Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Marble Mountain Wilderness

Located in the Klamath National Forest, is a bit of wilderness called the Marble Mountains. Though seemingly unspectacular, being situated between Mt Shasta and the Trinity Alps, the Marble Mountains are in fact quite so. The unique mix is a light colored limestone with a black metamorphic rock gives many of the mountain formations a marble like appearance. At a maximum elevation of 8299 feet, Boulder Peak, Marble Mountain Wilderness does not claim to be the highest of alpine wildernesses. However with 89 lakes and 32 miles of the Pacific Crest trail located within it boundary, it holds its own as a special piece of untamed wilderness.

Not having spent much time in the northern reaches of this state, I planned to explore the Marble Mountains this last Fourth of July. My own place of residence becomes so overwhelmed with tourist, that I seek places of desolation to find relaxation. The nearest town to the wilderness is Yreka, as far north as California gets. In fact it feels more like Oregon then the rest of the state. I drove up after work solo and meet my friends who had departed a day earlier. We meet at a previously undecided location along Scott Creek Road out of Fort Jones. Since cell phone cover was unavailable once there, a ping from the SPOT http://mrpulldown.blogspot.com/2009/05/spot-personal-locator-becon.html personal locator device was sent to my cell phone as a text. I received the text while still travel along interstate five, where cell reception is plentiful. I took the coordinated from the ping and located his location on my GPS. The midnight rendezvous worked out flawlessly.

Our destination for this weekend were the Wright Lakes. Upper and Lower. Lower Wright Lake was more spectacular with Boulder peak terminating its base into blue waters. These lakes can be access by two trailheads Boulder Creek Trail, and Big Meadow. Boulder Creek, once the most popular trail to Wright Lake, climbs an insane 3500 feet in 2.5 miles. This trail noted in guide books as one of, if not thee hardest trails of the entire wilderness. This trail head can be access from forest service Road 44N45. However a less physically demanding route was selected. From a trail head off of FS43N23 the Big Meadow trail head could be reached. N41deg35.528' W123deg 02.793'. This particular Forest Service road was a bit rough and should be accessed with a 4wd truck or SUV, though a skilled driver with a 2wd truck or Subi could most likely access it as well. From a brief discussion with a US Forest Service representative, the land which the trail head is on is private property. The landowners are kind enough to allow public access, so please be courtesy, travel at a conservative speed and mind your litter.

Big Meadow is aptly named, a large alpinisk meadow. Views of Mt Shasta to the west were quite inspiring. A glimpse of what we believed to be the Trinity Alps were had to the the East. The trails in these neck of the woods however are not well marks, and not maintained. Have a good topographical map, compass, and diligently navigate your route. An altimeter and GPS are very helpful as well, especially if you are a first timers to this area, since I found my self off trail very often.

Gaining the ridge to the North of Big Meadow, a small sign was discovered stating that Wright Lake was just on the other side. N41 deg 35.409' W 123 deg 3.518'. Upper Wright was soon in sight and passed as we headed to lower Wright. At lower Wright Lake we made camp for the night. Small snow fields on the northern slope of Boulder Peak allowed for post hike cold beers; a treat rarely experienced in the back county.

The fourth of July weekend was hit with a sudden heat wave. The entire month prior was cold and rainy, rare for the West. Temperature in Redding were of 100+ degrees. However at Wrights lake temps were moderate 70's.

Fish were not plentiful in the lake, though evidence of past successful catches were discovered in the form of poorly disposed fish carcases. Although the fish and game department has recently ceased stocking many lakes, the Wrights were not on the list of non-stocked lakes. The non stocking of California Lakes is a result of a law suit to protect the frog populations of many of these lakes. Though the relationship between fish population and frog populations appear to be inversely proportional, no studies have been made to substantiate those claims. The use of lures did nothing to attract fish to their trailing treble hooks. However I did have one fish hook up after a dab of power bait was used. Unfortunately this experienced late season trout, was able to wiggle itself free, once I brought him into the shallows and let up on my line pressure, as I climbed down to the water. One possible explanation of the low fish population was the due to the creature we spotted in the water. Once thought to be the monster of Lower Wright Lake, cooler heads concluded that the creature was most likely a river otter or a weasel of some sort.

To celebrate our countries independence, we decided to climb Boulder peak, the highest point in the Marble Mountains. Though the climb was mostly a hike with a small 3rd class section at the top, it was still the highlight of the trip. I originally wanted to gain the north ridge and climb the ridge to the summit. However I was convinced that a hike around the back would give a guaranteed summit bag, as well as less of a chance of a disastrous epic.

