Devil's Punchbowl a granite cathedral in Siskiyou Wilderness
Devil's Punchbowl is at the head of a large granite valley in the Siskiyou Wilderness in Northern California.

Devil’s Punchbowl is a small emerald lake surrounded by massive silver cliffs in the Siskiyou Wilderness. It’s one of the most spectacular destinations in the Southern Oregon/Northern California area, but reaching it does require some work.

Here’s a link for a photo gallery of the Siskiyou Wilderness and here’s a video from Devil’s Punchbowl.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

As I stood at the edge of Devil's Punchbowl in my swimming trunks, shivering slightly in the early June air, I took a moment to consider the wisdom of plunging into a nearly 5,000-foot-high mountain lake fed by freshly melting snow.

I knew the water would be cold. That much was a given. But as I stood in the deep silver basin of glacier-carved granite, looking up at the jagged, ice-capped cliffs surrounding the small emerald lake, I wondered just how cold that water really could be.

Finally, I decided it was time.

A cool breeze sent a shiver down my spine as I stepped back, took a deep breath and splashed head-first into the snowy Siskiyou lake.

The first few seconds were a blur of adrenaline.

Then it hit me.

The deep, frozen shock began in my chest and quickly spread into my legs until it felt as though I was lying in a bathtub filled with ice cubes.

In one glance I realized I'd swum nearly to the middle of the lake and, with the confused "YELP" a dog makes when he's smacked in the face by a porcupine, I twisted around and began frantically heading toward land.

As I climbed onto shore and began to thaw, I wondered about the impulse that drove me to tempt hypothermia in almost every backcountry lake I've encountered.

But the reason is simple enough: If I'm going to hike a tough mountain trail to a stone cathedral as breathtaking as Devil's Punchbowl - a trek of 6.5 miles across nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain - then I have to experience what the breath-taking surroundings (literally, in this case) have to offer.

Which means I just can't sit on the shorelines composing lines of poetry about the sunset. To get a real feel for the mountain lake, I have to swim in the water, climb the cliffs, cast for trout (no luck this time out) and explore the waterfalls hidden behind stone outcroppings.

It's not always smart, but that's the way it goes. And for the next few months, it'll be the same for every backcountry lake I encounter in the Siskiyou Mountains.

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Devil's Punchbowl is the most spectacular lake in the Siskiyou Mountains, hands down. It's on par with the backcountry lakes of Glacier National Park - and that's really saying something - along with the Trinity Alps and Marble Mountain Wilderness.

The difference is Devil's Punchbowl is hidden within the raw Siskiyou Wilderness of Northern California. The lake is fairly well known - in that a decent amount of people have heard of it - but because of the remote location and difficult hike required to get there, it stays relatively crowd-free even during July and August.

"Devil's Punchbowl is one of the most amazing lakes anywhere," local hiking specialist and author Art Bernstein said. "But it's a long, straight uphill hike with dozens of switchbacks.

"I've never seen anybody else when I've been there."

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It was raining when I arrived at Doe Flat trailhead, so I put a plastic garbage bag over my pack and began walking down an abandoned Forest Service road.

The first three miles were easy enough. The sweet smell of cedar trees and the sound of rain helped me hike in rhythm through the cool morning air.

After about 2.8 miles, I reached a spur in the trail that leads southwest to Devil's Punchbowl. The hike turned interesting at this point, as the trail shot almost straight up 1,300 feet in just one mile.

My legs began to burn almost immediately as I trudged slowly up the swichbacks. I was so focused on hauling myself up the trail, in fact, that I didn't notice I was climbing higher and higher into the layer of clouds that had been dropping rain all morning.

The woods suddenly were shrouded in milky white darkness and the surrounding pine trees became big, drooping shadows in the fog.

After I hopped over a small mountain waterfall - not as impressive as it sounds - at around 4,600 feet, the curtain of fog slowly began to roll back as I entered the mouth of a massive stone valley of silver and white granite sitting above the clouds.

It was an impressive sight. The battleship-sized valley had huge, thick walls yet seemed to be floating atop the waves of a cream-white ocean.

The ground inside the valley was mostly barren stone and, in the absence of a trail, I followed a series of cairns (stacked rocks) until I reached a pear-shaped lake with a small island.

The hiking was steep and slick around the small lake - I had to check my map to make sure it wasn't the actual punchbowl - but the opposite end revealed a narrow entrance through a shallow, muddy swamp of trees and dirt.

Finally, after a trip that left me exhausted, waterlogged and dirty, I stumbled into the open basin of Devil's Punchbowl and set up my tent below cliffs that rose so high, the sky seemed to scrape across as it passed.

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It's strange to lay in your sleeping bag at night, in the complete darkness of the mountains, and suddenly feel as though someone has flipped on a night light.

I had a similar experience during the night I spent at Devil's Punchbowl.

At around 11 p.m., I exited my tent to find the entire valley flooded with so much moonlight that it seemed to bounce around the naked valley walls and illuminate everything in supernatural light.

The rocks glowed with pale blue color around the ink black hole of the lake, and everywhere I walked, I was followed by a 10-foot shadow that stretched out across the ground like a giant dark twin.

The next morning the whole experience felt like a strange dream; one of those eerily beautiful moments you get camping at a hidden stone cathedral with a name such as Devil's Punchbowl.

The next morning, I had a quick breakfast and began hiking back down the valley to my car - this time beneath the sunlight - ready for the next mountain lake and the next ice-cold swim.

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If you go to Devil's Punchbowl to camp - there are four stony tent spots along the lake - be sure to bring a camp stove because there is very little wood in the rock basin. You must get a permit for a camp stove or campfire at the Ranger Station in Gasquet, Calif., (707) 457-3131. ... If you're not up for making the tough trek to Devil's Punchbowl, the area offers the much easier hike of Buck Lake (see map) and trout camp on Clear Creek. ... Devil's Punchbowl is said to be stocked with trout, though how recently is unclear. The fish I could see were very small. California fishing licenses can be obtained closest to Oregon at a Chevron gas station nine miles south of Gasquet. ... For an outstanding three- to four-day trip, hit Devil's Punchbowl the first day, hike back to Doe Creek trail and follow it past trout camp to Young's Valley and Raspberry Lake, another truly outstanding destination. ... Make sure to have a good map, compass, water purifier, sleeping pad and foul-weather gear if you camp.

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