This was an overnight pack into the Mountain Lakes Wilderness, northwest of Klamath Falls. The wilderness is one of Oregon’s originals, established in 1964 along with Diamond Peak, Eagle Cap, Gearhart Mountain, Kalmiopsis, Mount Hood, Mount Washington, Strawberry Mountain, and Three Sisters. It is by far the smallest (and perhaps most obscure) of this group, consisting of exactly one township square (36 square miles).
The geology of the area has undergone revision since then. Forest Service publications still state that the peaks in the area constitute the rim of an ancient 12,000-foot volcano that blew its top and created a caldera now scattered with several mountain lakes. Recent science says that there are at least four shield volcanoes (and no caldera or stratovolcano), with the lakes filling glacial cirques.
It seemed a fairly effortless drive from Portland to get to the Varney Creek Trailhead, which is only a few miles off the pavement on a good gravel road. It was 85 degrees, with only one other vehicle parked there. The trail rises gradually in montane old growth, mostly mountain hemlock and red fir, with some ponderosas lower down. After crossing Varney Creek where it braids through a blowdown stacked bottomland, I ascended past several small mountain meadows to my overnight campspot at Zeb Lake, across from Eb Lake and situated below the scree slopes of Whiteface Peak. While there were a few pesky mosquitoes the whole way up the Varney Creek Trail, there were none at my campsite, perhaps because a nice breeze started up as soon as I arrived.
After an uneventful night, I awoke to a slight California fire haze (that later blew away) and began a day hike of the Mountain Lakes Loop in a clockwise direction. Down at Lake Como, I encountered the other camper. Then I descended to the most popular and largest lake in the wilderness, Lake Harriette, quietly nestled below the scree slopes of Mount Carmine and leaping with trout in the early hours of the day. There are campsites here on the west shore and near the outlet creek.
The trail winds up to the South Pass, where you can get sightings of the wilderness’ highest peak, Aspen Butte. There’s a new sign indicating the user trail to the summit of Aspen Butte (two miles round-trip). With other plans for the day, I passed up the opportunity and continued along the rim above Lake Harriette, getting partial views down through the trees.
The loop then traverses below the Mount Carmine-Whiteface Peak ridge passing both the Clover Creek Cutoff and Clover Creek Trails and then the Mountain Lakes Trail, which comes in from Lake of the Woods. Here I met a Forest Service trail crew which had been systematically logging out the trails and were now tackling the last section of the loop between Whiteface Peak and Eb and Zeb Lakes. A traverse passed across slopes populated by whitebark pines and yielded views of Mt. McLoughlin and Brown Mountain. Soon enough, after descending Whiteface’s scree and stepping over a few downed trees, I was back at my campsite in time for a quick lunch and the trip out.
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