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5 unbelievable lake hikes in California’s Russian Wilderness

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Deep in the heart of the wilderness in California’s far north, there’s a tiny lake like no other, flanked by a wall that looks like it has been sculpted by a giant with a hammer and chisel. It’s called Statue Lake, and for good reason.

Thousands of years of ice, snow and rain, on top of frigid winters and warm summers, have carved the granite rim into a series of statue-like formations. One looks like a miniature Half Dome — some say the profile of a helmeted knight. Another looks like the head of a prehistoric horse facing away. A piece of the ridge looks like the back of a stegosaurus.

Statue Lake is nestled at 7,200 feet in elevation in the Russian Wilderness, a 12,000-acre wildland laced with 25 small, pristine lakes within the Klamath National Forest in Siskiyou County near Etna. The Pacific Crest Trail provides access end-to-end, with spur trails to pristine campsites along these lakes.

The lake may look like it’s from another planet, and for many, it’s so far away that it may as well be. From any of the trailheads that access the wilderness, the nearest town with a stoplight, Yreka, is more than 2 hours away. With the world-renowned 242,000-acre Marble Mountain Wilderness to the north and 517,000-acre Trinity Alps Wilderness to the south, the relatively tiny Russian — smaller in area than San Francisco’s 30,000 acres — is often overlooked.

From the PCT, some of the best lakes in the Russian Wilderness are off unsigned routes, though most are well-worn and easy to follow. For those unfamiliar with reading the landscape for route-finding, U.S. Geological Society topographic maps are helpful. The larger map of Klamath National Forest provides good directions to trailheads ($14).

No campfires are permitted. Those cooking with camp stoves are required to get a campfire permit from one of the Klamath’s district offices. Most stop in at the office in Fort Jones (530-643-1838) for the latest conditions.

Here are the best trailheads and destinations:

Music Creek Trailhead, Statue Lake

The Music Creek Trailhead, 6,000 feet in elevation, is at the end of Forest Road 40N54, a dirt road with a 4,000-foot climb over 9 miles from the Salmon River Bridge. The trail climbs 1,000 feet over about 2 miles to the PCT, with switchbacks keeping it rhythmic. This area burned in the 2014 Whites Fire, and the forest floor is now filled with manzanita and fireweed amid the tree skeletons.

At the PCT, you turn right and hike 1.5 miles, in and out of forest to a large camping flat on the right with a creek (good for pumping water) and an unsigned trail on the left. Turn left and hike up for about a half mile over a boulder field to Statue Lake. The lake is less than an acre and only 15 feet deep, so it warms up quickly by afternoon. It can provide swimming as if encased in a mountain temple.

Etna Summit, PCT Trailhead, Paynes Lake

Etna Summit, 5,960 feet high, is 10 miles by paved road from the town of Etna and serves as a major PCT trailhead. Hiking south, you can venture to Upper Ruffy Lake (2.5 miles one-way), Smith Lake (4 miles one-way) or Paynes Lake (6.5 miles one-way). Above Paynes, a well-worn, unsigned route that roughly follows a small creek leads above Paynes up to the outlet of the little Albert lakes nestled below the ridge wall. Of these, Paynes gets the highest traffic, set just off the PCT, with large campsites, good fishing for brook trout and swimming.

Hogan Lake in California's Russian Wilderness.

Hogan Lake in California’s Russian Wilderness.

Tom Stienstra

Taylor Lake Trailhead, Hogan Lake

The turnoff road to the trailhead is located a short distance west of Etna Summit. Then it’s only a 2-mile drive to the trailhead at Taylor Lake (6,400 feet) and an 0.4-mile walk with a 100-foot climb to the lake. Taylor is one of the few wheelchair-accessible wilderness lakes around.

From Taylor, walk a short distance to the foot of the lake, then look for the signed turn, posted on a tree, to Hogan Lake. It’s then a 3.7-mile hike one-way, a climb and then a descent, to Hogan (5,950 feet). This is a pretty lake with good fishing for small trout, swimming and campsites.

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