Pacific City Storm Walking

March 2, 2014.

Nestucca Spit adventure walk | Cape Kiwanda beach and dunes

Click here for the video montage and here for the photos

ripples1.JPG

Nestucca Spit

The weather was lousy everywhere, so I decided to head west. It’s usually the right thing to do. Expecting to be battered by wind and rain, I bedecked myself in duck boots and rain gear, then lined my backpack with a thick, black garbage bag. In it I carefully placed spare socks and warm layers along with the usual ten-essential type things. I parked in the barren lot at Bob Straub State Park and began the first leg of my adventure. My guidebook described a 5.5 mile walk, following the length of the spit along the water’s edge for about 2 miles to its end, then rounding the bend and walking the beach on the other side until it petered out. From there, it was a cross-country trip to return to the beach on the other side. I had intermittent flashbacks to the hell-forest at Netarts Spit that I battled through last year. I was pretty determined not to screw this one up. I walked head on into the wind as I followed the beach. Sand pelted my face as I progressed along.

beach2.JPG

Two miles later, I approached the end of the spit. The wind picked up in little bursts, threatening to uproot me from the sand. I carried on around the corner and walked back on the opposite side. The wind was calmer here, or at least it was coming from behind me so it felt much more pleasant. Sand still whipped around in a frenzy under my feet.

According to my book, I should have been able to walk another mile or so along this side of the spit until I was forced to move inland by encroaching water. Today, the water level was high so I was unable to walk very far before retreating up the grassy banks into the dunes. There, I found a web-like network of user trails that extended throughout the upper portion of the spit. I galloped up and down the dunes for awhile, then wandered back when I saw an inviting patch of beach.

That was also short-lived, and I ran up the steep-sided slope to get to higher ground. It was a forest of gnarly beach vegetation that could have been much worse. I was able to duck beneath the branches, tunneling my way back to open territory. At last I could see the full width of the spit: a wide deflation plain decorated with red, orange and green grasses with large dunes looming on the other side. All I had to do was cross the spit and get back to the beach on the ocean side. When have I said that before…?

I walked quickly through the grass, some cross-country and some on trails. A swampy flat lay between myself and the dunes near the ocean. Somewhere I’d have to cross it. It was difficult to tell just how deep the water was, but I quickly figured out that it was deeper than my duck boots. Going barefoot was inevitable.

I trekked along, parallel to the dunes, for quite a while before I decided to make a run across the water. I removed my boots and socks, rolled up my rain pants, and took my first step into the cold water.

DSCN2416.JPG

I took the short way across the first deep puddle, hoping to find a drier route across but that was simply not happening. Knowing the dunes weren’t that far away, I took a straight course through the deepest bit of the swamp, hoping that I wouldn’t step into a hole disguised in the grass. On the other side, I decided to keep my boots off and walk barefoot in the sand. The temperature wasn’t too cold and the wind was bearable. It was a nice walk back to the dunes on soft sand.

Atop the dunes, I regained views of waves crashing onto the beach. Haystack Rock emerged from the misty sea in the distance. I had no idea how close I was to the car, so I headed inland on a sandy trail that ducked down into the thick forest. Walking through claustrophobic tree tunnels, I pondered the stark contrast between flowing, expansive dunes and twisted, compact tree trunks.

Back at the car, I made a sorry attempt to dry off my feet and get most of the sand off. Then, a quick drive brought me to a parking lot at Cape Kiwanda.

Cape Kiwanda

There were actual humans here, which was a disappointment, but I layered up and wandered onto the beach to see what all the fuss was about. A car was parked on the beach and some tourists were lolling about. The wind was blowing with a fury. I headed towards a bluff and began climbing up a large sand dune. The wind was at my back, actually pushing me uphill as I walked. At the top of the dune, I got a great view of the ocean on the other side. Looking beneath my feet, there were incredible, tiny, wind-sculpted sand shapes that I’d never seen before.

windblown sand2.JPG

I ran crazily down the hill, because, well that’s what hills are for. The sand in my boots was grinding against my feet so I ducked out of the wind to take them off. The trudge back up the hill wasn’t as physically hard as I thought, but my sand-blasted face was pretty raw. I walked backwards and sideways as much as I could to keep the sand out of my face.

