Three Days on the North Umpqua: Miller Lake to Umpqua Hot Springs

Cold morning on Miller Lake
 Late fall probably isn't the best time of the year to hike the upper section of the North Umpqua Trail, but it was when my friend and I had the time. Our plan was to start at the Digit Point Campground on Miller Lake. Unfortunately we only made it within 4 miles of the campground and with snow falling we wanted our ride to get back onto Highway 97. So we started off the evening with a 4 mile walk up Forest Road 9772. Thankfully the snow wasn't all that deep on the road, so we made decent time. Our goal for the next day was to hike the nearly 14 miles to the Kelsay Valley Horse Campground.

Looking toward Miller Lake

Ed taking his turn breaking through the sometimes thigh deep snow
Backpacking during late fall is always a challenge because snow makes travel slow and there is only about 9 hours of day light. So we tried to set out shortly after first light which was definitely a good idea. Approximately 4 of the 14 miles was knee deep snow, which made for incredibly slow progress. Thankfully not long after Maidu Lake we started to descend which resulted in less snow.

Looking south on the Pacific Crest Trail close to Windigo Pass

Maidu Lake

The official start of the North Umpqua Trail
Once we reached Maidu Lake we thought about walking across it to avoid walking through more deep snow, but after discussing it for a minute we decided against it. The area around Maidu Lake is beautiful and a late summer visit after the mosquitoes have died off would make for an excellent short backpacking trip from Miller Lake. The forest throughout much of this portion of the hike is dominated by lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, and subalpine fir. As you start walking along the Umpqua River the forest is nearly pure lodgepole pine. As the miles of snow wore on we decided to not take a break until we got out of the snow, which never really ended. Once we reached the Mount Thielsen Wilderness boundary at Tolo Creek we stopped to have a late lunch. 

Snow covered bridge over an unnamed creek

Tolo Creek Crossing along the Umpqua Trail

 There was a bitterly cold wind blowing off the snow covered areas to our east so we hunkered down behind a few fallen Englemann spruce and had some lunch. The trail outside of the wilderness boundary was somewhat rutted and appeared to see frequent mountain bike use during the warmer months. Though the snow had mostly faded the ground was frozen and had a strange crunch to it. Upon reaching  Kelsay Valley Horse Campground we were stoked to find a massive amount of chopped wood.

Light dusting of snow at Kelsay Valley Horse Camp

Snow along the banks of the North Umpqua River

We awoke to a light dusting of snow; thankfully it was mostly frozen when we set out. Our plan for this day was to eat an early lunch at the Lemolo Lodge and then make it to Umpqua Hot Springs. Unfortunately the family that owns the lodge didn't feel like selling us any food despite our best attempt at looking cold and hungry. So after a quick lunch back on trail we set out down the Dread and Terror section of the North Umpqua Trail.

Edward near a small cascade along the North Umpqua Trail

Large fallen trees crossing the North Umpqua River

The Dread and Terror section was named by early Forest Service firefighters whom dreaded working in the steep and rocky terrain. Near the upper trailhead the forest is dominated by lodgepole and ponderosa pine, but it quickly transitions to Douglas-fir, western redcedar, and western hemlock. One of my favorite aspects of this hike was seeing the variation in tree species from close to treeline down to 2,000 feet. The tread in this section is fairly rocky and water is often flowing across the trail, so your feet will take a beating. Several waterfalls are found along the trail including, Lemolo, Surprise, and Columnar.

Water flowing from the hillside across the North Umpqua Trail

Lemolo Falls along the North Umpqua Trail
 We ended up being about 4 miles short of Umpqua Hot Springs as darkness fell, but decided to push on. There being no suitable camping and the prospect of a long soak after a rough day compelled us to keep moving. Darkness and rain prevented further picture taking unfortunately. After filling our water at Columnar Falls we pushed up the trail into the parking lot where we spotted a family of racoons near the trash cans. The trail up to Umpqua Hot Springs is short but steep. Nearing the hot spring we came across a group leaving who offered us some much needed whiskey. Instead of camping near the trailhead and having to climb the hill multiple times we found a relatively flat area, just big enough for two tents about 20 yards from the hot springs.

Campsite near the trailhead for Umpqua Hot Springs

Looking upriver from the bridge crossing to Umpqua Hot Springs
 This is an incredible hike and I look forward to hiking the lower half in the near future. If you're going to head out on the upper sections of the North Umpqua Trail before spring be ready for extensive blowdown and plentiful snow.  

Directions from Oakridge: Follow Highway 58 east for 58 miles turn right onto Highway 97, follow for 7.2miles, turn right onto FR 9772, follow for 11.3 miles, the trailhead is at the end of the road.

Hike Distance: 33 miles one way

Hike Type: Out and Back 

Elevation Gain: 4000 Feet

Trailhead Elevation: 5,200 Feet

Usage: Heavy in Summer

Difficulty: 4 out of 5

Fees: None

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