TR: Marble Mountains Lollipop June 8-10

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TR: Marble Mountains Lollipop June 8-10

Post by kpeter » Thu Jun 11, 2020 11:00 am


I wanted to do a short warm up pack, was interested in seeing something new, and was looking for a destination that did not require a permit. The Marble Mountains fulfilled all those conditions.

I'm not sure if the Forest Service takes on local ideologies, but the Marbles--accessed via Yreka and Fort Jones--are in the self-designated state of "Jefferson" where they do not believe in government regulations, and sure enough, other than a fire permit you can print online, no permits are required. There isn't even a registry at the trailhead, so there is utterly no way for anyone to know you were there, and there is no way to monitor usage. Dogs freely allowed--and I saw a lot of them. This can lead to overuse and excessive congregation at the most popular lakes, but fortunately I was early enough in the season to miss most of that.

The "crown jewels" of the Marbles includes the Marble Ridge and the Sky High Lakes. There is much, much more, but since this was my first trip I thought I should start with what was reputedly the most scenic area. I'm glad I did. The scenery was gorgeous. I discovered that a huge fire burned much of the area deeper into the wilderness a few years back, and so other destinations should be researched carefully to determine if they were in the burn area.

The trailhead is at Lovers Camp. Getting there was fun. You drive west along the Scott River from Fort Jones. I had never seen the Scott Valley before and it was beautiful--lots of alfalfa farms and picturesque ranches with a sight of Shasta from time to time. It is also interesting to be in a valley drained by a major river that does so by entering the mountains, rather than the other way around. After driving downstream along the Scott River, you cross a one lane bridge over the river at Indian Scotty campground and continue on the road another 7 miles to the trailhead. The road is paved the whole way but it is one lane--and at times a narrow lane--so watch out for blind corners. At the end you reach Lover's Camp which has a small campground (that was closed) and paved parking for about 40 vehicles--and is a popular day hiking trailhead too.

Day 1 to Marble Valley

I got to the trailhead by noon and set forth. The trail for about four miles is relatively level, starting at 4200 feet amidst some huge doug fir and cedar trees, and following Canyon Creek. It stays well above the creek the whole way, but in early June there were several good sized tributary streams crossing the trail along the way. This part of the hike was all forest and thus had no long views--but it was a very pretty forest. It had large, mature trees with an interesting understory, including some blooming shrubs. Then, somewhat suddenly, it gains 1200 feet in about a mile--up some good rockwork steps in the trail. Along the way is an intersection--I went right to go first to Marble Valley, rather than left to Sky High Valley. I planned to come back the other way.

I reached the old ranger shack in Marble Valley by 4:00, and I am slow. Many dayhikers easily do this and much more in a day. I set up my tent upstream a bit from the cabin and watched two bears amble across the meadow--one very large cinnamon bear with undulating rolls of fat, and a smaller dark brown bear following (mother and child?) All in all, while the valley was nice, I as yet had to see anything special about it. There were again no long views.

Much to my delight, there was not an insect to be found. The day before I started there were 2 inches of snow and it froze to 28 degrees. The snow was mostly gone by the time I hiked, except in a few shady patches, but the weather no doubt reset the mosquito cycle.

Day 2 Dayhike to Marble Gap and move camp via PCT to Sky High Lakes.