There was one more hill to conquer. I continued up to a barrier keeping folks away from the sudden edges of the bluff. It was beautiful up there. I could see the wind-and-water shaped rocks. Water crashed against the rocks and flowed through caves and channels. The combination of blowing sand, surf, and rain brought a chill to my body. The sand up here was very cold, puddly, and hard. My feet were frozen.cape kiwanda colors-PANO.jpg

I ran down this hill all the way to the beach and then hightailed it to the car.

I imagine these places see lots of visitors on clear, sunny days. I felt fortunate to have experienced these gorgeous vistas in off-season conditions, and I highly recommend a trip here to anyone passing through the north/central Oregon coast.

Corvallis Snow Trek

February 8, 2014.

Click for trip photos and an overview map.

twilight.jpg

It was a rare opportunity: snow was falling in Corvallis, Oregon. I had to get out and explore.

On Thursday, the snow began coming down. I drove to my morning appointment as usual, and there was only about an inch of white stuff on the ground. Later, several more inches fell, and I switched to walking to get around town. Not trusting the drivers on the road, I felt much safer. It was pretty, but people were less excited about the weather since we’d just gone through this in December. I, on the other hand, was overjoyed, especially since the next day’s forecast called for much more snow. Now certainly I’m no stranger to snow, and the snowfall amounts were nothing extraordinary…for New England. But here in the Willamette Valley, snow accumulation was something of an oddity. We’d had another surprise snowstorm just a couple months earlier that shut down schools and created icy roads for nearly a week. But typical years will see only a dusting of snow, if that, and then it’s back to business as usual.

I arose early on Friday with a plan: I’d snowshoe around Corvallis, linking up several parks by foot, aiming for a minimum of 14 miles before ending up back where I began, on the waterfront in downtown.

skatepark.jpg

My trek began at the free parking lot at the south end of downtown Corvallis. From here, I headed straight for the bike path that took me briefly along the Willamette River, then past the skate park and along Marys River. I followed the bike path as it paralleled highway 20, watching the occasional car carefully drive by. Then the path dipped south and west away from the main road, through pockets of forests and manicured parks. Here, I encountered a jogger, a skier, and little else. As I passed through Starker Arts Park, I noticed a man in the pavilion across the pond. It looked like he was doing the moonwalk in combination with an entire dance routine that he was totally into. Strangely compelling, it was hard to stop staring and walk away. The weather inspires all of us just a little bit differently.

arts rainbow2.jpg

Past the parks and back on the main road, I approached my first stop: Imagine Coffee. It was packed with people, and the baristas were doing all they could to keep up with the orders. I wolfed down a scone while waiting for my coffee, knowing I’d need all the calories I could pack in today.

The next stop on my agenda was Bald Hill. It was a long, straight road walk north to reach the park. I truly appreciated my snowshoes here, as the snow was less well packed down than in places closer to downtown. I cruised along, admiring the snow-covered landscape and feeling cozy in my smartwool top and fleecy pants (usually reserved for out-of-town adventures).

At the fairgrounds I turned right and picked up the Midge Cramer Path. I started seeing more cross-country skiers and a couple of snowshoers out and about. This path led me right into Bald Hill Natural Area, where I’d pick up my high-point of the day.

benches under an oak tree.JPG

On my way to the top, I passed just one skier on his way down. Most people, it appeared, were sticking to the level trails. I enjoyed the solitude, and was happy to share my space with flocks of thrushes flitting about in the trees.

varied thrush.JPG

The snow was still falling steadily at the top of Bald Hill, obscuring any views. I trod back down and detoured into the big, barn-like shelter at its base. Shielded from the falling snow, I took off my backpack, made some Del’s frozen snow-lemonade and ate my lunch. Soon after, a herd of college kids with snowboards on their back headed up to make a couple of runs off the back side of the hill at the shelter.

I couldn’t believe how cold I was getting just standing around for that 30 minutes. As it turned out, I’d been working pretty hard to shuffle through the snow. With frozen hands I packed up and headed back down to the flat path leading to the Oak Creek entrance of the park.

