Illinois River Trail offers demanding test
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

The Illinois River Trail provides backpackers with one of the wildest backcountry adventures in Oregon, full of amazing views, a thundering river and even some grumpy rattlesnakes.

Click here for a photo gallery of the Illinois River Trail and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

After hiking from the Illinois River Trailhead to the summit of Bald Mountain, I reach my campsite, throw off my pack’s sweaty straps and collapse like a sack of lead.

My arms are sunburned and bloody with cuts. My legs are knotted with cramps. Twilight is coming in through the trees, and I know I need to pitch my tent and pump fresh water, but I’m simply too exhausted. After lying face down for about 25 minutes, I feel a small knot of sickness in my stomach. I curl into the cool damp grass at the top of Bald Mountain.

I started hiking the Illinois River Trail around dawn and have traveled about 13 miles (including detours) and up 4,125 feet of elevation gain through harsh, fire-scorched land. I’ve been out of water for the past mile, and now I can barely summon the will to do anything but lay in the grass.

Outdoor writer William L Sullivan of Eugene describes this 21-mile loop along the Illinois River Trail like this: “Following this trail as it shoots up Bald Mountain is a classic backpacking adventure through some of the wildest country in Oregon.”

He wasn’t kidding. Earlier in the day I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. Later, I had to grab onto a limb to keep from falling down a steep cliff.

Backpacking the Illinois River Trail loop — including the brutal Florence Way section — is like dating a homicidal beauty queen.

There’s a raw beauty to the land — the view of gray snow-capped mountains and the grassy knolls along the Illinois River — but it can be tough to enjoy when the trail actively seems to be trying to kill you.

The Illinois River loop runs thorough the Kalmiopsis Wilderness west of Selma, much of which was burned by the 2002 Biscuit Fire.

My path follows 300 feet above the Illinois River, down to the gorgeous riverside oasis of Pine Flat, and finally up the Florence Way route to the camp I’m currently lying face down upon.

IR Trailhead to Pine Flat (5.3 miles). My trail begins with a steel bridge over Briggs Creek. Because of the fire, many of the trees along the trail are nothing more than burned-out black shells, and the land is dusty and hot.

But there also is rejuvenation. A new layer of green vegetation coats the ground in the lower elevations. There also are many forms of wildflowers that draw exotic flower hunters.

There’s no shade along the trail as it slowly climbs above the Illinois River. It’s scorching hot on the trail by 10:30 a.m. Little black and gray lizards scurry from rocks underfoot. After two miles, York Creek interrupts the trail.

I continue another 2.5 miles to a ridge-top junction. The trail leading west (left) leads to Pine Flat, while the northeast trail (right) continues along the Illinois River Trail up Bald Mountain. I follow the trail west.

Pine Flat is a grassy oasis tucked against the Illinois River beneath greenish brown mountains. After 4.5 miles of hiking through desert-like land, Pine Flat is an open green paradise specked with blue and white wildflowers. Giant poplar trees make good spots for a camp, and the twisting pools of the Illinois River cry out for swimming. I jump off a small rock outcropping into the freezing turquoise water.

Near the bank of the river, I hear rattle near my feet. I look down and see a scaly brown body. After jumping about 50 feet into the air, I sprint roughly 200 yards.

I decide rattlesnakes get a bad rap. At least they have the courtesy to warn you before they try and kill you.

Pine Flat to Bald Mountain summit and spring camp (5.1 miles, about 3,275 feet up)

The next section of trail, called Florence Way, is the Mike Tyson of five-mile stretches. The trail begins after crossing Florence Creek on the right and veers northwest away from the Illinois River. This is the spot where the Biscuit Fire began. I check my compass.

The Florence Way begins like a punch to the gut, climbing 2,300 feet in only 1.5 miles. The trail is a raggedy and narrow series of switchbacks. It’s so steep in places, I need to bear crawl. There are numerous dead trees with sharp, stabbing limbs blocking the path, and I nearly fall down a steep bank after crossing one.

The next section is burned over forest. The trail disappears due to rocks, downed trees and pricking bushes. I follow a series of rock cairns and reddish-pink flag markers tied to surrounding trees, but lose the trail twice, and must bushwhack backward using my compass.

My arms and legs become lashed with cuts, and my clothes are soaked with sweat.

After about 3.5 staggering miles, the trail begins to show itself more prominently as it reaches the cool windswept top of Bald Mountain. There are panoramic views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Eventually the trail meets up with the original Illinois River Trail and continues .6 of a mile west to the spring camp and summit. There is a short loop trail to the summit and a spring of water nearby.

I make camp just below the summit.

Spring Camp and summit to Illinois River Trailhead (roughly 9.6 miles, descent 3,075 feet)

In the morning, I meet up with the fork and follow it left along the original Illinois River trail northeast. There are spectacular views as I descend because the trees are all burned to create an open view. There is cell phone service at this height. The trail is more evenly graded and wide. It feels like a cakewalk compared to the Florence Way. I hike the mileage quickly. Finally I reach my car at the trailhead.

I thank God for air conditioning.

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