The very best trips of 2011
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

The canyon of the Wild Illinois River.

This past year I explored a number of amazing destinations in Southern Oregon, Northern California and beyond. Listed here are my top 10 favorite trips from 2011.

There are links to each original story below, along with links to photo galleries and video as well.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

The new year doesn't officially begin in Southern Oregon until there's snowpack in the mountains and the Rogue River has blown out at least once.

Water from the sky — and lots of it — regenerates the land and people better than any calendar by washing away the silt and sin that's built up during the past year.

By my clock, 2012 began this past week with the deluge of rain and snow that restored order to our corner of the universe after the historically dry conditions of December and early January.

And the truth is that it should be an exciting year. I already have a batch of trips planned, including exploration of Southeastern Oregon's Steens Mountain, the upper Chetco River and a secret destination home to the largest living organisms on earth.

Yes, it should be fun.

But before I step completely into the future, I thought I’d look back one final time. And so, included below are the top 10 trips that I took in 2011. They include everything from hunting to mountain climbing to backpacking to kayaking. Hopefully, they’ll provide readers with a few ideas for their travels in the newly minted year.

10) DUCK HUNTING THE UPPER KLAMATH — Nestled between the Cascade Mountains, the largest body of water in Oregon sees an estimated one to three million migrating ducks and geese each October and November, including mallards, pintails, buffleheads and teal. With the correct equipment — meaning a boat, decoys and trained bird dog — hunting here can be tons of fun. In December, I went hunting with expert John Jones, of Grants Pass, and enjoyed skimming around the lake into different blinds in search of bluebills.

(Here’s a photo gallery of Upper Klamath Lake).

9) BACKPACKING TO ISLAND LAKE — This mountain lake is a pretty little slice of blue hidden in the wilds of northwest California’s Siskiyou Wilderness, just south of the Oregon/California border. The lake is packed with brook trout and features wonderful views of the surrounding mountains. Few people come here because the cost of admission is high, requiring a 12 mile round-trip hike that includes a difficult 3,000 foot climb over just three miles.

(Here’s a photo gallery of the Siskiyou Wilderness and here’s video of its top five mountain lakes).

8) ‘YURTING’ SUNSET BAY STATE PARK — Few sections of Oregon's South Coast are as stunning as Sunset Bay State Park, located 12 miles south of Coos Bay. The area features trails between sandy beaches, barking sea lions and a formal garden at Shore Acres State Park, which is lit up with more than 300,000 Christmas Lights from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve. The best way to enjoy this area by staying in a yurt, a funky cross between a tepee and cabin that has heat, furniture and electricity.

(Here’s a photo gallery of the Sunset Bay State Park area).

7) WINTER ON MOUNT MCLOUGHLIN — Although many people climb to the summit of Southern Oregon’s highest mountain during summer, few attempt the more challenging conditions during winter. And for good reason. A winter ascent on Mount McLoughlin requires bushwhacking through the Sky Lakes Wilderness from the side of Highway 140, then completing a 5,000 foot climb that traverses more than 12 miles.

This trip would probably be higher on the list if I didn’t nearly get whipped off the narrow, ice-polished summit by extremely high winds (see this video for evidence). The highlight of this trip was Glissading (butt-sliding) down the mountain’s south face.

(Here’s a photo gallery of the Sky Lakes Wilderness).

6) OFF-TRAIL AT THE OREGON CAVES — If you enjoy the regular tour at the Oregon Caves National Monument, then you'll really go for the off-trail adventure. Led by experts and including all the equipment you'll need, this tour heads deep into bowls of the caves. Some passageways appear little more than wormholes into the abyss, and require you to belly-crawl though tight entryways through a maze of tunnels and hidden caverns.

This tour is fairly intense and not for those prone to claustrophobia, but the experience gives you a much better feeling of caving than the normal tour. A highlight comes near the end, when you sit in the South Room — one of the cave's deepest areas — and turn off your headlamps. The darkness here is so deep and rich it almost feels tangible, like a substance you can touch.