Just before reaching the parking lot, I herd some puffing and whinnying. I looked up to see a woman on a horse, getting ready to pull a sled with one passenger behind. I stopped to grab my camera, and before I looked back up the horse began galloping full speed ahead along the trail. It blazed by me, sled passenger screaming with joy, then came to a complete stop and sauntered back. Another man anxiously waited his turn to go for a ride. The whole scenario was hilarious.

horse sledding2.JPG

I left the park and walked down Oak Creek Road towards campus. This was a long, relaxing stretch through rural farmland. Huge rows of oak trees stood grandiose over flat, snowy fields. I efficiently re-warmed my body by putting in fresh tracks in untouched snow along the roadside. Once back at 53rd street, I turned south to pick up the campus way bike path.

The bike path turned out to be a popular destination for the afternoon. Plenty of cheery, rosy faces passed me by as I blazed east to get back to civilized Corvallis. I chuckled as I passed the snow-topped solar panel farm. All the animals that were usually out grazing in the fields must have been taken inside; there were no cows, llamas or sheep dotting the countryside as usual.

solar2.JPG

Oregon State University had been closed for two days, so campus was unusually quiet. Certain sidewalks were clearer than others, so the snowshoes came in handy once again. I cut diagonally across campus to get to 15th street, which would take me into South Town.

Crossing Marys River on the 15th St bridge was beautiful. I’d hoped to go next into Avery Park to take photos of the dinosaur bones and train covered in glittery snow. But the park was packed with people of all ages walking up one of the few hills in town and sledding down. It felt rather un-photogenic and I was starting to feel all the miles behind me, so I just kept walking.

marys river.jpg

The last park on my list was Willamette Park, where I hoped to find excellent views of the river and trees. To get there, I had to walk along Crystal Lake Drive. Clearly the people of south town were not getting out as much as folks throughout the rest of the city, since the sidewalks were totally snowed in. With heavy legs I pushed through deep snow all the way to the park. Here, the parking lot was buzzing with vehicles. Not a good sign. The park was full of people walking or skiing with their dogs, and apparently they hadn’t thought to walk to the park, just in the parkI’d pretty much decided then that I wouldn’t traverse the length of the part, since I knew my patience with hordes of dogs was pretty low.

But, I’m really glad I made it there, or I would have missed this: a man in a wooden canoe on the river’s edge, playing a harmonica. It was so pretty and funny and awesome all at the same time. I regret that I didn’t wander down for a photo and a chat. I’ll blame it on the tiredness.

I took a side path from the main drag just to get away from all the people, and found myself at a dead end with a thicket of gnarled shrubs surrounding me. Here, I turned around for the final push to downtown.

pverpass pano.JPG

The snow, which was falling consistently all day, was still coming down. Visions of beer and food began infiltrating my thoughts. I knew it was time to bring it in. I was happy to go back the way I came, through the snow I’d already compacted. I retraced my steps back up Crystal Lake drive and then turned right along 99E. The sidewalk would connect to the bike path leading into downtown. The contrast of the snow, trees, and rivers with the built elements of the city were stunning. Once I reached the waterfront, I was singly focused on reaching Cloud & Kelly’s Pub for happy hour.

It felt amazing to take off my snowshoes and wet gloves to sit down and polish off a bowl of mac and cheese with a pint of porter. Here I gave my body a bit of a rest before casually walking back home during the early evening hour, watching as the dimming light brought out new colors and contrast in the buildings and snow sculptures throughout town.

whiteside.jpg

It was a rare opportunity to see much of Corvallis by foot in these peculiar weather conditions. I just hope I don’t have to do it again soon.

jess snowshoeing.JPG

Here’s an overview map of the loop, minus the trip to and from my house. Click to view the larger image:

corvallis snow walk map

 

Diamond Craters

December 31, 2013.

Pete French Round Barn and Diamond Craters Auto Tour, plus touring by foot
map4

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

Last night, we camped at Idlewild Campground north of Burns. We had to get to La Pine State Park tonight to settle down in our New Year’s Eve rental cabin, so our itinerary had to link these two locations in some way. I’d been to both Pete French Round Barn and Diamond Craters before, and I knew they would be worth taking the scenic route to get there.

