Thu, Jun 20, 2019
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At over 7,300ft in elevation, Preston Peak is the monarch of California's North Coast and the highest point in the Siskiyou Wilderness. I had first seen it while climbing Del Norte County's HP, Bear Mtn, not many miles to the southwest, back in 2006. I remember being impressed with the view to Preston Peak and expected I would be back to climb it soon enough. 13yrs isn't exactly soon, but I had finally returned to the area and this time Preston made the agenda. Though remote, it gets climbed regularly since it's not only a Wilderness HP, but a P2K, as well as being on the CC and Western States Climbers lists and has more than 25mi of isolation - lots of boxes to check off for this one. The standard approach is from the north starting at the Youngs Peak TH, a distance of about 8mi each way. Much of this is on road or trail, so not all that difficult an outing. El Capitan and Youngs Peak are two other P1Ks nearby that I hoped to combine with Preston to make for a more challenging outing. I managed the first of these, but ran out of motivation and energy for the second.
I had spent the night camped at the trailhead, up early so I could get started by 6a. Preston comes into view about 10min after starting out on the old road as it makes its way up to a highpoint on Youngs Peak's SW shoulder. This is the western edge of the Wilderness boundary as well as the boundary between Del Norte and Siskiyou Counties. The road then begins a gradual descent, dropping about 800ft over the course of 2.5mi. I looked up at one point in this section to find the blue sky suddenly gone. It took a moment for me to reorient and realize that fog had come in to blanket the mountains. It would be mostly gone by the time I had descended to Youngs Valley, the only fog I encountered in the three days I was in this part of the state. There is a large, beautiful meadow at the bottom of the valley surrounded by forest, unburned in the 2018 Natchez Fire that swept over much of this area the previous summer. Where the road forks, I turned left to begin a gradual rise up to Bell Echo Camp and the old mine found at the end of this spur road near Cyclone Gap on the southwest side of El Capitan. The terrain suddenly changes on the way to the mine where the recent fire is starkly evident. Though some trees have survived the fire, there is almost nothing green on the ground. In fact, it is covered by dry, brown needles from the trees and branches that were killed in the fire.
Past the mine, the route now becomes a trail as Preston Peak comes more sharply into view. The trail continues gaining elevation as it passes over the northwest shoulder of Copper Mtn before frustratingly dropping several hundred feet in short switchbacks down to Raspberry Lake. It looks like about half the trees around the lake survived the fire, so it doesn't look quite as stark as other sections of the fire, but its pristine beauty has been significantly affected. I turned right, passing through several campsites, all unoccupied at the moment. There were two other cars at the TH when I had arrived the night before and Raspberry Lake is the most popular destination. If there were others camping here today, I didn't see them on my way through. I made my way around the northwest side of the lake and started up the ridgeline that would lead to Preston's summit. Though only about a mile and a half in distance, there was still 2,300ft to gain. There are sections on the ridge that have a good use trail, though it disappears often as one gains elevation. The route passes through burned and unburned portions of forest along the ridge with sections of boulders and granite slabs as one gets higher. There was some lingering snow on the northern aspects of the ridge but there was no need to step on any of it during the ascent. I reached one false summit before finding the true summit still another ten minutes further, eventually gaining the highpoint after a short, rocky scramble, some 4.5hrs after starting out. This was a bit more work than I had expected - for some reason, I thought it should only have taken me about 3.5hrs to do this one, and I was surprised to find it was as late in the morning as it was.
The views from the summit are remarkably far-reaching. One can see the Pacific Ocean more than 32mi to the west and Mt. Shasta almost 80mi to the southeast. Views north stretch well into Southern Oregon with Mt. McLoughlin just visible 80mi to the northeast. There was a benchmark from 1952 but no sign of a register under any of the boulders or rocks I searched. I left one of my own while taking in the views and preparing for the second part of the day's adventure.
