Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Mount McLoughlin

McLoughlin summit
10 miles round trip, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Decent unpaved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Rising to 9495 feet above sea level, Mount McLoughlin towers above southern Oregon and is the sixth highest of the state's many Cascade Range volcanoes. While most other Cascade volcanoes of this height require technical alpine ascents, whether it's up the Roman Wall on Baker, the Disappointment Cleaver on Rainier, or the Pearly Gates on Hood, Mount McLoughlin is simply a hike- albeit a strenuous one across rough, rocky terrain. Here's your chance to bag a Cascade volcano with sweeping views of two states without an ice axe (in summer). While it may not have the drama of some of its northern siblings or Shasta, McLoughlin is still a satisfying climb.

The mountain towers over Medford, Oregon in a similar way to how Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland have their own Cascade stratovolcanoes: Baker, Rainier, and Hood, respectively. However, partially due to southern Oregon's remoteness from major metropolitan areas and partially due to McLouglin just being a slightly smaller peak, this mountain remains relatively unknown. From the south, the mountain exhibits a nearly perfect cone shape, while it appears sharp and more rugged when viewed from the east. While the south slopes maintain that stratovolcano symmetry, the mountain's north side has been dramatically scoured by glaciers, even though none remain today.

North face of McLoughlin from Fourmile Lake
I hiked Mount McLoughlin on a July weekday during a road trip from Seattle down to California. McLoughlin is about an hour outside Klamath Falls and Medford; I'll describe the directions from Klamath Falls, as that's the direction I arrived from. From Klamath Falls, I took Oregon Highway 140 west about 30 miles. Just past the turnoff for Lake of the Woods, I turned right onto the Fourmile Lake Road, a good gravel road which I followed north for three miles to a four-way junction. Here, I turned left and quickly arrived at the Mount McLoughlin Trailhead, which had plenty of parking. Ignore any GPS instructions to reach the trailhead via Forest Road 3650 (the turnoff at the Summit Sno-Park), as that road is quite rough and narrow.

Leaving the trailhead, the trail immediately came to a creek. There's a bridge over this creek but at the time of writing the bridge (although visually fully intact) is closed due to structural issues. The Forest Service suggests that you access this hike in the meantime from the Summit Trailhead, which would add at least 4 miles round trip to this hike, but most hikers were still starting from the standard Mount McLoughlin Trailhead. You're welcome to come to your own conclusions on how to cross this creek.

After crossing the creek, the trail made a somewhat steep and steady ascent through the forest for a mile, gaining just over five hundred feet. I quickly entered the Sky Lakes Wilderness of Fremont-Winema National Forest. At the end of the ascent, I came to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail; here, I followed the northbound PCT for a half mile with minimal elevation gain, coming to a junction with the Mount McLoughlin Trail. Here, I took the left fork, leaving the PCT.

The trail was fairly gentle for the next mile, with just a little bit of elevation gain. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the terrain became steeper and the trail went from a pleasant dirt tread to an unpleasant rocky one. The trail started a steep and fairly direct ascent through the forest, which began to thin out as I climbed higher.

Rocky, steep trail up McLoughlin
The final 2.5 miles of the hike were consistently steep and rocky, accounting for about 3000 feet of the hike's elevation gain. The trees started thinning out and yielding views to the east of Fourmile Lake, Pelican Butte, and Upper Klamath Lake at about 7500 feet elevation.

First views of Fourmile Lake and Upper Klamath Lake
As the trees began to thin, the trail switchbacked aggressively to gain the East Ridge of McLoughlin at 8200 feet. Here, the views really widened up: the Cascade volcanoes stretched to the north, Mount Shasta and Mount Eddy lay to the south, and numerous lakes dotted the forested landscape below. Above towered the mighty summit pyramid of Mount McLoughlin, its north face still coated in snow and dotted with fantastic volcanic outcrops.

North face of Mount McLoughlin from the East Ridge
Remember this spot, as you'll need to aim towards this point on the descent to rejoin the defined trail. From here, the trail began fading out into numerous social paths, with cairns and white dots on rocks seemingly leading in many directions. The general rule of thumb here is that the remainder of the route follows the East Ridge to the summit. At times, the ridge itself is too rocky to directly follow, so it's necessary to circumvent these rocky outcrops by hiking on the southern slopes; it's just important to then make your way back towards the East Ridge once you're past these obstacles.

