A journey through the Siskiyou: From Mt. Ashland to Elliott Creek
Recently my wife and I took a journey through the Siskiyou, hiking across the eastern Siskiyou Mountains from Mt. Ashland to Elliott Creek. The journey took us through snowfields, across rocky ridges, into deep subalpine forests, and over high mountain peaks to vast meadow systems just awakening from their snowy winter slumber. We traversed the high country at snow melt, enjoying the earliest of wildflowers as they blossomed at the edge of melting snowbanks. At lower elevations we hiked through ancient pine groves and isolated wetlands on Elliott Ridge to the clear, rushing waters of Elliott Creek far below. During the backpacking trip we found rare plant populations, gained a deeper appreciation for the region’s world-class biodiversity, enjoyed the beauty of the eastern Siskiyou and reinvigorated my commitment to the protection of this wild, spectacular landscape.
The goal of this particular journey was to document new populations of Henderson’s lomatium (Lomatium hendersonii), a rare plant my wife and I had discovered two years earlier at Cook and Green Pass. Until discovering the species by chance in a strange, snow-free window during the winter of 2018, the species was mostly known to occur from the arid sagebrush and juniper dotted high desert country extending from Modoc County, California to Jefferson County, Oregon. The center of the population occurs in Harney County, Oregon, and until recently no Henderson’s lomatium had been documented west of the Cascade Crest.
However, in January 2018, we found a population of strange looking lomatium east of Cook and Green Pass, extending from upper Seiad Creek, to just over the ridgeline divide into the headwaters of Cook and Green Creek. After familiarizing ourselves with Lomatium hendersonii, we then located additional populations on Bald Mountain at the headwaters of the Little Applegate River in the fall of 2018. and in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument near Cathedral Cliffs in the spring of 2019. Henderson’s lomatium is a rather diminutive species, with deep green foliage and small yellow flowers. It is among the earliest of wildflowers to bloom in the spring. It quickly sets seed, dries out and is senescent and invisible by the time other wildflowers are just bursting to life. Blooming directly after snowmelt, the species is in flower while the mountains are still difficult to access and laden with snowdrifts.
Knowing that few botanists had ventured into the high mountains early in the season during snow melt, we suspected more populations of Lomatium hendersonii may be spread across the Siskiyou Crest, so we ventured out into the mountains to find them.
We began at Mt. Ashland where snowbanks still lingered across Road 20, making it impassable to motorized access. We hiked the road passed the Mt. Ashland Campground and into the beautiful Grouse Creek Basin to Grouse Gap. High on the southern flank of Mt. Ashland snow lingered in drifts, aspen trees remained leafless, white silhouettes, pungent sagebrush perfumed the air, and summer wildflowers were just starting to peak out of the ground. We climbed from Grouse Gap to the saddle south of McDonald Peak through snowdrifts, gravelly granitic clearings and beautiful forests of red fir and mountain hemlock. Here we got our first view west across the snow draped peaks of the Siskiyou Crest and into the rugged foothills of the Applegate Watershed. Wagner Butte, a high forested dome at the head of the Little Applegate River, rose to the north. Bald Mountain, Anderson Butte, and the straw-colored grasslands and sunlit slopes of the Little Applegate River marched into the horizon, surrounded in a jumble of ridges and low mountains hiding forks and fingers of the Applegate Valley.
Traversing, the headwaters of the West Fork Grouse Creek to the shoulder of Siskiyou Peak, we followed the still snow covered Pacific Crest Trail west through meadows and forests to Long John Saddle, and into a clearing of chinquapin framing Mount Shasta to the south. Shortly we reached Siskiyou Gap at the headwaters of the Little Applegate River. Here, the forests of Siskiyou Peak and the vast granitic soils of the Mount Ashland Pluton give way to serpentine soils. Siskiyou Gap supports dry grasslands of fescue, and little yellow bells (Fritillaria pudica) are some of the saddle’s first wildflowers to blossom.
Winding onto the north-facing bluffs of Big Red Mountain we found deep snow drifts on extremely steep, rocky soils. We traveled slowly and tread carefully on the steep snowbanks, then wound into the broad serpentine flats east of the Monogram Lakes Basin. Moving slowly and with numerous miles still to travel, we hit the steep north-facing walls of Big Red Mountain, still deep with snow that spills from its red-orange cliffs and into upper Monogram Lake, a seasonal lake filled to the brim with snowmelt.
We climbed through a band of red fir to the barren, stony ridgeline of Big Red Mountain. Staying on the broad, sunbaked southern face, the snow had cleared and we found yellow, star shaped glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) in bloom. The broad serpentine ridge continues past a few small clumps of mountain hemlock and through a thicket of green leaf manzanita to the vast ridgeline near the summit of the mountain. Here, we found our treasure: a large, sprawling population of Henderson’s lomatium, its miniature yellow flowers and deep green foliage growing from gravelly soils and rock outcrops. Yet another rare wildflower in the long list of rare, endemic and unusual plant species found in the botanical wonderland on Big Red Mountain.
