Trip report from Leach Loop: Three days, 50 miles and 12,000 feet

photos and text by Dan Barklund, SMC Member

13 MAY 2024 | BABYFOOT LAKE, OR. --I hiked the Leach Loop in the Kalmiopsis wilderness this weekend and I wanted to share a brief trip report/conditions to hopefully inspire others to take it on.

The Leach Loop is a 50 mile route detailed by Ryan Ghelfi in 2021. It is best hiked in May/October. Ideally I would have hiked in this in another couple weeks (maybe cooler temps, lower water/snow) but this was the time granted to me to be free from dad responsibilities.

I loaded Ryan's Strava Track from his FKT into Alltrails as my GPS source, and also had a compass and map of the area from Siskiyou Mountain Club. The Siskiyou Mountain Club started restoring these trails in 2011. It is a challenging route: 12,139 ft of gain, in need of maintenance, snow travel, multiple fords of creeks/river, and most of it is in three large burns (2002 Biscuit, 2017 Chetco Bar, 2018 Klondike). But also very rewarding.

I marveled at the ridgeline vistas you get for most of the hike, the brief pockets of unburned forest, and the "Magic Canyon" of the Chetco with its blue-serpentine water.

Day 1 (May 10): I departed the Babyfoot Trailhead at 6:45PM on Friday night, and hiked 6 miles in to the Bailey Cabin Site. The trail is pretty much entirely through burned areas, and much of it downhill. The outset of the hike over the ridge above Babyfoot Lake had a lot of snow on it, and I sank into hip deep snow multiple times.

I had to hike by headlamp for the last mile or so to find a suitable campsite. The Bailey Cabin site is a marshy flat spot with plenty of frogs and some dry turf to set up a tent on. I wanted to get a head start on tomorrow's mileage so I wasn't hiking out of the canyon in the heat of the day.

Day 2 (May 11): I woke up at 5:45 and was on the trail by 6. I was a little anxious about the Chetco Ford (especially after seeing how high the Illinois river was at 8 dollar bridge on the way in). I hiked the loop counter-clockwise so I could turn back after ~10 miles if the ford looked too sketchy. I was monitoring the Chetco cfps data on USGS and it was higher than last year but I wasn't sure how well the data from Brookings would translate to the Upper Chetco.

I saw my first leachiana flowers, as well as Beargrass, Dogwoods, and Rhododendrons on the hike down into the Chetco. The Carter Creek crossing was surprisingly high and swift but I was able to find a spot to rock hop by exploring a bit. I got to the Chetco ford at 9AM and was immediately put at ease. I cooked some breakfast and filtered water, then crossed. Most of the crossing was to my knee, and there were a few points where it was mid thigh. I am 6'7" for reference.

The trail followed the Chetco canyon for another ~6 miles before climbing steeply out at Box Creek (another knee depth ford). Fair amount of poison oak in this section but largely avoidable. It was pretty hot at this point (high of 88 in Cave Junction) and I was guzzling water. Halfway through the climb the trail started to enter groves of unburnt Douglas fir, a welcome respite.

The traverse of Johnson Butte and Dry butte was largely rolling and pleasant, with big views. I got my first view of the trail under Chetco Peak and noticed it had considerable snow on it. Also saw two more sections of leachiana flowers, the cluster on the eastern side of Dry Butte the most impressive.

As I approached Vulcan Peak, I opted to deviate from Ryan's GPS route and took the Gardner mine trail to the lake. Largely because it was on the eastern side and would be in the shade. It was a little more difficult to find the route, but I got to see an old cabin site and it was through unburned forest so it was worth it.

When I got to Vulcan Lake, I met the only other people I saw on trail: a group of 4 from Brookings who did not know there were any other trails in the area and were confused where I was coming from. Total days mileage was somewhere in the vicinity of ~21 miles.

For reference, I usually hike at a 3mph pace and I hiked for 12 hours. When I hike on the PCT I am usually doing ~30 mile days. The elevation profile, river crossings, heat, and trail conditions definitely took their toll!

Day 3 (May 12): I started hiking by 6:15. The night before I had decided to deviate again from Ryan's route that had gone off trail to scramble to the top of Vulcan Peak and then come down the trail on the other side. There was still a lot of snow on Vulcan Peak. But after looking at the ridgeline again in the morning I realized it was dry, even though there was a lot of snow below it.

So I went back to the original route and rock hopped on stable large red boulders up the northern flank of the ridge and walked on mostly dry rock up to the peak, where I had views of the ocean and the fog creeping up the valleys. Then I continued on the south side of Red Mountain and then the north side of Chetco Peak. The snow on trail I had been getting glimpses of the last day turned out to largely be avoidable.

The rest of the day consisted of some light route finding near Doe Gap when the trail became hard to follow, but mostly just followed the ridgelines with spectacular views in all directions. I was excited to see a California pitcher plant in a seep just off trail. South of Canyon Peak the trail entered another unburned forest, with massive Douglas Firs hundreds of years old.

The contrast after so many miles of burn was other-worldly. Cool, shady, and bare forest floor felt magical. As I rejoined the start of the loop on a mining road east of Mt. Bailey, I opted to not take the trail over the peak above Babyfoot Lake (Hungry Hill?) that had been a little sketchy on Friday night, and deviated from Ryan's route again.

I decided descending through all that snow on tired legs was not how I wanted to end my hike, and I opted to take the longer route on the mining road around the north side of the valley and back up Babyfoot trail. There were still a few sections of unavoidable snow, and I saw fresh footprints for the first time on the trip. This also got me a trip past Babyfoot.

I got back to the car at 6:30PM, clocking in at just under 48 hours. Total mileage today was around 25 miles. Thanks to Siskiyou Mountain club for restoring and maintaining these trails as well as Trevor Meyer for giving advice/satellite imagery of snow conditions, and Ryan Ghelfi for establishing this route. I also read a Trip Report from Eric Moll and a Youtube video of his hike to get a better sense of the area.

Dan Barklund is a Siskiyou Mountain Club member from Ashland

Pick up the Oregon Road Atlas and the Kalmiopsis map set to follow Dan's route

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