From the 9,496-foot summit of Mount McLoughlin, the highest point in southern Oregon, the Sky Lakes Wilderness spreads out like a collection of blue footprints in the forest below.
The more than 85 lakes in this wilderness area northeast of Medford come in sizes large and small, are nestled below sheer cliffs and in wildflower valleys, and together constitute the most popular area for backpacking in the southern Cascades.
July and August bring the largest crowds to the Sky Lakes, but between the roving gangs of mosquitoes and sometimes boiling temperatures, this isn't always the most enjoyable time of year.
By the beginning of September, however, the Sky Lakes hits its stride.
The mosquitoes disappear as quickly as the crowds after Labor Day, and backpackers can wander through glacier-carved basins and across high mountain peaks in near solitude until, typically, mid-October.
The drive from the Tri-Cities means slipping through Bend on Highway 97. It's a long trip at almost 8 1/2 hours.
However, with lakes full of trout, no competition for campsites and a forest colored in autumn's reds, oranges and golds, it's a trip worth making.
For more detailed information on each hike, see 100 Hikes in Southern Oregon by William L. Sullivan or Hiking Oregon's Southern Cascades & Siskiyous by Art Bernstein.
Best scenery -- Seven Lakes Basin
A 14-mile loop that climbs across Devil's Peak and down through the Seven Lakes Basin might well be the most scenic backpacking tour in the southern Cascades.
Beginning at the Seven Lakes Trailhead outside Butte Falls, the trail climbs 5.3 miles and 2,400 feet up a spectacular trail to Devil's Peak, where the lakes basin spreads out on one side and Upper Klamath Lake, Mount McLoughlin and the abyss of Southeastern Oregon are visible on the other.
There are a few nice tent spots near the summit that provide the chance to watch the sunset and sunrise from your tent.
Beyond Devil's Peak, the trail drops into the Seven Lakes Basin itself.
Cliff Lake is the highlight, sitting directly below two massive peaks, while the strange and pretty Alta Lake spreads out so long and skinny a person could be fooled into thinking it's a river.
Best fishing -- Sky Lakes Basin
There are 13 different clear blue pools in the namesake basin of the Sky Lakes Wilderness, which contains a lower and upper section.
From the Cold Springs Trailhead, the trails run an easy 2.8 miles to the lower Sky Lakes Basin, home to a loop that takes you past eight forested lakes. The best fishing can be found at Isherwood Lake, the basin's largest body of water.
Better scenery and more fishing opportunities can be found another 1.7 miles up the trail in the Upper Sky Lakes Basin. Trapper Lake and Margurette Lake sit below the sheer cliffs of Luther Mountain and make the prettiest places to set up camp for the night.
Best day hike -- Blue Canyon Basin
The quietest and most peaceful of the three basins is filled with blue lakes and silver cliffs. It's also home to the Sky Lakes' best day-hike.
From the Blue Canyon Trailhead, the trail drops a gradual two miles to Blue Lake, a spectacular spot for an afternoon of lunch and fishing. Just 0.8 mile up the trail is Horseshoe Lake, another excellent option for fishing.
The drive to the trailhead is wonderful as well, taking in views from every direction and including some of the best vistas of Mount McLoughlin. This is an excellent hike for kids.
The butt-kicker -- Mount McLoughlin
Ascending to the highest point in southern Oregon is not easy by any stretch, but the fact that it doesn't require any technical climbing and follows a fairly simple route to the summit makes this one of the more popular Cascade peaks for average climbers.
The hike is 11 miles round-trip with about 4,000 feet of climb, which means you'll want to be in good shape before giving it a try. The route climbs 4.1 miles up a well-established trail, the views getting better with each step, to a saddle at 8,200 feet. From here, the route gets steeper as it follows the ridgeline 1,200 feet to a summit that looks down upon the blue footprints of the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
Oregon's Land of Lakes
Sky Lakes Wilderness
* Location: Southern Cascade Mountains
* Closest town: Medford, which is an approximately 230-mile drive down Interstate 5 south, about a four-hour drive from Salem.
* Area: 116,300 acres
* Established as wilderness: 1984
* Forest designation: Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Winema National Forest
* Information: High Cascades Ranger District 541-560 3400
* Cool places to stay: Lake of the Woods Resort 541-949-8300; Historic Prospect Hotel, 541-560-3664; Union Creek Resort, 541-560-3565
* Closest towns with hotels: Prospect, Shady Cove, Medford, Ashland, Klamath Falls
* In a nutshell: This popular wilderness area for hiking, backpacking and fishing is home to three major lake basins and the largest mountain in southern Oregon. The best time for exploring this area is September and early October.