From the near the summit of Big Red Mountain we dropped steeply through open slopes, windswept Jeffrey pine and rugged outcrops to Wrangle Gap. Continuing west we hiked into deep conifer forests and vast open meadows. By evening we reached Sheep Camp Spring, where cold water pours from a metal pipe driven into the ground, creating the headwaters of Cow Creek just below Jackson Gap. Here at nearly 7000′ elevation, the meadows are inundated with snowmelt and disappearing snowbanks create expanses of barren, open soil supporting an abundance of little pink steer’s head (Dicentra uniflora). Steer’s head was abundant in the freshly cleared meadows throughout our trip, taking advantage of the open soil and limited competition during snow melt. On the granitic soils in the Grouse Creek Basin and around Siskiyou Peak, steer’s head was abundant, but a large population also spreads out across the Sheep Camp Spring area, supporting thousands of the little pink flowers.
The next morning we awoke to a rusty, orange sunrise and continued trekking to the west. We walked through bright, white snowbanks to Jackson Gap, a high windswept saddle between Dutchman Peak and Observation Peak. From this dramatic saddle, the mountains reach to the west, rugged and snow covered, to the jagged summits of Red Butte, and beyond to the towering white cone of Preston Peak in the Siskiyou Wilderness Area. Directly below the saddle are the broad meadows of Silver Fork Basin, a massive u-shaped glacial bowl at the headwaters of Elliott Creek’s Silver Fork. Here we began our long traverse of the dramatic Elliott Creek watershed and continued out the open ridgeline towards Dutchman Peak.
We walked through carpets of low sagebrush (Artemisia arbuscula), blossoming prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) and diffuse phlox (Phlox diffusa). Reaching the scenic saddle east of Dutchman Peak we found another small population of Henderson’s lomatium growing from gravelly soils above a large, melting snowbank, and another population just west of the mountain’s spectacular summit.
When we originally found Henderson’s lomatium at Cook and Green Pass, sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus) another species more associated with the high desert east of the Cascades, was also growing in the same area. On Dutchman Peak we once again found sagebrush buttercup growing with Henderson’s lomatium. The influence of the eastside, basin and range flora is unmistakable on Dutchman Peak and shapes its spectacular biodiversity.
In view from the top of Dutchman Peak the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains and the neighboring Cascades span across the horizon in every direction. Mount Shasta looms above the arid Shasta Valley, its massive white glacial cone rising above all else. To the southwest, the snow-capped Marble Mountains rise above the Klamath River. The Siskiyou Crest extends to the west in a long unbroken chain of mountain summits, rocky ridgelines and deep forested canyons. To the northeast, beyond Wagner Butte and the foothills of the Applegate Valley, rise the oak-clad slopes of the Western Cascade Mountains and the snow laden summits of the High Cascades, from Mount McLaughlin to Diamond Peak.
Absorbing the glorious vistas and picturesque mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) groves, we took in the mountain splendor then dropped west down a long, open ridgeline carpeted in low sagebrush and a disjunct population of bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata). This spectacular ridgeline extends downward into rich forests of white fir before reaching Silver Fork Gap. Here we continued traveling west across the southern face of Yellowjacket Ridge to Yellowjacket Spring, set in a narrow, grassy meadow overlooking the Silver Fork of Elliott Creek. We hiked over the seldom visited summit of Yellowjacket Mountain, a broad serpentine hump, set on a ridge of sparse grassy clearings and nearly pure groves of twisted Jeffrey pine. In the early 1900s the Forest Service had a fire lookout on the summit of Yellowjacket Mountain, built into a particularly stout and branching old pine tree. The old pine tree still stands, but the lookout and the nearby cabin have crumbled, rotted and become history.
Continuing down slope, we entered the headwaters of Lime Gulch, a tributary at the top Squaw Creek. The headwaters of Lime Gulch contains beautiful groves of Jeffrey pine, mingling with old-growth Douglas fir. Traversing the steep headwaters of Lime Gulch, we found a narrow ridge and dropped to Maple Dell Gap, a low saddle dividing Yellowjacket Ridge from Elliott Ridge as it heads west towards the confluence of Elliott Creek and the Middle Fork of the Applegate River, still far below. Maple Dell Gap has seen better days. Unfortunately, much of the old forest that once surrounded the gap has been logged, leaving a vast swath of even-aged, densely packed Douglas fir and pine plantations at the headwaters of Squaw Creek. We followed the old logging road out Elliott Ridge and walked a few miles through the dense, young conifers recolonizing the former clearcuts.
West of Lily Mountain we wound over a rocky saddle onto the southern slope of Elliott Ridge. Tall blue schist outcrops, studded in some of the Applegate’s finest open-grown, old-growth ponderosa pine stands are found in this location. For miles, the massive, puzzle-barked pine trees grow across the face of the ridge, speckled in bunchgrass clearings, purple lupine and brilliant orange paintbrush. Dropping from the flank of Lily Mountain we reached a low saddle and the lush, green meadow and marshland known as Summit Lake. Likely once a lake, Summit Lake is now a little green bowl surrounded in massive old ponderosa pine. Small patches of shallow, open water still lingered at its center, but the majority of the seasonal wetland had begun to dry out. Summit Lake is perched in a uniquely gentle terrace, just below the summit of Elliott Ridge. A pileated woodpecker pounded on a tree in the forest and the last sun fell behind the trees as we set up camp and turned in early after a long day winding down the flank of Dutchman Peak, over the serpentine summit of Yellowjacket Mountain and onto the steep, rugged face of Elliott Ridge.
