Atrophied from the winter layoff, my legs resemble two overcooked spaghetti noodles.
My soft legs don’t even rise to al dente status, having instead the consistency of overcooked goo on an elementary school lunch tray. And from months of no exposure to sunlight, my legs share the same bloodless white color as the crawly things that creep and slither away from underneath an overturned rock in the garden.
Since the weather has been springy lately, it was time to give those white legs the challenge of a more demanding trail in the Siskiyou Mountains, instead of another flat beach hike.
Applegate Lake, just barely on the good side of the Oregon-California border, is surrounded by a number of relatively low elevation peaks that can reliably provide a mountain-type hike this time of year. Case in point is unassuming Stein Butte, a lesser peak situated in the Siskiyou foothills. And while the butte is a lesser peak, the uphill grade to the Stein summit is anything but lesser as spaghetti legs have to contend with a 2,400-foot climb over 4.7 miles.
Last Saturday dawned gloriously sunny but delivered an ingloriously cold 25 degrees at the start of the hike. As the trail began inscribing a series of switchbacks through a shaded forest totally devoid of any warmth, icicles hung from trailside rocks and both nostrils. Despite the cold, poison oak was budding forth, ready to spread itchy madness onto passing hikers. The path was working its way up formidable Elliott Creek Ridge and alternated between the sunny south and the shady north sides of the ridge. Sunny and warm, then cold and icy — just like a first marriage.
After a mile or so of unrelenting climbing, I was sweating profusely with effort and my legs were screaming from the 14 percent grade. The nearly subsonic “whoomp, whoomp” of a lovelorn male grouse was my only company as I trudged ever upward through a madrone forest. I’d whoomp-whoomp too if I had wings and didn’t have to walk to the top of the ridge.
At the 2.5-mile mark, the trail attained the actual crest of Elliott Creek Ridge. Now the hike became worth all the pain and misery. The vegetation consisted of low-growing, knee-poking manzanita scrub while the ground dropped steeply down to Elliot Creek, coursing nearly 1,500 feet below. On the opposite side of the creek were a chain of snowy mountains all in a row like teeth on a jaw. But the star of the show were the peaks of the Red Buttes Wilderness.
The Red Buttes, temporarily misnamed, were gleaming white with snow. The buttes were flanked by Abney Butte and the curiously named Kangaroo Mountain. Beyond the initial trio of peaks lay Desolation Peak and Rattlesnake Mountain. Desolation and rattlesnakes happen to be two of my favorite things. From there the peaks jumbled into a mass of spiky towers, crags and pinnacles as the range arced around the Butte Fork Applegate River gulch. Truly a vista for the ages, and this was from only the halfway point.
The trail grade eased up a bit but was still angling persistently upward. To say the hiking here was easier is like saying dysentery is milder than cholera. Milder or not, it still involves a lot of cramps. Two prominent forested knobs loomed directly in front, but the path contoured around the forested north side of the first knob and then contoured around the bare rocky south side of the second knob. After the knob tour, a third knob rising above the forest was the Holy Grail of this hike: Stein Butte, rising tall and bald, just like me. After a thankfully level walk through a parklike glade of Ponderosa pine, a steep and rocky goat path delivered me to the summit of Stein Butte, where my legs trod the last wobbly rise of elevation gain.
Foundation stones are all that are left of the lookout that used to adorn the summit of Stein Butte. Enterprising hikers have rearranged the stones into a crude, fort-like wind shelter. Not having any companions available with which to play Vikings and Huns, I merely sat down on the rock wall and admired the view while waiting for feeling to return to my legs.
Directly below the summit and to the south was a stupendous bird’s-eye view of Applegate Lake, with its many watery arms. Grayback Mountain loomed over the lake and a chain of peaks inscribed a near circle around little Stein Butte: Pyramid Peak, Whiskey Peak, Condrey Mountain and the aforementioned Red Buttes, just to name drop a few. All were covered with snow under a blue sky.
All good things come to an end, however, and I had to hoof it back down to the car to beat the sunset. Tired from the steep climbing followed by the strenuous leg-braking on the way down, my quavering muscle groups sighed in profound relief when the hike ended.
I was tired and exhausted beyond belief, but Stein Butte sure beat yet another beach hike.
Richard O’Neill is a member of the Friends of the Umpqua hiking club. To read more about his adventures, visit richardhikes.com.