We first stopped at the visitor’s center near Pete French Round Barn. It was just as I’d remembered: filled with gifts, cookbooks, western clothing, cold beverages and good, old fashioned hospitality. Here, we picked up our Diamond Craters Auto Tour Brochure for use later today.

Next, we checked out the round barn. It has been kept up well, and still stands rugged and strong in the middle of the unforgiving desert. We admired the craftsmanship of the wooden and stone structures, as well as the beauty of the design. This is an excellent little roadside attraction.

DSCN1811.JPG

Then, we pulled out the aforementioned brochure and drove towards Diamond Craters. At each designated stop, we pulled off the road, got out of the car, and I read the description aloud. It was like a fun, nerdy, motorized scavenger hunt. We learned some new vocabulary words, like graben, maar and tephra. It was really freaking cold outside, so we didn’t wander around at all of the stops. By the time we made it to #10, however, we were ready to stretch our legs.

DSCN1826.JPG

First we walked around Dry Maar and Malheur Maar, taking numerous pictures from every angle without realizing they’d pretty much all look the same once we got back home. Then we continued cross country to the best-named feature in the park: Multiple Explosion Crater. It was pretty big. All I wanted to do was run down inside it. This was the beginning of our foray through the lava features, walking through narrow cracks, balancing on pointy rock surfaces, peeking into caves and scrambling on top of rocky bumps. It was fun to adventure around, free from the confines of a trail, with a wide array of route options and volcanic features to investigate. This was a much more invigorating style of scavenger hunt.

crater crouch.jpg

When we finished having our fun, we meandered back towards the car and completed the driving loop. All that fun meant we’d be rolling into camp after dark, and that was okay with me.

We had a choice leaving Diamond Craters: head straight back to highway 20 via the quickest and most familiar route possible or take a longer detour through BLM land hoping to stumble across something cool. We chose the latter. It’s awfully nice to have a road trip partner who thinks the same way I do (most of the time).

The map pointed us to L-shaped Double O Road, heading west and then north through BLM land, Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and some private ranch land. Double O Road turned out to be gravel, but we took it anyways. Driving was slow but scenic, although there was nothing particularly special about the drive.

Or so we thought…

DSCN1858.JPG

As we were on the home stretch to highway 20, we noticed some unfamiliar animal figures milling about on the sides of the road. We stopped and watched as (wild?) horses trotted, grazed and milled about just in front of the car. They were beautiful animals, curious, lively, and entertaining. We watched them for several minutes, then continued driving. Not ten minutes up the road Aaron spotted a huge herd of pronghorn on the east side of the road. One by one, their little ears perked up to the sky and all heads turned towards us. We watched them with delight and surprise. This was the most I’d ever seen at once before. We slowly crept up the road and kept our eyes on the leader of the pack. It looked like they were going to make a run for it and cross the street.

Caught ya:

It turned out the endless gravel road detour was totally worth it, although I can not guarantee repeat animal sightings in the future!

The rest of the afternoon and evening, we drove on to La Pine State Park. To celebrate the new year we cooked a ridiculously good steak and ramen noodle dinner, made fresh ice cream with an ice cream ball, drank sparkling apple cider and sank deep into sleep just after midnight—our first night in an actual bed in a week.

Another Eastern Oregon desert trip in the books. Will it ever get old? I don’t think so. I haven’t noticed an uptick in visitor density since I’ve been writing about my adventures out there, so I’m going to keep exploring, photographing and writing.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake

Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake

December 30, 2013.

Ramblin’ around at Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake (no trails)

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

map3

Sullivan casually mentions Mickey Hot Springs in the yellow guidebook, and this sort of mystery grabbed my attention. Since we were all the way out here, I supposed, we may as well go see what there is to see.

Several gravel roads later, we arrived at Mickey Hot Springs. There was a tiny parking area, and a plethora of warning signs telling us that we were certain to die if we walked beyond the fence. Cameras in hand, we headed towards the steaming vents in the ground.

