Pilot Rock in the Soda Mountain Wilderness
By Gary VanDeWalker
Stone AgeNovember 2014
By Gary Vandewalker
Photos: Taryn Burkleo
The Applegate Trail drapes over the western Cascade Range, where early settlers of Oregon and
California passed. The path is marked not by signs, but by a towering landmark of nature, which guided the early settlers over the mountains. It is one of the oldest portions of this range. Travelers called the formation Boundary Mountain, but today it’s known as Pilot Rock.
Located within the Soda Mountain Wilderness, this volcanic plug rises almost 6,000 feet above the floors of the Shasta Valley in California and the Rogue Valley in Oregon. From the California side, Pilot Rock can be seen from 40 miles away. It looms over the Oregon border town of Ashland and shadows the Pacific Crest Trail.
The peak drew the attention of the Native American Takelma tribe, who called the rock “Tan-ts’at-seniphtha,” or “stone standing up.” In 1841, Lt. George F. Emmons of the U.S. Navy passed through on an exploring expedition. He recorded his thoughts upon seeing the rock as “a
singular, isolated rock, which stands like a tower on the top of the ridge, rising above the surrounding forest with a bare and apparently unbroken surface.” The group named it Emmons Peak. However, the role of the mountain as a guide caused it to be renamed Pilot Rock.
As a geological wonder, it is similar to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, its lava core cooling in natural columns. The rock is mixed with black hornblende crystals, showing the presence of water over the area when the volcanic plug was formed. The peak is the remains of an ancient volcano, which established a natural boundary between the present California and Oregon states.
Sometimes Pilot Rock looms in the clouds, as if snagging storms. Since 1942, nine planes have crashed into the mountain. In 2000, the peak was placed under the protection of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and also in 2009 with the creation of the Soda Mountain Wilderness.
The rock is a popular hiking destination, leading to a 360-degree view peering into California and Oregon. The trail ascends 1000 feet within 1.25 miles, making the climb short, but steep. Beginning in an old quarry, the trail begins on the remains of an old forest service road, joins the Pacific Crest Trail, then forks to the base of the rock. For those wishing to summit, two short vertical rock steps must be overcome. The reward is a view of Mt. Shasta, the Trinity Alps and Mt. McLoughlin, which are all seen by just making a slight turn of the head.
To reach the trail, take exit 6 on Interstate 5 just across the Oregon border. Turn left onto Pilot Rock Road, which leads to the old quarry and trailhead.
Pilot Rock is evidence of a time when an ancient ocean gave way to mountains forming a world to challenge pioneers later on. In the beauty of this wilderness, the words of W.H. Auden echo, “Soft as the earth is mankind and both need to be altered.”