Views improved continuously as I ascended past the last couple of hardy, windblown whitebark pines. Around me, I spotted lakes everywhere: Lake of the Woods sandwiched between the cone of Brown Mountain and Aspen Butte, Fourmile Lake to the east, Fish Lake to the south, and of course massive Upper Klamath Lake in the Klamath Basin to the east. 

Windswept whitebark pines and views of Upper Klamath Lake
Views to the south were dominated by Mount Shasta, which at 14180 feet tall is the second tallest volcano of the Cascades, the monarch of the range's southern reaches. Shasta has numerous active glaciers on its north face that I could see from here, including the Whitney Glacier, which flowed into the gulch separating Shasta from its satellite peak Shastina. When European American geologists led by Josiah Whitney came upon this glacier, this became the first living glacier in the contiguous United States documented by European Americans. The Shasta Valley was visible to the west of Shasta, and rising above that valley was Mount Eddy, whose summit was still snowcapped as well. At 9025 feet, Mount Eddy is the tallest point in the Klamath Mountains and the tallest peak west of I-5. Beyond Mount Eddy, I spotted the snowcapped peaks of the Trinity Alps, part of the crest of the Klamath Mountains.

Mount Shasta and Mount Eddy
These views helped make the relentless ascent up steep and loose rock a bit easier. During my early July climb, I didn't have to cross snow at all even though there were still large patches of snow on the north face of the mountain: the East Ridge appears to melt out earlier. An earlier ascent before mid-June might have required an ice axe and crampons though, as traction and self arrest tools would be necessary on these slopes when snow-covered.

Upper slopes of McLoughlin
At the end of a seemingly endless ascent, I arrived at the summit. The high winds here were luckily avoidable in a small rock wind shelter that's been built, where you'll also find the summit register. I hid from the wind here to eat my lunch before coming out to explore the view.

To the north, there was a spectacular view of the Cascades. The peaks along the rim of Crater Lake were easily identifiable, although the lake itself was not visible: Mount Scott rose on the eastern side of the caldera, while Cloudcap, Applegate Peak, Garfield Peak, Llao Rock, and the Watchman could all be identified; the sharp pinnacle to Union Peak barely jutted out to the west of the caldera while the higher summits of Mount Thielsen, Mount Bailey, and snowy Diamond Peak were on the horizon. Having spotted Mount McLoughlin from South Sister in the past, I knew that the Three Sisters must be visible from here as well; however, the slight bit of clouds on the horizon prevented me from seeing those peaks.

View of the Cascades to the north: Bailey, Diamond, Union, Thielsen, and Scott
Looking down the rocky northwest ridge of McLoughlin, I saw a new view different from the ones that had accompanied me on my way up. The Oregon Cascades, as I could tell from here, were mostly a flattish, forested plateau punctuated by frequent volcanoes of varying sizes. The view to the west had few volcanic features, just vast forest that ended at the Rogue River Valley. Willow Lake was atop the plateau and Medford lay in the valley below. The Siskiyou Mountains rose behind Medford, with Mount Ashland being one of the more prominent peaks. A farther prominent peak near the Oregon-California border appeared to be snowcapped; it looked quite impressive but I've yet to figure out what I was looking at.

View down the northwest ridge from McLoughlin's summit
I had the summit to myself for a while on a weekday afternoon; there were other parties climbing that day but everyone reached the summit at staggered times. There's a bit of room to spread out at the summit so even when it's more crowded you can probably still enjoy the scenery here.

I returned the way I came. As noted on the ascent, the route above the treeline is very poorly marked and hard to distinguish. It is very important that you pick your route carefully and try to stick as close to the East Ridge as possible, keeping Fourmile Lake in your view. Many paths appear to stray down the south face of the mountain; you must ignore all of these and stick to the ridge except when the terrain forces you to go around it. You'll rejoin the established trail just below the treeline.

This is a tough hike, but it's a relatively easy climb for a Cascade volcano. If you hope to tackle bigger targets like St. Helens, Adams, Shasta, Hood, or Rainier, this is a good place to start if you're already in decent shape. Pulling yourself up McLoughlin's steep slopes is worth the views standing atop the highest point in southern Oregon.

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