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The marquee feature in the Marble Mountains is the Marble Rim, a conspicuous, mile-long ridge of exposed limestone that can be seen from great distances. Nevermind that the name is wrong - it's a great place to visit, with the four-mile stretch of ridge between Kings Castle and the southern tip of the Marble Rim being the highlight of the four-day road trip. I had spent the night camped at the Paradise Lake TH. The more common trailhead for the Marble Rim (which includes two CC-listed summits, Marble Mtn and Black Marble) is Lovers Camp, found at the end of paved Forest Route 43N45 off Scott River Rd. I wanted to link both of these with another CC summit, Kings Castle, for which the Paradise Lake TH makes more sense. I was happy to find the six-mile gravel/dirt road forking off the paved road to Lovers Camp in excellent condition, easily navigated by passenger vehicles. It was hunting season and I was hardly alone at the TH. A truck towing a horse trailer was there when I arrived and several other trucks came by just "to take a look" during the evening hours. I think they were scoping out places to try their luck not already being eyed by other hunters.
I was up and on the trail before 7:30a, expecting a rather long day. It was chilly, about 34F to start, but would warm up nicely as the day progressed. The trail climbs steeply, more than 1,400ft in the first hour, but it's advantages are soon apparent. Rather than the five mile approach from Lovers Camp, this route takes less than two miles to reach the PCT. I paused just before the junction to pay a visit to the exceedingly minor highpoint of Cayenne Ridge, about 1/3mi to the north. A use trail can be found running up the ridgeline, likely used primarily by hunters and the deer they skirmish with. The summit is a small rocky knob with good views looking over the northern edge of the range. There is a nice view of Kings Castle to the southwest, a smallish summit ringed by a wall of cliffs. To the right of Kings Castle is a far more impressive feature, a castellated ridgeline that looked exceedingly difficult. I would not be hiking along that section of the crest.
I returned to the PCT junction and set off for Kings Castle, aiming for the saddle on the crest between it and Peak 7,180ft to the southeast. It so happened that there was a use trail, marked by ducks, leading up to the saddle. It passes above Paradise Lake (which appears to be a small, shallow, swampy thing, not really very paradise-like), and through pastures used by cattle as seems the norm in these parts. Once at the crest I found more use trails heading in either direction along the crest - this would be easier than I expected. The cliffs around Kings Castle do not extend to the southwest side, but it was not even necessary to make that small diversion. The use trail led up through a weakness in the cliffs directly along the crest and by 9:15a I had reached the summit. There was a generic USGS benchmark but no register to be found. Looking southeast, one can see most of the 4-mile long stretch of ridgeline I hoped to traverse. The first several miles looked to be pretty tame, but somewhere around Black Marble things might get tough. Luckily there are almost unlimited options to simply drop left off the crest to the PCT should things get nasty.
I spent the next hour and a quarter making my way along the first two and a half miles of the ridgeline, going over a pair of unnamed bonus peaks along the way. As mentioned, a use trail appears in places, mostly the northern part of the ridge, facilitating an already easy effort. I enjoyed the relaxed hiking that allowed me more time to take in the views off either side. I noted Box Camp Mtn to my left and considered adding it to my itinerary at the end of the day. It looked to be another fairly easy ridgeline from where the PCT crosses at a saddle with the main crest. The second bonus, Peak 7,300ft, offered the first good views of Black Marble and its NW Ridge. The ridge looked to grow steep very quickly and possibly end in cliffs, but I would have to get much closer to ascertain the difficulties.
It was 10:30a when I reached the base of the NW Ridge and found it looked more reasonable from this vantage than it did from the far view, not altogether uncommon. The bottom several hundred feet or so are the beginning of the light gray limestone for which the Marble Rim is noted. This gives way to easier terrain in the middle, lightly vegetated and steep, but good footing. The upper few hundred feet of the ridge becomes a darker volcanic rock and grows too steep for scrambling. It is easy enough, however, to traverse around the base of this to the south side where some fun class 3 scrambling can be had. I later noted that the SE Ridge appears somewhat easier, but the route I took up from the southwest was quite fun with a short bit of knife-edge to work across.
Reaching the top by 10:50a, I found the airy summit perch to have the finest views of the day, particularly looking south along the stretch of the Marble Rim. The Black Marble register was a collection of loose pages, half of them from BSA Troop 54 out of Eureka that made several ascents in the previous decade. The only names I recognized were fellow Sierra Challenge participants Luca and Ephrat from 2015. The summit was swarming with ladybugs gathering for a high altitude orgy, and though they're mostly harmless, their incessant activity flying around and into me eventually drove me back off the summit.
