Pilot Rock is an impressive and beautiful volcanic spire, which rises from a ridge in the Siskiyou Mountains. It is located in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, just off of I-5 near Mt. Ashland. It stands high above its surroundings and can be seen for miles. It marks the Siskyou pass which passes just to the rock's western side. It has long served has a guide for travelers, thus its name.
Saturday night, July 3rd, I was looking for a quick hike. My family was in town and I knew they weren't going to be up and about till after noon; I wanted a hike that would take only a few hours. So, at 8:00 am on July 4th my friend Ian and I set off to climb Pilot Rock. This was a good time to climb Pilot Rock, because it led to the unique sight of two F-15s flying nearby on their way to a flyover at the Ashland parade.
I had gathered information from multiple sources about the climbing of Pilot Rock. It is not considered difficult – though a person can easily die if they fall. The climb is only supposed require mild agility, with only one sketchy spot on the climb which looks more difficult than it actually is. Get past this one point and the rest is just a scramble. This information nearly turned our hike into a disaster.
To climb the rock you take a trail to the north side that skirts its base. This leads to a large cleft in the rock that provides an easy slope to climb. There are however at that point two paths from which to choose. One path looks easy, the other looks hard. Here are pictures.
Which way would you go?
We took the easy path. And even though this does lead to a very nice view of the Rogue Valley, it is not the way to the summit, unless a person has climbing gear, or a death wish. I have neither, but driven on by the knowledge that there is only one difficult spot on the climb, which looks worse than it really is I did something very stupid.
Ian approached the edge of the cliff first; our easy path had come to an end. He was so shaken by the fright he received that he had no further desire to attempt to summit the rock. I investigated and saw that the broad ledge we had been on did turn a corner and continue – though it was much narrower. Getting around the corner was the tricky part; If a person lost their footing they could easily plummet a hundred feet or so to their death. But as I had read, climbing Pilot Rock is dangerous and can result in death – I figured this just must be the difficult spot. So, I climbed around the corner. As I did I thought about my new baby girl at home, and I prayed I wouldn't fall. I was hit with the thought that I might leave her fatherless.
I made it around the corner and continued along the ledge. Then I came to another turn in the path. I looked around this corner and determined that I was not following the correct path to the top. On my way back I seriously considered the possibility that I may need to be rescued. By this point I realized that I had made a mistake. I didn't want to climb back around that corner, but I also didn't want to end up in the paper, or with a bill for the rescue costs. I didn't need a helicopter, just someone with a rope, so I could climb back without risking the fall. I decided I'd give it a try, but I wasn't going to do anything stupid, nothing more than what I had already done. I made it – getting back was much easier.
After coming back down off the rock and walking around it, we determined that what had looked like the ridiculously dangerous path was the correct path to the top. Ian didn't want to try it. It turned out to be a rather easy climb – the trickier parts weren't really that much of a challenge once I figured out how to get past them. But, if a person was careless, or just lost their footing, they could easily tumble a long way down the rock slope. But, a person might survive that fall.
The view from the top is spectacular. However, there are a variety of spots nearby with as good as, if not better, views with no risk of life and limb required. I would recommend the hike to Pilot Rock. There is a good view of Mt. Shasta from the base of Pilot Rock and with little risk one can hike half way up the rock and get a great view of the Rogue Valley. It is beautiful. But, getting to the very top was not worth the risk. Now, if I hadn't needlessly risked my life dangling myself off the edge of a cliff – resulting in my own little existential crises – I would probably feel differently. For the next couple of weeks I often thought back upon that moment, and was repeatedly filled with an anxious feeling of dread – the thought that I'd miss my daughter's growing up hit me the hardest. I'm done with risking my life for no good reason.
So, if you are going to climb Pilot Rock, learn from my mistake and go the right direction.
How to get there
From the north: Take I-5 southbound, a few miles south of Ashland and get off at exit 6 – the Mt. Ashland exit. Continue south on Frontage road ("Old Hwy 99 south") towards Mt. Ashland. Pass the turn off for Mt. Ashland ski area – you will go back under the freeway and over the summit of the pass. The road leading to Pilot Rock will be on the left (east) side of the road after about a half mile past the summit. There is a sign for Pilot Rock and the Pacific Crest Trail. You will then drive for about 20 minutes up a very rough dirt road. Follow the signs. You will end up having to park near a gravel pit and walking about a mile up a road to the trail – you can no longer drive to the trail head as the road is blocked by boulders. The actual trail is about ½ mile. The Pacific Crest trail forks off of the Pilot Rock Trail – don't follow the PCT. When you reach the base of Pilot Rock follow the base around to the left (north) until the NW cleft is encountered.
From the south: From I-5 north take exit 1 after crossing the Oregon border and continue on Frontage road (Old Hwy 99) 3.5 miles to the Pilot Rock Road, turn right and continue as per the above.