat Fire.
The drive along the high road above the Illinois River Valley was breathtaking.
Briggs Creek was the perfect depth to wash the undercarriage - making my job just a little easier when we get home.
Now that's a road cut.
Tall trees (left) and fall flowers (right).
We initially thought that these plants were skunk cabbage when we saw them without blooms, but they are apparently a corn lily (Veratrum californicum), and extremely toxic.
As we rounded a bend near Flat Top Mountain, we caught a glimpse of smoke rising from the southern leg of the Flat Fire. As I got out to snap a photo, @mrs.turbodb pulled out her binoculars and spotted two helicopters working the area, each of them releasing load after load of water onto the flames.
Luckily not the direction we're headed.
It was 2:30pm when we embarked on the final leg of our route. Chrome Ridge Road derived its name from the ore mined here during World Wars One and Two - the same chromium that miners at Pearsoll Peak had tunneled into the hillside to retrieve - which was used to create a hard, rust-resistant armor for battleships and tanks.
Since that time, loggers, miners, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the US Forest Service have used the Chrome Ridge Road as a major thoroughfare, a fitting end to our travel through the region.
Today, a white Chrome Ridge Road snakes through red hills.
The original culverts along this route were made of wood, and it seems that the tradition has continued, though with a bit of cheating with modern tech. (pressure treating)
@mrs.turbodb spotted this beautiful (Coopers Hawk?) feather along the side of the road.
Having entered the Siskiyou in a grove of Madrone, it was a fitting end to air up two days later under the same red-and-green barked giants.
Within a few minutes of airing up we hit pavement in Galice, Oregon along the banks of the Rogue River. From there, we followed the mighty Rogue east, eventually flowing into a sea of cars making their way north on I-5.
It'd been a great introduction to the Siskiyou, and I'm sure it won't be long before we return.