The place was eerie. There were no developed pathways so it was a total free-for-all. There were many footprints left in the earth, and I scanned for paths that had footprints heading in each direction. That way I hoped to minimize my chances of being swallowed up into the boiling cauldron lurking beneath my feet. Aaron was a bit more adventurous than me, and so I followed his footsteps.

DSCN1782.JPG

The earth gurgled and simmered around us. There were pools of algae surrounded by crusty, white mineral formations. There were mounds that rose up and holes that sunk down. There were patches of matted, yellow grass. There was not an animal in sight.

DSCN1783.JPG

After wandering around for about 45 minutes, we called it and drove back up the road to have lunch. We had spied a dry lakebed nearby that looked like as good a place as any to refuel. Our boots sunk into the unusual soil as we headed off to find the perfect spot to perch on our camp chairs and make sandwiches. It was chilly, but the sun was out, and we rather enjoyed a quiet lunch in this desolate place.

Next stop: Mann Lake Recreation Area. Why? It was on the way to Crane, where we were going to soak in the hot springs before finding a place to camp. Mann Lake is located just off the main road heading out of the Steens. We pulled in and drove up to the lake, locating some short trails leading to the lake. The lake was clearly a favorite of the local cattle herd; the muddy ground was pitted with deep hoof-prints. We arrived at the lake to find it totally frozen over. It was actually easier to walk on the ice than on the pock-marked, muddy shoreline. In the right season, this would be a great place to see birds. In December, it felt abandoned.

IMG_20131230_150436.jpg

When traveling along the eastern side of the Steens, it is worth it to take a couple of short detours to these places. There’s no reason to miss Mann Lake, since it’s a stone’s throw from the road. Mickey Hot Springs is a bit more of a drive, but maybe just stop and ask yourself: why the rush?

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Diamond Craters

Pike Creek Canyon

December 29, 2013.

Pike Creek Trail > Pike Knob out and back | 6.5 miles | 2000′ elevation gain | 4.25 hours

DSCN1738.JPG

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

In between nights of camping in the Alvord Desert, we took a stroll up Pike Creek Canyon. The trailhead is located at a primitive campsite up a godawful dirt road. The road wouldn’t be too bad, if not for the deep ruts and huge boulders poking out. In a high clearance vehicle, no problem. In the Subaru, well, we had to park just a little ways down the road from the trailhead.

DSCN1736.JPG

We walked up to the campground to find various animal bones, shotgun shells and splintered plastic shooting target things, plus this really big tree splitting open a rock in slow motion. It was a neat place.

We crossed the creek on an ice bridge, although the liquid water coursing beneath the ice gave us pause. Right from the start, the trail was in the shade so we hurried along to generate some body heat. We passed a trailhead register, which had an interesting, ranty dialogue with unpleasant words being passed between a grizzled, old country redneck and some city-dwellin’ granola types (stereotypes based on the register text).

We followed the trail as it climbed up and away from the stream, then switchbacked down to cross over it. We ascended back up on the other side, where we stopped to catch our breath.

While resting, we saw two figures. It was clear immediately that these were bighorn sheep. They were much closer to us than the ones we saw on Pueblo Mountain. They stopped to check us out for a little bit, then continued grazing along the hillside. We watched them for several minutes, then continued with the hike.

The trail continued into the sunshine, gradually climbing up and then flattening out a little. The tread became more rugged and tiny cairns started popping up everywhere. We followed this path down to another stream crossing, then climbed steeply up on the other side. Eventually we reached the base of Pike Knob and the path became less obvious. We picked out a lunch spot and sat down to devour our soup and trail mix.

While this was a pretty hike, it didn’t provide the stellar views we were after. So, we ditched our packs and began poking around in the terrain above us. After a few false starts and progress-halting cliff edges, we came across a route that placed us right up on top of Pike Knob. The view from the broad top of the Knob was dramatic. In front of us, the Steens Mountain headwall rose up in a hurry. Long, tumbling cascades of water poured down from the mountain top. Snow blanketed the rocky outcrops and the sun blazed overhead. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Cameras in hand, we wandered around taking pictures, striking yoga poses, and absorbing the sun. It was a great place to hang out for a while.

