Bigelow Lake a mountain marvel near Oregon Caves
Bigelow Lake.

Bigelow Lake is a pretty little mountain lake near the Oregon Caves National Monument in Southern Oregon, surrounded by unique wildflowers found in few other places.

Here’s a link for a photo gallery of the Oregon Caves area and here’s a video from Bigelow Lake.

o o o o

By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

I was wet, cold and depressed as I sat near the shoreline of Bigelow Lake attempting to light a campfire with wood as thoroughly soaked as myself.

Each time I tried to light the small pile of twigs and dead pine needles, it would smoke briefly, pitifully, before being snuffed out by a blast of misty wind.

My inability to get a campfire going wasn't surprising. The rain began falling early in the day - just as I was beginning my hike from the Sturgis Fork trailhead - and quickly turned into big, heavy drops.

I was a waterlogged pile of bones trudging through the cold June air as I hiked across the thorny, wet, cirque of Bigelow Lake through a foggy mist.

By the time I set up camp in the rain - which naturally had soaked all my gear - and attempted to build a small fire, I was nearly to my breaking point.

The thought of a warm bed and dry clothes nearly drove me to pack up camp, yell an expletive at Mother Nature and hike back out to my car.

But then something happened. On what seemed like the 100th attempt, a small orange flame was born in my sad pile of kindling.

With the care of a parent protecting its child, I fed the tiny fire small twigs until it grew larger and larger, crackling and hissing in bursts of dark orange as silky strands of fog rolled across the lake and up out of the valley.

Soon the rain had cleared and Bigelow Lake appeared in the purple twilight of the Siskiyou Mountains. The edges were sprinkled with yellow, white and lavender wildflowers that decorated a lush green valley that spread out below the 6,000-foot peaks of Mount Elijah and Lake Mountain.

I stretched out on the dirt, took a short sip of whiskey and felt the campfire's smoky warmth wrap around me like a cotton blanket. The smell of burning pine and the hiss of my wool socks drying off along the edge of the stone fire ring quickly erased any sign of the day's rain-induced melancholy

o o o o

Bigelow Lake is an incredible place, but it's also in the middle of a complex political situation that involves a variety of government agencies and interest groups.

Tucked away in a glacier-carved cirque just a few miles from the Oregon Caves National Monument, the lake is home to more than 120 plant species, including a vast array of wildflowers, a mere 150 feet from the shoreline.

The main issue that's caused controversy in recent years has been the cows grazing around the lake.

The claim has been that the cows overgraze on the sensitive ecology and pollute the water used at the Monument.

Now, Bigelow Lakes - there are two, though one is fairly small - are back in the news.

New legislation introduced by Oregon's U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio would transfer Bigelow Lake along with 4,070 acres around it from the Forest Service to the National Park Service and designate the land as a National Preserve.

At the same time, the bill would provide the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center the ability to buy out the grazing permit and remove the cows from the area.

Whenever one is dealing with various government agencies and interest groups - which are plentiful in this case - there will be complications.

Of course, whether the bill passes or not remains to be seen.

In the end, though, the goal should be to turn Bigelow Lake into a more tourist-friendly and environmentally protected destination that would add some appeal to visiting the Oregon Caves.

The area is easily accessible to the public, and with a few additions - a boardwalk across the valley, for example - it's easy to visualize families hiking in from the Oregon Caves (about five miles) or from the Bigelow Lake trailhead (1/2 of a mile) to learn about and enjoy the wildflowers and scenery.

After all, when you have such a uniquely beautiful spot, the last thing you want to do is let it go to waste.

o o o o

I was hiking along a quiet trail of switchbacks - which connect Boundary Trail to Lake Mountain Loop - lost in my thoughts, when I suddenly heard a hoarse voice shout out: "HIKER AHEAD!"

The call was echoed by multiple voices, and I looked up to see a series of bright orange helmets bobbing among the fir and pine trees on the trail above.

As I continued up the path, I found that the bobbing orange helmets belonged to a group of teenage boys with hoes in their hands, working the dirt to widen and level the trail upon which I hiked.

The group was from Northwest Youth Corps and members hailed from cities such as Boise, Idaho, Vancouver, Wash., Billings, Mont., and Ashland to spend their summers improving trails in Oregon.

The group's leader was an 18-year-old named Ian Barbosa. He had two fake diamond earrings, a blue bandanna wrapped around his jet black hair and a slight cockiness that seemed more Tony Soprano than Ranger Rick.

"I guess we come out here for a lot of different reasons," said Barbosa, when I asked him why a group of 16- to 18-year-old males would spend the summer laboring through the woods. "Some do it for the money (six weeks pay is $1,400), some do it to get in shape, and some do it because they love the woods."

"But what about you?" I asked.

"Ha," he answered quickly. "I do it to get away from home."

And just as they'd shown up, the group of bobbing orange helmets slowly began to work their way down the trail, hoes slung over their shoulders, fading into the trees below me.

"MOVE OUT," Barbosa yelled.

Then they were gone.

o o o o

I couldn't say exactly when it happened, but at some point during the night, while I was just on the verge of sleep, the frogs at Bigelow Lake absolutely lost their minds.

It started with a lone, "rib-it." Then it spread to three or four more: "rib-it, rib-it, rib-it."

And then all hell broke loose. It was as though three million frogs suddenly showed up for some type of epic party and they all just sat there yelling at each other.

The frogs refused to listen to reason. They ignored my pleas for silence as well as the rocks I threw at them. I have never eaten broiled frog's legs in my life, but that night, as I sat in the "rib-it" filled darkness, I swore I'd eat a plateful the next time I had the opportunity.

And yet it was somehow fitting, for a trip that had soaked me to the brink of despair and then brought me back with a campfire.

o o o o

Directions

• Oregon Caves National Monument (49 miles from Grants Pass, easy accessibility): Follow Highway 199 south from Grants Pass 29 miles to Cave Junction. Follow "Oregon Caves" pointers east on Highway 46 for 20 miles.

• Bigelow Lake Trailhead (52 miles from Grants Pass, moderate accessibility): Just as you enter the Oregon Caves National Monument parking lot, take a left onto fire road 960. The road starts out paved but becomes dirt after 100 yards. After 1.5 to 2 miles, take a right at a "T" intersection. Continue less than mile to a "Y" intersection and take a right. The trailhead is on the side of the road. Maps can be found at the Oregon Caves.

• Sturgis Fork Trailhead (34 miles from Grants Pass, moderate/tough accessibility): Drive south on Highway 238 for 18 miles to green steel bridge just before town of Applegate. Take a right on Thompson Creek Road for 11.9 miles. When the pavement ends, take a right onto Forest Road 1020, follow "Sturgis Fork" sign to the right. Continue for 3.3 miles and then turn right onto Forest Road 600 for 0.6 of a mile. Then fork left for 200 yards to Sturgis Fork Trailhead.


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