I planned to go over the summit of Copper Mtn on my way to El Capitan, an effort that would be all cross-country and significantly more work than taking the trail. I had considered the first half of the day to Preston more or less a given, but now I would be moving to less-known conditions. Would I find difficulties along the ridgelines? Would there be heavy brush to frustrate things? All part of the adventure, I reasoned, and probably what made me look forward more to the afternoon than the morning program.
I started off from Preston's summit retracing my route back down the NW Ridge for 0.8mi until I was just south of Pt. 6,121ft. Here I began traversing across the SE slopes of the point, aiming for its saddle with Copper Mtn and the start of the latter's SW Ridge. Though a bit tedious, the traverse went better than expected and I was soon on my way up to Copper Mtn. For the most part, I kept to the ridge or the left side when avoiding difficulties, climbing up through burned forest, talus and rock. I reached Copper's summit by 12:20p, finding a 10yr-old register from Bighorn Bill with very few entries. That was the shorter and easier of the two legs - I still had another 1.7mi between Copper and El Capitan. I descended Copper's NW Ridge and began following along the connecting ridgeline to El Capitan that goes through Cyclone Gap. There was a mix of burned and unburned ridgeline, the latter brushier and less pleasant. As I was approaching Cyclone Gap on the south side of El Capitan, I picked up an unexpected trail section that took me by a few rocks rapped in pink flagging before descending to Cyclone Gap. This seems likely to have been part of the fire fighting efforts last summer. At the gap I crossed over the trail that connects the Copper and Clear Creek drainages, a trail I would come back to on my descent from El Capitan. The ascent route had some heavy brush where I had to go through a large section that had not burned in the fire. I found this very draining and not so very fun as I looked upslope and could see hundreds of more feet of the unpleasantness ahead. I knew from fire maps that portions of this slope had burned and began traversing left (west) in an effort to find them. In about ten minutes' time I found what I was looking for as the brush began to give way to more open slopes and eventually the burned forest section. Once there, it would only take another 20 minutes to climb the remaining distance to the summit. Phew!
I found another Bighorn Bill register, this one only a year old and more popular than the last with four pages of entries. The views are quite grand, nearly as good as Preston's. In particular, I now had a commanding view of Youngs Peak and the surrounding landscape. The fires had touched nothing on Youngs, to some disappointment, and the slopes looked to be covered in far more of that tedious brush that I had encountered earlier while ascending El Capitan. My first doubts began to creep in and I would be thinking about Youngs for the next two and half hours. On descending El Capitan, I headed southwest, right down the middle of the burned section to avoid all the brush on the way down. I landed on the trail coming over Cyclone Gap and followed this back to the old road I had hiked in on in the early morning. I retraced my steps back to Youngs Valley, keeping a wary eye on Youngs Peak and noticing how tantalizingly close it was as I ascended the road back up towards the Wilderness boundary. I decided I was too tired to bushwhack my way up to Youngs, but perhaps there might be a use trail I could find? I stopped several times along the way to probe for such a trail, but found nothing to give me hope, just lots and lots of heavy brush. By the time I reached the Wilderness boundary it was 4:45p and I had given up on Youngs for the day. I probably should have camped a second night at the TH and then done Youngs first thing in the morning, but as I walked the final mile back to the jeep I talked myself out of this plan, deciding I'd had enough of the brush for this trip and would come back at some future date.
It was 5p when I finished up, again finding two other cars at the TH though both were different than the ones I'd shared the TH with in the morning. It was a little odd that I had seen no one coming or going. I showered at the TH before starting the drive back down to US199. Short on gas, I headed north into Oregon where gas is 50-60 cents cheaper, then did a few hour's driving through Grants Pass, Medford and Ashford to get myself back in CA on Interstate 5. I had stopped in Grants Pass for dinner and wifi where I could plan the next few days' adventures. I had skipped some of the summits I'd planned and finished up others faster than expected, so I was a couple days ahead of schedule. I decided to chase down some CA P1Ks and P2Ks east of Interstate 5 near the Oregon border. Because the terrain there is far different than the North Coast, it would make for a decidedly different type of adventure and I was looking forward to it as I bedded down for the night off some quiet, rural roadway...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Preston Peak
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