At first light, after a warm, clear night at Summit Lake, we again headed west along the spine of Elliott Ridge. Here schist outcrops blend with outcrops of soapstone. Big, old pine trees top the still undisturbed outcrops, while other rock outcrops were made into quarries by miners between 1959 and the 1970s, these miners bulldozed into the outcrops and cut the wise, old pine trees. In earlier days, people utilizing the old (now largely abandoned and impassable) Penn Sled Trail, which began at Brushy Gulch below where the Applegate Dam is now located, climbed over to Squaw Creek and then traversed the backside of Elliott Ridge from Dividend Bar on Squaw Creek to the Penn Mine on Elliott Creek near it’s confluence with Studhorse Creek. The Penn Sled Trail was built to drag large horse drawn sleds, filled with supplies and equipment, over the mountains to the Penn Mine where a mine, a mill and numerous large structures were built in and around 1910. Funded by east coast investors from Pennsylvania, the supposed miners lived for years off the generosity of their benefactors, but never produced much, if any gold or other precious metals. Some believe the Penn Mine was an elaborate plot to cheat their east coast investors and live at their expense, while little to no mining was actually done and virtually no minerals were ever recovered.
On the summit of Elliott Ridge travelers on the Penn Sled Trail would stop at Summit Lake to feed and water their animals, they would also scratch their names into the soapstone outcrops on the ridge above, creating a historic record of their trip. These names scratched into the soft rock and other more ancient history was destroyed when the area was mined. In fact, evidence from archeological excavations demonstrates that local Native American tribes quarried Elliott Ridge soapstone, and crafted it into large ceremonial pipes, like those found in burial sites near McKee Bridge.
From Summit Lake, we continued traveling west along road 1075-500 to the Elliott Ridge Trailhead near Mingo Gap. Here the trail travels through large, open grown pine and thickets of manzanita on a rocky ridgeline. The open forest offers incredible views across the Elliott Creek and Dutch Creek canyons to the snow covered Siskiyou Crest. Deep forests fill the steep, rugged canyons, while dramatic peaks rise to the Siskiyou Crest. The Elliott Ridge Trail climbs over a forested knoll and back to the rocky spine of Elliott Ridge, then passes a small lightning fire lit and suppressed by crews in the summer of 2016. Growing from dry, rocky soils, short statured live oak and brightly colored madrone drape the outcrops, creating a twisted, low canopy of thick leathery foliage.
Shortly, we reached a broad viewpoint and catch our first glimpse of Stein Butte, a big, blue block of schist hanging off the southern face of Elliott Ridge. We dropped through twisted hardwoods to massive pine trees at what I call “Lightning Rod Gap.” Here at a low saddle, and at the intersection of the Elliott Ridge and New London Trails, a massive, old sugar pine was hit by lightning about 10 years ago and transformed into a tall, graying snag.
Winding down the southern face of Elliott Ridge on the New London Trail we hike through rock outcrops and live oak groves, and passed massive madrone, until we reached the banks of Elliott Creek. Suddenly, the forest became more lush and productive, massive old fir and cedar line the large, swift flowing stream. The Abney Fire burned to the banks of Elliott Creek in 2017, depositing large trees and snags that fell during the fire into the streambed. Clear and cold, Elliott Creek rushes through small bedrock gorges and ancient mixed conifer forests to our journey’s end on lower Elliott Creek.
From snow-capped summits to this deep mountain canyons, we traversed the Siskiyou Crest and the rugged Upper Applegate River watershed. We found rare plant species, ancient forests, spectacular vistas, vast high mountain meadows and a deeper appreciation for the wildlands of the eastern Siskiyou Mountains and the wild Elliott Creek watershed. We also left with a stronger, more urgent sense of responsibility for the protection of this beautifully diverse place we call home. The long, rugged spine of the Siskiyou Crest, its many spectacular mountain canyons, and the jumble of ridges and peaks at its flank are truly monumental and should be protected as such. The connectivity and biodiversity found in this region, as well as the wonderful backcountry scenery is truly a natural treasure of national significance. Unless protected, this region and its many natural values could be lost and the spirit of this region forever altered. Obscure, remote, and little visited, large portions of the Siskiyou Crest and the surrounding region contain unique natural features, scenic landscapes and extremely high biological values, but being far from population centers, the area has been consistently overlooked by conservationists. As we move forward, will we allow this area to be damaged by our neglect, or work towards its protection? After an invigorated three day trek across the region and a lifetime spent in its backcountry, I ask you to join me and fight for the permanent protection of the Siskiyou Crest!