The Pacific Crest Trail doesn’t always live up to its name.
“Crest” implies an area above the surrounding terrain, the top or summit of a mountain, or a high point. So it was impossible not to chuckle when, after losing several hundred feet of elevation, a downhill section of the Brown Mountain Trail finally intersected with the PCT.
We weren’t crestfallen. Reaching the PCT wasn’t the high point of our hike.
The literal high point had come earlier, three-plus miles and about a thousand feet higher than where we’d started, a trailhead near the northwest side of the Lake of the Woods. The figurative high point had come earlier, shortly after beginning hiking from one of the Brown Mountain Trail’s access points off Forest Road 3640.
Having hiked, mountain biked and cross country skied portions of the same section of trail over the years, I remembered the scenery as somewhat nondescript. But things change. The forestlands the trail passes through has experienced a welcome regrowth. It also helps that for the first mile or so several of the tall, broad-bellied old growth pines touch the sky, their tops hidden in the forest canopy. Despite the heat and drought, there were brief splashes of colorful orchids and varieties of mushrooms.
From our starting trailhead we steadily and somewhat deceptively gained elevation, but there were no spectacular views. We had occasional glimpses of lava rock piles created by Brown Mountain’s eruptions and, along one short stretch, peek-a-boo views of the mountain’s unspectacular summit, a 7,344-foot cinder cone.
According to geologists, glacial valleys and a cirque near the summit indicate the mountain is actually 12,000 to 60,000 years old. They estimate that about 2,000 years ago a large lava flow consisting primarily of basaltic andesite covered 13 square miles of the north and western slopes with aa-type lava more than 250 feet thick. Over its lifetime, it’s estimated the mountain erupted more than 1.2 cubic miles of lava.
Our section of the Brown Mountain Trail offers only peeks of the peak and lava flows. For people wanting to better appreciate the mountain’s eruptive dynamics, the most dramatic section includes a several-mile section of the PCT south of Highway 140.
How did the mountain get its name?
A bit of trivia: How Brown Mountain got its name remains a mystery. According to “From Abbott Butte to Zimmerman Burn,” a place-name history of the Rogue River (now Rogue River-Siskiyou) National Forest, the origin and name Brown Mountain are unknown, “but could be in honor of the early settler after whom the community of Brownsville, located on the lower course of Little Butte Creek, was named, Henry R. Brown.” Brown, according to the history, attempted to commercially raise muskrats on a “fur farm” but “the animals kept escaping from the fenced enclosure and Mr. Brown soon abandoned his scheme.”
Something the Brown Mountain Trail doesn’t do is lead to the mountain’s summit. Instead, it loops around the 7,344-foot cinder cone. And, because of numerous intersecting trails, there are several variations and distances for completing the loop, which is especially popular with mountain bikers.
Because of its modest height and because views are frequently shielded by trees and brush, Brown Mountain is easy to overlook. Likewise, it’s overshadowed by nearby Mount McLoughlin, which rises far more dramatically to an elevation of 9,495 feet.
Two years ago, on reaching the PCT junction from the south section of the Brown Mountain Trail, nearby meadows were lush with ripe huckleberries. Not this year. Instead of feasting on freshly picked berries, we appreciated the absence of blood-sucking mosquitoes because they weren’t feasting on us.
We had started our hike early that morning to beat the heat. So, after refueling and rehydrating, we began the retreat to our car. The final three-plus downhill miles through the lush, shaded forest was a treat. Especially after the uphill mile from the “Crest” trail.