Base Camp: Sky High Lakes

This is part of Reid Barbier’s weekly “Base Camp” column on the best local hiking and outdoor adventure spots. 

The Sky High Lakes in the Marble Mountain Wilderness is a beautiful, remarkably untouched corner of the area that every avid hiker and backpacker should check out at some point. When I decided to spend a couple of nights there with two friends, I had never heard much about it and was unsure what to expect. We were greeted by soaring peaks, the namesake lakes and marble faces, and a pure white landscape that never sees too much human activity. It is quite simply one of the best hikes I’ve been on hands down, offering fairly accessible hiking and big rewards in the form of great views and fun terrain. Be sure to get your hands on a map of the Sky High Lakes, and get hiking!

Located in Northern California west of Yreka, the Sky High Lakes are relatively close to Ashland, maybe an hour or hour and a half away. Take I-5 south to Yreka and take the Fort Jones exit just south of Yreka. Follow Highway 3 for 16 miles to Fort Jones, a sleepy, charming little town situated next to Scott River and with peaks all around. Drive through Fort Jones and at the edge of town turn right on Scott River Road for 14 miles, and then look for a sign to Lovers Camp. You will turn left onto Road 44N45 for 5.5 miles, and then left on Road 43N45 for two miles and end up at Lovers Camp where your hike will begin.

The full loop through the wilderness is about 13.6 miles, so it can be done in a day or one night and two days. My friends and I took two nights out, which seemed like the perfect amount of time, at least for us. It meant we could explore a little more, and not worry about time. An ideal campsite is in the Marble Valley, about 4-5 miles into the hike. The trail up to this point is striking, especially in early spring when we went, with snow still on the ground in places and partially frozen rivers trickling down all around. There are some picture-worthy stone steps ascending some of the hills, in a very Lord of the Rings style, at least in my mind. There is marble stone lying about, in huge chunks broken off by time and weather. The white leaps out from the grey of the surrounding rock, and can be seen for miles. Once you reach the Marble Valley, there are a number of great potential campsites. We found a site that had already been well-prepared, with a great big stone fire pit and even a ring of rocks to sit at around the fire. It does get cold in the area, which has a relatively high elevation, so build up that fire and enjoy your time at the campsite.

The next part of the loop is a fairly even climb up to the lakes themselves, but a detour is certainly worthwhile to the nearby Marble Ridge. The cutoff can be hard to find, but it is located off the right of the main eastern loop side, and meets up with a few other trails at the top of the ridge. Follow the ridge for a couple of miles, and enjoy a spectacular view of Marble Mountain itself and the precipitous drop into the forested valley below. This is probably the most noteworthy part of the whole trip, so take the extra hour or two to find this gem and hike it out. Once you’re done admiring the view, hike back along the ridge to the original loop and continue about two miles to the Sky High Lakes. The trail can be easy to lose in this forested area, especially with snow on the ground, but it can be somewhat discernible by cleared trees and relatively clear brush in the trail direction. You’ll eventually come out on a hill overlooking a little valley, where the lakes rest, framed by rising peaks as a backdrop. The trail goes between Frying Pan Lake, which is easy to spot, and Upper Lake, the smaller of the other two. This is a good spot to eat lunch or refill water bottles. A filter is still recommended, although this area is probably one of the cleaner water spots to refill in my hiking experience.

From the Sky High Lake,s hike back two miles to the Marble Valley, where your camp may be located. This part of the trail is marked by a long grassy plain, which in spring is carpeted in glorious wildflowers. The trail can again be easily lost here, in the dirt and grass, especially if it has rained, in which case the trail may be obscured in the mud. If you have a compass, make sure to follow a north-west course while staying on the plain. Once you get back to Marble Valley and pack up camp, it is a straight shot back to Lover’s Camp and the parking lot on the same trail you took in.

I would recommend the Sky High Lakes area as a great hike for any and all hikers looking for a moderate hike and a wilderness with a great sense of peace and beauty. There are few hikers here, and the area is relatively undiscovered, perhaps because of its distance from any major population center. The air is remarkably fresh, and the marble mountains strikingly beautiful, their lonely peaks rising in pure, unstained glory into the pale blue sky. Wildflowers color the place like a million-dollar painting, and the landscape is out of a story. Come hike these wondrous places, light a campfire, rest your hand on rock that has not known touch in all its history, and revel in the joy of Creation. You just might see me out there too, sweaty, bruised, exhausted, but with a big smile on my face and the wind in my soul.