Pilot Rock and Porcupine Mountain

July 7, 2023.

8.5 mi. | 1965′ ele. gain | 5.5 hr.

View of Pilot Rock

Photo album

Since we were getting ready to head north, I prioritized one more highpoint before we left Southern Oregon: Pilot Rock. Based on my research, it would either be a death-defying scramble or a yawner of an after-work hike. My guess was it was something in the middle, but I took the warnings seriously and hoped it was easier than it looked. I wore my approach shoes with sticky climbing soles and planned to assess the route as I went, ready to turn back if I didn’t like the idea of soloing up the rock.

Pilot Rock

In an effort to beat the heat, I got an early start. It took no time at all to hike the mile of trail to the Pilot Rock junction. From there, I hiked up a series of steep switchbacks to the base of the rock itself. The route was completely in shadow, which helped my body temperature but upped the intimidation factor. It was steep and dark and there was no one else around. I left my poles at the base of the route and started up.

What you can’t see might hurt you.

Decades of rock climbing experience has made me more hesitant to climb without a rope, even on a “scramble” route. Having spent a lot of time in high consequence terrain has made me very conservative in my decision-making, especially when I’m alone. So, I took each section of the climb seriously, choosing the most solid line and anticipating challenges I’d have on the way down (turns out, you’ve got to go both ways!). I had to pause after each vertical section to let my heart rate slow down and feel good about making the next decision. There were two short, steep sections that required a chimney move or two to get up, followed by what I’d consider more normal steep scramble parts. The rock quality was generally good, which made me feel secure in my footing and decision-making. However I would never take any of my non-climber friends on this route, nor would I recommend it to them.

Before too long, I stood at the summit. I was in no rush to get back down, so I poked around the summit area looking at wildflowers and trying to identify the mountains off in the haze. I also studied the map for the next section of my planned hike to Porcupine Mountain.


I dreaded the downclimb. I’ve never liked unprotected downclimbing. I would have felt much better with just another person there, to say things like: there’s a good foot two inches to the left or, you’ve got this! But no one had come up since and I felt incredibly alone.

So, I gave myself a pep talk and slowly made my way down. At the top of the first tough spot, I miraculously found an easier slab to climb down right next to it. When I turned around to look at what I’d just accomplished, I realized that I hadn’t gotten to one of the hard parts yet. Dammit! Still two challenging sections to go.

When I actually got to the two spots I struggled with on the way up, I sat down and took a few deep breaths before analyzing the route and making a plan. I had to do some weird sideways chimneying and take some mega big steps, but I made it through unscathed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I reached my poles because I knew I just had hiking ahead of me from there.

Porcupine Mountain

It was already getting hot, and I wasn’t sure if Porcupine Mountain would even be worth the effort. I started walking in that general direction just in case, but in the back of my mind I was willing to turn back and do some painting instead of a bunch more hiking.

As I walked along the PCT, it took me around to the backside of Pilot Rock and then dove into a shady forest. Oh, how I much appreciated the shade. And then the wildflower show turned up to 11: paintbrush, coyote mint, columbine. But what’s that? A phantom orchid? I took a bunch of photos of the first solitary plant I found, then proceeded to hike among hundreds of these beautiful and unique flowers. Just like me, they love a shady forest. Suddenly I felt like I was surrounded by friends.

Phantom orchid.

In order to get up to Porcupine Mountain, I bushwhacked off trail to find an overgrown old road leading to the peak’s south ridge. There I picked up another road/trail that rambled over a few bumps to the summit. Along the way, I hiked through a desert landscape decorated with hardy buckwheat plants, owl’s clover and mountain mahogany (one of my favorites). The actual summit here was unclear, so as usual I walked around until I felt like I hit all the possible highpoints before picking a shade tree to relax under for lunch. I had good cell service there, so I shot out a bunch of messages to friends and stretched out my shade break as long as I could.

Plein air painting

If an opportunity exists to create a loop, I’ll take it. While on my break, I noticed a trail on the map leading east from my road junction that connected to the PCT. It would add nearly a mile to my hike but it was on trail and it was over gentle terrain, so I went that way. On my hike back I crossed paths with 5 or 6 people hiking the PCT. They were all headed north, all walking singly, all wearing roughly the same uniform. Sun shirt, sun hat or ball cap, light hiking pants, sunglasses, beard. Some had poles, some didn’t. One guy had a Hawaiian shirt instead of a sun shirt. None of them stopped for the flowers.

Thru-hiking has never appealed to me. To each their own. On my hike back, I stopped at a killer viewpoint of Pilot Rock, where I picked a small patch of shade to sit and take out my painting supplies. My new little watercolor pad, it turns out, has poor quality paper in it, but I did my best to capture the scene. If anything, the mere act of stopping to paint is valuable in and of itself. The actual finished painting, to me, is the least important part. The process of painting in plein air requires attentiveness and curiosity. As I’ve said in many previous posts, just being still is enough to see more, feel more, hear more and notice more. Painting is sometimes just an excuse to take an extended break. Walking constantly has its benefits as well, but I’m finding that striking a balance between motion and stillness is providing me with an experience that just one or the other cannot provide.


The rest of the hike breezed by. Later that afternoon, we headed into Ashland for First Friday art walk, dinner and a stay/soak at Jackson Wellsprings. That’s a story for another time.

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