Red Buttes Wilderness Beckons!

The mountains are calling and I must go.

- John Muir

It is hard to go wrong in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area. The expansive forests boast some of the largest and oldest sugar pine trees on the West Coast. The meadows are strewn with wildflowers. The cold creeks are crystal clear, and offer hidden waterfalls and swimming holes. But it is the mountain peaks that steal the show. According to John Hart’s seminal guidebook “Hiking the Bigfoot Country,” this scenic mountain range was once evocatively known as the “Applegate Alps.” The towering sentinels of the Red Buttes are comprised of a rust colored peridodite rock formation that divides the Rogue River Watershed to the north, from the Klamath River Watershed to the south. It is a stunning mountain landscape that can take one’s breath away.

View of Frog Pond, credit: George Sexton

View of Frog Pond, credit: George Sexton

One of my favorite routes in the Red Buttes Wilderness starts at the Frog Pond trailhead in the headwaters of the Middle Applegate River. It is wild country. The trail climbs a steep two miles to a wet meadow called Frog Pond that more than lives up to its name, with a cacophony of happy croaking amphibians amongst the water lilies. From Frog Pond, the faint mountain trail switchbacks over a ridgeline and drops into the Camaron Meadows, which put on a lovely show of spring wildflowers. A more adventurous option is to bushwack to the summit of Mt Emily for a 360-degree view of the high country, with the rare treat of being surrounded by old-growth forests that have never been subjected to logging or road construction. One can continue down the saddle to the west and meet up with the Sweaty Gulch Trail (no I’m not making up the name), and loop back to the Frog Pond trailhead on the Middle Fork Applegate trail. It is a difficult and ambitious route to be sure, but one that offers some of the finest hiking in the Siskiyous. 

There are few places in the world that can boast of the conifer and botanical diversity found in the Red Buttes. In a recent afternoon, I observed 10 species of old-growth conifers and over 20 different kinds of wildflowers in bloom. The myriad of habitat types, the dramatic range of elevation, and the east-west orientation of the mountains make the Red Buttes a melting pot of biodiversity while also providing a crucial hedge against the effects of climate change on wildlife. As the range and habitat for at-risk species shifts, the Red Buttes Wilderness provides the space for wildlife to find their new niche. These mountains are a botanist’s wonderland and a hiker’s dream.

We are fortunate to have the Red Buttes Wilderness, but its continued wellbeing is not a given. Much of the rest of the Siskiyou Crest Mountain Range has been heavily impacted by Forest Service logging and road construction. The Red Buttes are one of the last places in the Siskiyous where hikers, birders, hunters, and explorers can experience mountains, forests, and rivers that remain wild and untrammeled. 

However, the future of this paradise is in doubt. The Klamath National Forest recently proposed post-fire logging along the Pacific Crest Trail, within the Cook and Green Botanical Area just east of the Red Buttes; new appointees in the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest have been questioning the very concept of wilderness areas protected from logging and bulldozers. 

The good news is that pretty much everyone who has ever visited the Red Buttes Wilderness has fallen in love with it. All one has to do is put one foot in front of the other, and the joys and rewards of our few remaining wild places will wash over you. 

The mountains are calling- lets go!

George Sexton serves as the Conservation Director for the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center