United States Congress designated the Sky Lakes Wilderness in 1984 and it now maintains 113,849 acres. It includes three major lake (former glacial) basins as it stretches along the crest of the volcanic Cascade Mountains from the border of Crater Lake National Park on the north to State Highway 140 in the south: Seven Lakes, Sky Lakes, and Blue Canyon basins. All of southern Oregon seems to lie at your feet from the rugged summit of volcano Mount McLoughlin (9,495’), and then extends out northward into Sky Lakes' broad plateau-like ridges, dotted with many lakes.
You'll find creeks and ice-cold springs (such as Ranger Springs, where the Middle Fork of the Rogue River springs to the surface almost "full-grown" from the beneath the lava), grassy meadows, and scores of clear sub-alpine lakes. Several of the lakes were found, by 1980s-90s Environmental Protection Agency baseline study of acid-rain conditions in Western U.S. mountain lakes, to have among the most chemically pure water known of all lakes on the globe. Most of the area's lakes, some of them stocked with game fish, are set against a backdrop of tall trees that reach to the edge of the lakeshore.
An overall high-elevation forest consisting largely of Shasta red fir, western white pine, and mountain hemlock yields to lodgepole pine around many of the lakes, as well to moisture-loving Engelmann spruce here and there. Hardy, long-lived whitebark pines are found near the summits of Mt. McLoughlin and Devil's Peak. The forest's understory is dominated by species of huckleberry, as well as manzanita, snowbrush, and heather.
Elk herds spend much of the summer and early fall in the northern third of the region. The entire area supports roving populations of pine martens and fishers, black bears, cougars, coyotes, as well as pikas and golden-mantled ground squirrels and other species of wildlife. During October and November, migrating birds pass over in the hundreds of thousands, often stopping at the high lakes. Ospreys regularly visit Sky Lakes to try their luck at fishing. Swarms of mosquitoes hatch from snowmelt until mid-August.
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail passes the entire length of the area north-south for about 35 miles, but much of the route is well away from water sources. Use is heavy in the three main lake basins which are popular fishing, hiking, and camping destinations. The 1888-inscribed "Waldo Tree," at the southeast shore of Island Lake is a draw for visitors, as is the hike along the route of a 1860s-1890s military wagon road, on the present Twin Ponds Trail. Climbing Mt. McLoughlin is popular but a very strenuous summer day-hike. Other areas of the Wilderness provide opportunities for solitude.
Please follow special regulations outlined below and use Leave No Trace techniques to ensure protection of this unique area.
Key access points: Trailhead and trail information
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At a Glance
Trailheads and trails that access Sky Lakes Wilderness at Fremont-Winema National Forest
Buy maps online
Buy the Sky Lakes Wilderness map online from the National Forest Store.
Crystal Spring, Devils Peak, Imnaha Creek, Lake of the Woods North, Maklaks Crater, Mares Egg Spring, Mount McLoughlin, Pelican Butte, Red Blanket Mountain, Rustler Peak, Union Peak. Download free U.S. Forest Service Topo Maps here.
In terms of geologic time, the Sky Lakes Wilderness is quite young. Its volcanic and glacial history is clearly written in landforms as well as rocks and soil. Studies indicate that the earliest rocks in this part of the High Cascades began forming when a chain of volcanoes erupted between three and five million years ago.
During the "Ice Age", the composite volcanoes of Mt. Mazama and Mt. McLoughlin began their initial build-up less than one million years ago. Just south of Sky Lakes, Brown Mountain produced its extensive lava field as late as 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, and the last eruption of Mt. McLoughlin took place around the same time.On their north and east slopes, Mt. McLoughlin and other peaks bear the scars of glacial ice. Like most other major drainages within Sky Lakes Wilderness, Seven Lakes Basin and the deep canyon of the Rogue River's Middle Fork were carved by the massive ice fields which covered the highest elevations of the Cascades.
With the onset of warmer climate, local glaciers virtually disappeared by 12,000 years ago. Volcanic activity was not yet over, however. Minor lava eruptions and mud-flows occurred at places like Big Bunchgrass Butte and Imagination Peak.
A chain of cinder cones, extending from Goosenest Mountain north into Crater Lake National Park, also formed during the post-glacial period. The most recent - and by far the most catastrophic - geologic event happened about 6,700 years ago, when Mt. Mazama exploded and collapsed, forming the caldera of Crater Lake. Some of the vast amount of rock and ash which was thrown into the air landed in the northern portion of Sky Lakes Wilderness, creating the pumice-covered "Oregon Desert."
Although forests now carpet much of its terrain, Sky Lakes Wilderness retains its character as a land derived from fire and ice.