Marble Mountain Wilderness a backpacker's dream
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

The Sky High Lakes in the Marble Mountain Wilderness

Northern California’s Marble Mountain Wilderness is a backpacking paradise, packed with alpine lakes and wildflower valleys. Here’s a photo gallery and here’s video from the wilderness itself.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

My hands grip the pearl white rock with enough force to extricate water, and a sweeping wind rolls across my shoulders as I slowly ascend the Marble Rim’s northwest wall.

Like a skinny bug climbing a lighthouse, I plaster my body against the sheer cliff face, jam my right hand into a crevice, and pull myself a little higher upon the spectacular white crown of the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

Below me the cliffs sweep down into a U-shaped valley blooming with purple, red and gold wildflowers, while behind me the rockface drops 2,000 feet into the forested basement of the Elk Creek basin.

There are few places more bursting with color than the Marble Valley washed by late July sunlight, and from my view above the trees, it’s easy to tell why backpackers flock to this 241,744-acre northern California paradise each summer.

Protected in 1931 as the Marble Mountain Primitive Area, this landscape of alpine lakes, mountain streams and wildflower valleys became one of the original areas established by the Wilderness Act of 1964.

By the lonely standards of the Red Butte, Kalmiopsis and Siskiyou Wilderness, the Marbles are a fairly bustling area. The summer months bring consistant groups of people to popular camping locations such as the Sky High, Cliff, Campbell and Paradise lakes.

Yet from the peak of the Marble Rim — a stark white beacon polished bare by glaciers — the wilderness is quiet as an empty church.

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The ideal way to explore the Marble Mountain Wilderness is a backpacking trip of at least three days. Day hikes are fine, but the Marbles simply are too large, with too many good places to explore, to limit yourself to just one afternoon.

The best way to begin a trip is to check in at the Scott River Ranger Station in Fort Jones, Calif., located at the junction of Highway 3 and Scott River Road. This is the best place to get a campfire and camp stove permit — something you’ll absolutely need — along with a Forest Service map for $9.

The most popular and user-friendly trailhead is Lovers Camp, which can be reached by paved roads. After a four-mile hike, you reach Marble Valley and the choices begin.

The Marble Valley area’s most popular spot to camp is the Sky High Lakes. A less visited and just as beautiful place to set down camp, though, is the magnificent Shadow Lake, a tiny gem tucked about .3 miles off the Pacific Crest Trail.

On the second day, you’ll need to decide whether you want to head north along the Pacific Crest Trail to the aptly named Paradise Lake, which follows the Marble Rim past Black Marble Mountain toward Kings Castle.

Southeast through the Red Rock Valley to the fantastic Deep Lake, one can find the Lower Wright Lake area, which is highlighted by the wilderness’ highest point, Boulder Peak.

The possibilities are nearly endless — there’s also the eastern edge and Ukonom Lake, or the southern half’s Hancock and Abbot Lake — but even a lifetime is hardly enough time to explore every detail of the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

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Jen is a bubbly 27-year-old Australian girl backpacking for the first time in the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

While her boyfriend Dave sets up camp, Jen bounces around their campsite alongside Lower Sky High Lake, admiring the high overhanging cliffs glowing orange in the late afternoon light.

She’s explored Southern California’s Yosemite, Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks, but can’t stop talking about the virtues of the Marbles.

“It’s so awfully pretty out here,” she says in that wonderful accent which conjures up images of dingos, kangaroos and Mick Dundee. “When we saw the pictures, we thought it’d be so crowded there’d be like a big tent villages. But there’s almost nobody out here!

“Helloooo? Anybody out there?”

I’ve come across Jen and Dave en route to a fishing spot. The word among anglers is that brook and rainbow trout inhabit these Sky High Lakes — a trio of small emerald pools tucked snugly in a massive bowl of overhanging cliffs.

I contemplate telling Jen that by the standards of the Southern Oregon border region, and places such as Red Butte, Kalmiopsis and Siskiyou Wilderness, the Marbles actually are fairly crowded. Lovers Camp trailhead is packed on the weekends and good camping spots fill quickly.

But as I rig a Rooster Tail spinner to my line and begin casting out into the shallow emerald water, enjoying the warm July breeze on my neck, I decide to keep my mouth shut.

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