Boulder creek is formed by the water flowing out of Lower Wright Lake. At the mouth area of the lake we found a cleverly built water wheel.

Following the Boulder Creek Trail North along Boulder Creek, the trail eventually settles on the west side of the creek and wraps over the ridge into 2nd Valley. An older couple we meet on the trail described 2nd Valley as paradise lost. Though truly beautiful, the lost part of the phrase describes the trail system more accurately. This is Second Valley with a view of the back side of Boulder Peak. From this angle the north ridge of the peak looks pretty tough. Maybe it was a good decision to do the hike around.

All through the wilderness, there were signs of abundant wildlife (except fish). Bear scat littered the trail. At several dried creek and ponds, we found swarms of butterflies and bear prints. We never had a bear sighting nor did we have an issue with food storage. The mere presence of humans were enough to detract these bears. Hanging our food was sufficient in keeping it safe.

The summit bid consisted of several switchbacks up the SW talus slope, then a short 3rd class scramble to the top. We signed the summit registry and was off for cold beers back at camp. Rather then taking the the east ridge of back to the trail, we did some impulse mountaineering down a steep and loose drainage straight back to the lake.

Though a great weekend was had, I do not foresee myself traveling back to the Marbles anytime soon. I find the lower elevation topography to be less spectacular then the Sierra Nevada's I call home. The next time I trek up to these parts I would like to explore something new. However that said, I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend in this wild corner of the world.


  1. great story of what sounds like a wonderful weekend!

  2. Bill, I am documenting the use of high mountain lakes by river otters in California. Over the past year I have compiled a list of over 100 sightings in the sierra's, lassen, and klamath mountains. I would like to add your sighting at lower wrights lake to this list, however I need to ask a few questions to help identify the likelihood of this sighting being an actual river otter. All sightings are subject to these questions in order to reduce false species identifications and increase the reliability of individual sightings.

    General behavior

    Was the animal swimming? Did the animal(s) dive under the surface? How long did
    you observe the animal in the water? If not swimming, what was the behavior
    observed? They chirp to each other and it sounds exactly like
    they are saying the word “Chirp, Chirp” repeatedly. They can also hiss through their
    nostrils when they are pissed off and defending a territory.

    Size of Animal
    What was the animal’s size? A medium sized dog is about the size of a river otter.

    Other Sign (Scat, Bank Slides, Vocalizations, Fish Carcasses)
    Otters are known to have designated latrine areas that they use regularly. Many times
    these latrines represent a territory mark. Otter slides could revile a den or terrestrial
    resting area. They are well worn muddy slides on the banks of a waterbody or stream.
    Lastly, otters can make distinct vocalizations. Fish carcasses can be present
    on a lakeshore. Otters can strip the meat from the spine and leave the heads and guts in
    the water.
    Any descriptions of these clues are useful.

    Best regards,
    Justin Garwood

  3. Justin,
    There were many fish carcasses left by the waters edge; mostly heads and some of the skeleton. It had been there for a while so I did not see any guts. I thought that it was odd of another fisherman to dispose of his fish heads so poorly.

    I saw the "creature" swimming. What initially shocked me was the size. I thought it was a bird or a fish from far away, but when I saw it a second time, at a closer distance, I decided that it must have been bigger, small/medium dog sized. I did not see much of the animal either just its head. It kind of looked snake like. It then submerged and disappeared.

    I did not notice any unusual signs on the shore, such as muddy worn banks, however I was not looking for such clues.

    I did not witness this, but someone else from the group said she was confronted by it making hissing chirping sounds at her when she was near the waters edge. I will see if I can get her to write a description.

    Good luck with your project.


  4. Bill, thanks that helps a bunch. Based on your description I agree it was indeed an otter. Other species it could have been are a pine marten (does not swim) or a mink, the size of a very small cat. Minks also do not make chirping and hissing noises. The animal sounded like it was being territorial (protecting its fishery). I saw one myself at el lake in the trinity alps in 2005 and it made al kinds of noises at us.
    again, thanks for your sighting, it adds the marble mtn wilderness to the list.
    best regards
    good adventures!
    J garwood

  5. One last thing, can you provide the observation date at lower wrights lake? I assume it was this summer?

  6. It was July fourth weekend this year. The date was 7/3/2009 about 5:00pm.