DSCN1753.JPG

On the way back, we looked for the sheep again but they were long gone. It was a cold walk out of the dark canyon in the late afternoon. The only thing that was motivating me was anticipation of a soak in the hot springs on the way back to camp!

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake
Diamond Craters

The Alvord Desert

December 28-30, 2013.

Exploring the Alvord desert and hot springs | 0′ ele. gain

13 - 1

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

After a leisurely day of wandering through Borax Hot Springs, we drove up to the desert to scope out the camping situation. It was Aaron’s first visit to the Alvord desert so I got my camera ready to film the drive out onto the playa. This is what we saw:

So the desert was as vast and awesome as I’d remembered. There was barely a breeze and not another person in sight. We got out of the car and ran around a bit, then Aaron got back in and did some crazy bro-driving while I walked back to the grassy shore. We searched for a nice campsite for later, then drove up to the hot springs.

IMG_20131228_160857.jpg

The Alvord Hot Springs are available for soaking for a $5-a-person charge. There’s a little shop with a restroom and a year-round caretaker on-site. The water from the springs are piped into two soaking pools. One is open air and the other is surrounded by corrugated metal sides. The water is wonderfully warm, cutting the sharp cold of the desert evening. We watched the sun set while sitting in the tub, then drove back to camp in the desert.

IMG_20131229_064727.jpg

For a couple days, we explored the desert, took off for day trips, and came back to camp. It was a surreal place to camp; our “campsite” had no boundaries. We used an established fire ring so we left minimal impact behind. For both nights, we had no neighbors. A nearby light shone brightly from a house, but besides our campfire there was no other point source of light. Looking up at the stars was spectacular.

One morning we drove east to check out the other edge of the desert. Across the vast, flat expanse, we found tiny hills with deep channels carved into them by water. We played around on the hills and were excited to find windblown piles of fluffy snow. Huge ice crystals filled shallow puddles on the cracked surface of the desert. It was quite beautiful.

DSCN1727.JPG

Of course, driving back across the playa was fun. You could literally drive with your eyes closed, no hands. It was perfectly flat, barren, and long.

Winter is probably one of the best times to visit the Alvord Desert, since it’s at a pretty comfortable temperature, there’s no one out four-wheeling on it, and it’s incredibly dry. The silence, the stars, the bitter cold nights and sunny days, and the neighboring hot springs make the drive out here totally worthwhile.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake (coming soon!)
Diamond Craters (coming soon!)

Borax Hot Springs

December 28, 2013.

Borax Hot Springs road out-and-back | 3 miles | 60′ ele gain | 3 hours

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

map2

We had a long day yesterday, so we savored a late wake-up time and a big, tasty breakfast.

Before heading to the Alvord Desert, we decided to take a detour to Borax Hot Springs. It was a short, level hike between the Pueblos and the Alvord, with a mildly interesting description in the Sullivan guidebook.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a sign with the following assertions:

SCALDING WATER

GROUND MAY COLLAPSE

CONTROL CHILDREN AND PETS

Okay, now this roadside attraction had captured my attention.

We parked by a gate and walked up a dirt road through ordinary, brown sagebrush. In the distance, we could see large patches of golden grass. We passed through another gate, then the road began to take on a different texture. It was spongy, and there were patches of white crystals coating the road surface.

DSCN1702.JPG

On the side of the road we saw some old, rusted boiling vats that were used when this was an active borax mining operation over a century ago. These vats were used to process the raw sodium borate gathered from the area into crystalline borax, which could then be sold for use as a household or industrial chemical.

DSCN1711.JPG

Continuing along the road, we came to the muddy shores of Borax Lake, the only home of the Borax Lake chub. This tough little fish thrives in the warm waters of Borax Lake. Although arsenic levels in the lake are 25 times the lethal limit for humans, they pose no threat to the fish. We chose not to take a dip in the lake.

IMG_20131228_124121.jpg

As we walked up the road further, we began to come across the hot springs, lined up in a row on the right hand side of the road. We were amazed by the delicate shapes on the lip of each lake. Algae of all imaginable colors grew in intricate, unusual structures in the steamy water. Each pool was unique. We wandered slowly, investigating each pool, and choosing the least mucky way to walk from one pool to the next. My winter Crocs were a poor choice; boots would have been better to negotiate the deep mud and standing water on the road.

