I had car camped down at the South Fork Chetco River, so it was a short drive up to the Johnson Butte Trailhead, which also services the Vulcan Lake Trail. At the end of the drive, it’s about 1 ¾ miles from the Vulcan Butte Trailhead to the Johnson Butte Trailhead. The last half of that section is a “terrible traverse” – clearance needed and there’s absolutely no space to turn around, which means someone would have to reverse the tightrope if you met head on. Traffic is rare, however, and thanks to the Biscuit Fire, you can see most of the traverse well in advance.
The Johnson Butte Trail follows the old Gardner Mine Road, and the Vulcan Lake Trail splits off of it near the trailhead. Basically it’s up and over a ridge and down to the lake. While the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire burned close to here, it didn’t affect Vulcan Lake. The whole area was scorched by the 2002 Biscuit Fire, however, and bleached snags stand sentinel on scrubby peridotite slopes of azalea, manzanita, and canyon live oak.
Vulcan Lake is a cirque lake nestled below stark Vulcan Peak. It’s amazing how many Port Orford cedars are standing and healthy in the area. Trails here are indistinct and marked by small cairns. After visiting the main lake, I followed little cairns down to Lish Lake, which is more of a botanical marvel. Darlingtonia were blooming all around the shores of this little lake and the azaleas were in full flower.
From the spring/bog above Lish Lake, there’s a cairn-marked route of about half a mile that traverses over to an even smaller lake known as the Sørvaag Bog. The cairns are essential because the “trail” disappears completely in many places. The “bog” is really a small tarn where bear-grass and azaleas were blooming. A sign proclaims this the Gardner Cabin Site. The Gardner Mine Road ends here, and I followed this out to a mine road junction at the remains of a cabin. The road leading east is the route to the Rosie Mine and one other claim. From the cabin, I passed the Gardner Mine itself. There is a narrow adit following a seam, but there was also some strip mining here. The product was chrome ore.
I joined the Johnson Butte Trail and decided to hike the ridge towards Salamander Lake. This area was hit by the Chetco Bar Fire so not much remains but blackened snags although I was impressed by one old sugar pine and a few cedars that survived the blaze. I wanted to see if any of the rare Kalmiopsis were still in bloom, but the ones I saw were bloomed out. There was plenty of yerba santa, penstemon, and a few Bolander’s lilies.
The final leg was the return on the Johnson Butte Trail to the trailhead. Almost immediately, I met a group of youngsters and their dogs. They were followed by a 60-something woman who proclaimed herself one of the Gardners on her annual visit to a place she came often during her childhood. The cabin ruins I had seen had been her parents’. The site at the Sørvaag Bog had been where the cookhouse and bunkhouses had stood. She said her grandfather had built the Gardner Mine Road with a four-foot ‘dozer blade. The ore had been taken out by jeep across the Kalmiopsis to O’Brien on what is now the Chetco Divide Trail, which begins at the Vulcan Peak Trailhead. The mine claim was grandfathered in, like many others, when the wilderness was proclaimed in 1964 but, one-by-one over the years, the claims have expired so we have more of a true wilderness now (yes, with lots of old mine roads and piles of tailings).
After returning to the Vulcan Lake Trailhead, I motored back to the Chetco Divide Trailhead for Vulcan Peak. The Chetco Divide Trail is actually an old road, but the Vulcan Peak Trail splits off of it and ascends to the site of a lookout. You have to scramble out to the end of the summit ridge to see down to Vulcan and Lish Lakes. Views extended across the Siskiyous and to the Pacific Ocean. Mt. Emily stood out to the southwest, while to the southeast was the red-humped Chetco Peak. To the northeast, I could easily make out Pearsoll Peak, the highest point in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, with Grayback Mountain the highest summit on the eastern horizon. Snow-covered peaks in California to the southeast were Preston Peak and Copper Mountain, and northwest were the Big Craggies and pyramidal Collier Butte. The voices of the Gardner clan, splashing about in Vulcan Lake below, wafted up the slope on a steadily warming day.
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Beautiful and fascinating! I'm especially interested in the number of big older trees that apparently survived the most recent fires. It looks like a very, very open forest, almost like a woodland, at this point. It's kinda weird to see that coinciding with big trees in a relatively high elevation.
Awesome report and fun explorations! Amazing that you ran into someone with firsthand knowledge of the history of the area. We went to Vulcan Lake on a hot day in 2014 and didn't have the energy to explore anything beyond that. We drove that nerve-wracking "terrible traverse" and were glad to not come upon any cars coming the other direction!
Supposedly the road from McCaleb Ranch up to Chetco Pass was improved during or after the Chetco Bar Fire, making it easier to access the shorter hike to the lookout on Pearsoll Peak, but I haven't been able to find out what exactly "improved" means. It was a horribly rough mining road before and I doubt it's a smooth gravel road now, but there's a lot of in-between there. It's only a three-miles hike from Chetco Pass. The only other way is to hike seven miles of up and down coming from Onion Camp Trailhead.To the northeast, I could easily make out Pearsoll Peak, the highest point in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, with Grayback Mountain the highest summit on the eastern horizon.