(Here’s a photo gallery from inside the Oregon Caves, including the off-trail area).

5) DESTINATION: HAPPY CAMP, CALIF. — The truth is that I never heard much positive about this tiny mountain hamlet located on the Oregon/California border. Then I visited this town of 1,110 during its annual Bigfoot Jamboree Labor Day Weekend, and discovered a hidden gem. The town might not be wealthy, but it's rich in outdoor beauty and character.

For hikers and backpackers, the Siskiyou Wilderness and Marble Mountain Wilderness are located nearby. Rafters and kayakers enjoy scenery and whitewater on the Klamath River and Clear Creek. There's steelhead fishing during autumn, swimming holes for hot summer days and even gold panning for the youngsters. And, of course, there’s enough Bigfoot enthusiasm to almost convince you the big guy does, in fact, walk the earth.

(Here’s a photo gallery from Happy Camp and here’s some video taken from the area).

4) WILD ILLINOIS RIVER — Few rivers in the United States can match the wild beauty of the Illinois as it slices 31 miles through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness from Miami Bar (near Selma) to Oak Flat (near Agness). Black Bears roam the edges of the river and rattlesnakes patrol the shores. The water is emerald green and the canyons silver.

Both beautiful and dangerous, the Illy will seduce you with her sights, sounds and smells, and then pummel your backside across more than eight Class IV rapids. The Illinois River is an epic multi-day adventure that experienced rafters and kayakers run during the winter and spring.

(Here’s a photo gallery of the Illinois River and here’s some video from the rafting trip itself.).

3) BOLAN MOUNTAIN LOOKOUT — From this former lookout tower at 6,500-feet, you are master of all you survey. Look south to Mount Shasta, east to the Red Buttes Wilderness and west to the Pacific Ocean. The amenities are not quite the Ritz-Carlton, but they're not bad either. The thick glass windows keep you warm at night, and there's a rustic kitchenette and wrap-around deck that offers some of the best views in Southern Oregon.

Located near Cave Junction, the nearby area has fun day-trips as well, including fishing at Bolan Lake and hiking around Tanner Mountain. The cost is just $40 per night, and there isn't a five star hotel in the world that can match the views of this mountain-top abode.

(Here’s a photo gallery from the Bolan/Tanner Mountain area.).

2) THE WALLOWA MOUNTAINS — On the opposite side of Oregon, in a landscape that couldn’t seem more different from the Rogue Valley, a titanic range of mountains rise from the dry, dusty earth. With the state's largest wilderness and 31 summits that eclipse 8,000 feet, there's few places that can match the Wallowa Mountains.

The best part of visiting this destination, located on the Columbia River Plateau east of La Grande, is that there's something for everyone. Backpackers will revel in the alpine paradise of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Families enjoy the “soft adventures” offered at Wallowa Lake State Park including fishing, mini-golf and zipping up a tramway to Mount Howard's 8,241-foot summit. The funky town of Joseph caters to the more civilized set with art festivals, craft brew pubs and bed-and-breakfasts.

(Here’s a photo gallery of the Wallowa Mountains and here’s some video from the trip itself.).

1) NORTH FORK OF THE SMITH RIVER — The water is as clear as aqua blue glass. Waterfalls tumble down burnt orange cliffs. And in between the booming collection of Class III and IV rapids, there's a sapphire grotto where you can paddle behind sheet of dripping water.

The North Fork of the Smith River was my favorite trip of 2011 because it's the most strange and beautiful stretch of river I've ever experienced, like something you'd see on another planet. Hooded, greenish-purple cobra lilies trap mosquitoes and spiders along the shoreline and old-growth redwoods pierce the skyline in the distance. I've traveled far and wide, but haven't seen anything that matches this crystal-clear blade of wilderness river.

(Here’s a photo gallery of the Smith River and here’s some video of running the North Fork.).

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