I got up early and headed briefly north on the PCT to get to the Marble Gap turnoff. The trail from the PCT to Marble Gap was easy to find although it was obviously not frequently traveled.
I enjoyed this little trail very much as it wended its way ever upwards--very steeply at the end. FInally--finally--I got above the trees and began to see some vistas. It was a foggy morning so this put a damper on the photography, but it was a great relief to have views. The Marble Gap is in fact a gap in a rim of white marble that is the distinctive "signature" feature of this wilderness, and by hiking to it you can see the very abrupt opposite side.
There was still a lot of visible snow, but none on the trail until 10 feet from the top, and this was easily avoided. At the top, I took in the views and changed into warmer clothes. I had half wondered about hiking the ridge of Marble Mountain south to the ridge trail on the other end of it, but one look at this end of the gap, and the cliffs on each side, put an end to that speculation. After a splendid morning jaunt, I walked back to camp, packed up, and headed south on the PCT.
With the full pack on things went more slowly, but the trail was superb as one would expect, and before long I made it up to the "4 corners" intersection on the ridgetop. Here it is possible to climb one trail steeply to the right along the ridge for another view of the Marble escarpment, it is possible to go straight and descend the ridge down to Big Elk Lake, or you can turn left and continue on the PCT along the ridge to the SE. From 4 corners I learned of the massive fire that swept the Marble Mountains a few years back and burned nearly everything up to the PCT from the west. Big Elk Lake was in the middle of the burn. Fortunately, the fire did not cross the ridge and thus left the Marble and Sky High Valleys intact.
I took the PCT SE and in less than half a mile reached the turnoff to descend into Sky High Valley. The first quarter mile was on a north facing and shady slope, and so there was considerable snow. It was not difficult or particularly dangerous to get across, although I got out my microspikes which worked quite well on the hard surfaces. Emerging from this snowy traverse you get gorgeous views of the Marble Mountain and Black Marble Mountain, and then dipping over a small saddle you descend into Sky High Valley, where you begin to get superb views of the Sky High Lakes.
The Sky High Lakes are popular for a reason. The lakes themselves I found pretty but not extraordinary. Lower Sky High is set against black rock and when I was there in early June had a couple of waterfalls coming into it from Shadow Lake. But what I found gorgeous about the setting were the variety of well formed trees interspersed with verdant green meadows that surrounded these lakes. For a Sierraphile like myself I am more used to rock and distorted trees--I think this place would be much friendlier to a neophyte to backpacking. I camped on a rise between the three lakes and had a view from under my trees of the falls and two lakes. I had to carry water a couple of hundred yards but it was worth it. Of course, before long some other backpackers came along and camped 50 feet from me. Just have to expect this at this destination.

Day Three. Out and home.

I had planned to stay a couple more days. I hoped to pack up to Shadow Lake and then exit via Red Rock Valley. An air mattress failure and some minor health issues, coupled with the knowledge that I had seen the very best (especially considering the fire damage) caused me to leave early. On the way out, however, I saw some new territory. The meadows below Sky High Lakes are probably the prettiest mountain meadows I have seen, and the best views of the Marbles were to be had from them.
The trail out clung to the side of a steep mountain as it traversed its way west to rejoin the main Canyon Creek trail. There was a turnoff for Little Marble Valley--which I would like to explore one day. It is a vein of white marble that extends down from Marble Mountain and which extends this interesting rock formation into lower elevations. I encountered pack trains and larger groups heading in. Then it was back to the car and home.
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Last edited by kpeter on Fri Jun 12, 2020 11:11 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: TR: Marble Mountains Lollipop June 8-10

Post by Wandering Daisy » Thu Jun 11, 2020 1:00 pm

Thanks for the informative trip report. The scenery reminds me of the Kennedy Creek/ Canyon are near Sonora Pass. I have had a Marble Mountain route planned for years, in the area you hiked; your report motivates me to actually do it!

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Re: TR: Marble Mountains Lollipop June 8-10

Post by balzaccom » Thu Jun 11, 2020 5:22 pm

You're right about the feel of the place, Daisy, although Sonora Pass is all volcanic, and this is metamorphic...
Last edited by balzaccom on Fri Jun 12, 2020 6:23 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: TR: Marble Mountains Lollipop June 8-10

Post by Lumbergh21 » Thu Jun 11, 2020 11:02 pm

A hike including this area of the Marble Mts has been on my short list of hikes since 2018. I still may hike it this year depending if something changes, and I can't do my planned 2 weeks in the Sierra. It was already my back up plan, now even more so. I also have thought about the traverse along the Marble Mt ridge, but I'll plan on NOT doing that now. Nice photos and description. Thank you.

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Re: TR: Marble Mountains Lollipop June 8-10

Post by Jason » Fri Jun 12, 2020 8:21 am

That's a great trip for what looks like a fantastic area. I'll add that to the list of places I'll probably never make it to. Thanks for the report.

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Re: TR: Marble Mountains Lollipop June 8-10

Post by giantbrookie » Fri Jun 12, 2020 8:34 pm

Nice trip and report. It captures the beauty and charm of the Marbles very nicely. That is some beautiful backcountry.
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