“The original mountain landscape has given way almost entirely to that new, man-made scenery that looks everywhere the same: the endless tangles of the logging roads, the great raw gaps of the clearcuts. But in the middle of all this remains one sizeable wild section, valuable for its own great beauty, doubly valuable because it is the last.”
-Author John Hart describing the Red Buttes Wilderness
Ready to escape the freezing fog here in valley by getting up and out to some of the most beautiful mountains in the region? Well, you’re in luck! The wild places of the Red Buttes are a perfect antidote to cabin fever.
The Red Buttes Wilderness has it all, old-growth forests, towering mountain peaks, stunning vistas, clear wild rivers, alpine lakes and meadows and a plethora of hiking trails for every season of the year. It is a place unlike any other, located in a mountain range unlike any other.
A Climate Refuge
While most mountain ranges are oriented such that they extend north and south, the Siskiyou Mountains are the rare range that runs east and west. Because of this the Siskiyou Mountains provide the flora and fauna of the Cascade Mountains, the Klamath Mountains and the Coast Range with a “land bridge” that allows for migration and prevents genetic isolation. This unique orientation, along with the myriad of habitat types and elevational bands, makes the Siskiyou Crest Mountains an ideal refuge for species whose range needs are shifting due to climate change.
The 20,796-acre Red Buttes Wilderness Area and the tens of thousands of acres of wilderness-quality ancient forests that surround it are the geographic and biological heart of the Siskiyou Crest and provide the most intact remaining block of wildlife habitat. Its forests are a botanical marvel. Towering old-growth Douglas fir, incense cedar and sugar pines are the well-known stars of the show, while rare and diminutive Brewer’s spruce, Sadler oak and Alaska yellow cedar provide a diversity found few other places on Earth.
Ready to Recreate?
Most people first see the Red Buttes as snow-capped mountains peaking above the ridges from the highly visited vistas at Applegate Lake. Others first see the Red Buttes as they through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail up from the Seiad Valley on their long trek north. Once the mountains are first spotted, their pull can be irresistible. Those who start exploring the network of ridgetop and riverside trails tend to become “lifers” who return again and again.
The Recurring Role of Wildfire
Much of the renowned botanical diversity of the Red Buttes is due to the influence of odd soil types combined with disturbance from wildfire. Over millennia plants and ecosystems have evolved and adapted to these challenging conditions. Fires continue to play a significant role in the look and feel of the Red Buttes. The 2012 Goff fire that started on the south side of the Siskiyou Crest and the 2017 Miller complex fire that initiated on the north side of the crest provide recent examples of wildfire in action. Both fires burned in and around the Red Buttes in a mosaic pattern that renewed meadows, reduced fuels and replenished fire-dependent species.
To their credit, forest managers on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest have recognized the benefits of fire for maintaining the biodiversity and complexity of the Red Buttes. Unfortunately timber planners on the adjacent Klamath National Forest still primarily see post-fire forests as a place to produce timber volume through clearcut logging. The difference in these management strategies is stark and can best be understood by visiting the Red Buttes in person and contrasting those areas that have been logged to those that remain wild.
The early months of 2018 are an ideal time to fulfill a resolution to enjoy the unique natural splendors of the region. The Red Buttes should be at the top of the list if you are yearning for physical challenge, stunning beauty and backcountry adventure.
— George Sexton is conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org) in Ashland. He is writing the Wild Side column while Joseph Vaile is on sabbatical.