The best part of the ridge traverse was this last mile along the Marble Rim. Staying on the crest, I found the scrambling to be no more than class 3 and quite fun, with a few tricky spots that required some caution. I dropped to Marble Gap, just north of Marble Mtn, finding a trail going over the crest here. Rising to the south is the impressive North Face of Marble Mtn that appears to have an interesting class 3 route up the limestone. The final 15-20ft looked to go vertical and kept me from trying it, as I didn't want to climb up 200ft only to have to scramble back down. It turns out that the route does go, but I couldn't ascertain that last part until I had looked down on it from the top and found a nifty class 3 crack at the finish that would have been fun. Instead, I circled left around the east side of the limestone formation, climbing it from the SE and south sides where it goes class 2. After ascertaining the route I should have taken up the north side, I continued south along more limestone to reach the southernmost point of the Marble Rim. I believe this point at 6,881ft is the Marble Mtn that was first intended for the CC-list. The northern point is higher and has more prominence, however, and with the impressive North Face makes for a better choice.
A use trail drops down from Pt. 6,881ft to intersect a maintained trail that runs east-west across the range. Once on this trail, I followed it down to a junction with the PCT at a saddle between Marble Mtn and Peak 6,820ft. It was at this point that I had originally planned to return to the Paradise Lake TH using the PCT, contouring back around the NE side of the long ridgeline I'd just hiked. As it was only 12:15p, I decided to tag Peak 6,820ft as a bonus. I followed the PCT southeast for a mile and half past trail junctions to Sky High Lakes and Shadow Lake, until I was only 1/5mi from the summit. Easy cross-country leads to the open summit where there is a nice broadside view of the Marble Rim to the west. Rather than returning to the PCT directly, I thought I might make a larger loop of it by dropping north down to Sky High Valley. I descended initially to Shadow Lake before trying to drop further, but soon found my way blocked by cliffs I hadn't reckoned on. Rather than search for a dicey route through this difficulty, I decided to climb back up to Shadow Lake and take the Shadow Lake Trail back to the PCT. Shaded on the north side of the crest, portions of this trail still held 3-4 inches of snow from days earlier. Someone had recently left footprints in the snow, making it trivial to follow it back to the PCT.
Now heading northwest, I plied the PCT back another mile to the saddle with the Marble Rim where the PCT then drops down to Marble Valley. I came across a backpacker heading south who paused to ask me if I knew if there was any water at the next spring (I did not). I would run across the same guy the next day while I was hiking another portion of the PCT near Yellow Dog Peak. A woman and her dog who had come up the Sky High Trail hailed me as I passed by, wondering what trail I was on. She evidently wasn't all too familiar with the trail system in the area. I spoke to her only briefly before continuing on. The PCT drops only about 500ft to reach Marble Valley where a ranger station (closed for the season) is located. There is a trail junction here with a fork coming up from Lovers Camp about 4.5mi further down Canyon Creek. The PCT then wanders through Marble Valley east of Black Marble as it begins to climb up towards Box Camp. The area has vast limestone formations, semi-popular with cavers. I found several cave entrances that could be seen from the trail and undoubtedly there are numerous other ones known to the cavers frequenting the area.
I reached Box Camp at the saddle with Box Camp Mtn shortly before 3:30p. The summit is located about a mile NE of this point, the Box Camp Trail conveniently heading off in that direction. I started along this poor trail, wondering where it goes. My GPSr shows it going nearly over the summit as it continues to the north, but that doesn't seem to be the case in reality. After about 4/5mi the trail begins to drop more steeply down the east side of the ridge towards Canyon Creek (maybe heading to Lovers Camp?). I left the trail here to head cross-country up through forest understory about 2/5mi to Box Camp's summit. I was surprised to find a register here, more surprised that it dated to 1995 and was fairly busy. Hunters seemed to comprise the majority of the entries.
It was 4p at this point and about 5mi back to the trailhead if I returned to the PCT. I was overlooking the South Fork Kelsey Creek drainage and somewhere down there was my trailhead. "How far is it cross-country?" I wondered. I checked the GPSr and found it was only 1.2mi in a straight-line distance. Seemed worth the savings in mileage if I could manage to find my way down 2,500ft of steep, forested terrain. Had I made more careful observations, I'd have realized I could drop straight off the north side of the summit in the direction of the trailhead. For some reason I thought the TH was further downstream and instead aimed for a curved ridgeline that took me in a broad arc, first east then north and eventually back to the west. It more than doubled the straight-line distance but it was still much faster than taking the PCT back. I eventually landed on the Forest Service road I had driven in on, walking the last 3/4mi back to the trailhead along the road. The cross-country proved to have very little brush and was a fun little bit of adventure. The day as a whole was one of the best I've spent in the northern Coast Ranges.
There were more trucks at the TH when I arrived before 5:30p than when I had started in the morning. I showered and changed into fresh clothes before starting the long drive back out to Scott River Rd, south through Etna on SR3, then up to Etna Summit where I would spend the night just off the pavement. I had another CC-listed peak and a P1K on tap for the next day - more fun to come...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Marble Mountain
This page last updated: Sat Oct 15 10:14:09 2016
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