We kept walking down the road to a stair-step ladder that took us over a barbed wire fence, then continued to the last couple of large pools. From there, we baked in the warm sunshine and enjoyed the silent, never-ending views of the desert and surrounding mountain ranges. We could see Pueblo Mountain (where we were yesterday), the Steens, and the Trout Creek Mountains. 

IMG_20131228_123937550_HDR.jpg

As we slowly and carefully returned to the car, I reflected on the last minute choice to come here. I wasn’t particularly interested, due to the short mileage, minimal elevation gain, and lack of soaking options, but I quickly warmed to the experience of visiting such a unique and isolated place. I highly recommend a stop here if you ever make the drive along the east side of Steens Mountain.

We ate lunch at the car, and drove up to the Alvord Desert next.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Pueblo Mountain
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake 
Diamond Craters

Pueblo Mountain

December 27, 2013.

Northeast Ridge route, as described on Summitpost | 10-12 miles | 4000′ ele. gain | 7.5 hours

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

IMG_20131228_085210.jpg

We arose with the sun on a cold desert morning, ready to face a long day of walking. Not having an accurate idea of how many miles we had ahead of us and how challenging the terrain would be, I wanted to be sure we had all the sunlight we could get. Pueblo Mountain (8632′) is the second highest peak in southeast Oregon, behind Steens Mountain (9733′). The descriptions I’d read were anywhere from 10-14 miles in length out-and-back, with 4000′ of elevation gain from car to summit. There were no trails, so it was cross-country the whole way. The nice thing about this high desert peak was that it was mostly bare of trees, leaving a maze of sagebrush, dirt, grass, and snow to navigate. That ranked pretty low on the difficulty scale.

We hiked up the road a couple hundred yards, then veered left across a narrow wash and up a broad hill. We could see what appeared to be a white post so we made our way over to that. Upon reaching it we found a 3′ long PVC pipe with small holes drilled neatly into the sides. Ahead of us we found a few more, but they didn’t seem to be markers of any sort. With that distraction behind us, we kept walking to a level meadow and scoped out the climb ahead. From here we saw two distinct ridges. There appeared to be a dirt road switchbacking up towards the summit on the further of the two ridges. We decided to head for the road, which was faster than negotiating the sagebrush.

Once we reached a good spot to leave the road, we charged straight up the hill presumably leading towards Pueblo’s summit ridge. Occasionally we’d come across a bit of the road, which clearly had not seen recent use, and take it easy for a few steps before trudging uphill again. Methodically we made quick work and headed into the more interesting, rocky bits.

DSCN1644.JPG

The hillside got steeper and steeper. Nearing what appeared to be the summit, we hit some snow. Lucky for me, some deer had broken trail ahead of me. The snow was hard-packed from the wind and kicking steps was much harder than following the deer prints. We paused briefly behind a tall rock to put on a wind layer before stepping out into who knows what next, which turned out to be a great idea. The wind picked up, and we soon found that we were nowhere near a summit.

Ahead, we saw another rockpile that looked higher. Then another. A long, gentle ridge stretched out for what felt like forever but in reality was closer to a half a mile. The bitter cold and steady wind helped put some pep in our step as we raced for our summit. You can almost feel the wind in this video:

I was elated to find the USGS summit marker atop one of the rockpiles I investigated. No more searching! Time to eat lunch.

I initiated a SPOT “ok” message, and we bundled up to eat lunch and wait for the message to send. We were getting a little taste of winter mountaineering with the relentless wind and freezing temps. It was awesome. Just as we were beginning to pack up, I caught some movement across the plateau we crossed earlier. It was clearly two animals, but they were too stocky to be deer. They didn’t move like deer, either. Aaron suggested we were looking at our first bighorn sheep. Incredible! It was hard to make out much detail, but it was the only logical guess. See for yourself:

As soon as that SPOT sent, we packed up and bolted down out of the wind. Instead of retracing our steps exactly, we decided to make a little loop and head back down the other prominent ridge that we saw from the meadow. Little did we know, this was the windy side. The seemingly endless wind eventually dissipated enough to take off a few layers and breathe normally again. We ambled down the rockier, steeper ridge until the dirt road again came into sight. From the road, we walked to the meadow and returned roughly the way we came up, stopping to marvel at the lush moss growing beneath the brown and dusty sagebrush at the dried up wash.

