Desolate beauty

With wildfires still burning in Southern Oregon, a hike through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness provides an interesting look at how a landscape can be both scarred and renewed by fire.

The Biscuit fire burned nearly 500,000 acres in 2002, including large swathes of the 180,095-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, located between Cave Junction and the Oregon Coast.

Our family recently took the Kalmiopsis Rim Trail to scenic Whetstone Butte, a large outcropping of reddish rock that provides panoramic views of the surrounding wilderness area.

To get there, travel 24 miles south of Grants Pass on Highway 199, also known as the Redwood Highway.

Near milepost 24, turn right at a sign for Eight Dollar Mountain Boardwalk Trail. Continue 12 miles over dirt and gravel on Eight Dollar Road, which travels through vast stretches of burned forest, plus intact green pockets that provide a window into what the area looked like before the Biscuit fire.

Turn right on Road 142 to reach the Kalmiopsis Rim trailhead, which is marked with a parking lot and outhouse.

Ignore a highly visible trail that appears to be pointing to Whetstone Butte in the distance, since it dead-ends.

Instead, look for a less visible trail marked by a weathered wood sign that reads "Kalmiopsis Rim Trail 1124," "Whetstone Butte 1 mile" and "Chetco Pass 4 miles."

Brush that sprouted back after the fire is trying to take over the Kalmiopsis Rim Trail, which winds underneath towering burned trees that have been bleached a pale gray after more than a decade of sun exposure.

Fallen trees across the trail are a reminder not to linger in this section, where the burned trees can blow over.

The trail opens out onto an exposed ridge line that is almost bare of trees, except for the skeletal remains of scattered, burned, high alpine conifers. When they were alive, these trees were obviously blasted by strong winds that feel as if they are blowing straight in, uninterrupted, off the distant Oregon Coast.

The bare ridge line and buffeting winds create the false impression that hikers have entered a zone above the timberline, except that oxygen is still plentiful.

At times, the trail becomes faint as it travels along the rocky ridge line, but simply continue on toward Whetstone Butte, easily visible less than a mile away.

My kids, ages 9 and 11, enjoyed scrambling up the butte, which is composed of rough red rock that provides good traction.

There are several false summits at the top of the butte, but the highest point is marked by a rock cairn built up by visiting hikers. We added a few rocks to the pile, then took in the 360-degree views of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.

Patches of unburned forest are mixed in with sweeping areas of ghostly burned trees, baby conifers and brush. Without their cover of trees, the surrounding mountains clearly reveal their wild, rugged geology.

Coming down off the butte and heading back on the trail to our vehicle, we saw deer droppings and bear scat, proof that more animals live in the area than just the lizards we saw darting through the rocks and the flocks of birds flying through the bleached trees.

Life continues to thrive in the Kalmiopsis, even after one of the largest wildfires in Oregon history.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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