Back at camp, we watched a beautiful sunset, then cooked up a storm. A couple of heaping bowls of curry later, we were well poised for a good night’s sleep.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

West Side of Steens Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake
Diamond Craters

West Side of Steens Mountain

December 25-26, 2013.

Page Springs Nature Trail Loop, Blitzen River Trail

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+

map1It was that time of year again. No, not Christmastime. I mean time to escape to the vast, cold desert of Eastern Oregon for an end of the year car camping extravaganza. After a late Christmas breakfast with Aaron’s family, we left town with the intention of staying gone til New Year’s Day.

We drove straight through to the first developed campground on the west side of Steens Mountain: Page Springs. It was after dark, so we did our best to scout out a riverside site with little tree cover, close to the bathroom. Once settled in, we fired up the camp stove and ate the first of many delicious meals: Christmas Eve leftovers. We heated up day-old ham and turkey with a side of green beans and a fresh green salad. One benefit of consistently cold temperatures is near perfect refrigeration and freezing conditions for fresh produce and meat. I planned to eat well this trip.

The evening was cold and quiet, save for the bright-eyed raccoon that lurked around our picnic table. Well after the sun set, the coyotes began singing Christmas carols, and lulled us to sleep.

The next morning, we woke up and explored the campground in the daylight. It was a beautifully laid out space, with several convenient and clean bathrooms, sites designed for tents and RVs, and choices of shady or non-shady sites. After a nice breakfast and some camp chores, we walked the trails that began in the camp.

DSCN1586.JPG

The first trail began at a sign reading “Nature Trail” near campsite #25. This 1.4 mile walk took us up to the rimrock, where we had a nice aerial view of the campground. We enjoyed the sun along the edge of the rim, explored some small caves in the rock, and followed the trail down into a shady canyon, where we lost the trail a couple of times, but ended up back at the parking lot anyways.

Next we headed through the fence to the Blitzen River trail. The Sullivan book described this as being a 0.7 mile one-way trail. The sign at the trailhead said the trail extended 4 miles along the river, warning that the trail may be brushy. So, we planned to go as far as we could go, then turn around. The air felt warm in the sun, and this trail was much more open than the nature trail. We walked across an icy bog, through tall cattails and a variety of mangled, brushy plants with seeds that clung to your clothes. We didn’t get too far down the trail before meeting an impenetrable mass of vegetation that would require some serious trail clearing to get through. To make matters worse, the ground surface ranged from icy to dry, with much of the ground either mucky or masquerading as solid and walkable. We made this our turnaround point, which likely meshes with Sullivan’s description in the book.

DSCN1602.JPG

On the way back we investigated clumps of downy feathers left from a successful hunt and a perfect foot slide and butt smear preserved in the hardening mud on the trail. We could see the belt loops, stitching, and pocket outline where he hit the ground. It was the most fun sighting of the day.

That was until I saw the heron perched in a tree.

DSCN1609.JPG

After a late lunch, we left the campground and drove on. I’d found a hike description on Less Traveled Northwest for Home Creek Canyon, a “very challenging cross-country hike into a dramatic and scenic canyon.” Sounded sweet. It was between Page Springs and the Pueblo Mountains, our destination for the evening.

We enjoyed the dramatic and scenic drive to the canyon, but the canyon itself didn’t particularly grab me and I’d describe it as moderately challenging. Maybe it was the poor light or the fact I’d been in one too many canyons before, but I felt a bit cheated on this one. We walked along the river, then did some boulder-hopping until it was getting close to our turn-around time, then headed back.

We’d hoped to catch the restaurant in Fields before they closed so we could enjoy one of their world famous milkshakes, but it turned out it was closed for the holiday. The good news was that meant we’d be able to set up camp before dark and watch the sun set. Not a bad consolation prize.

In preparation for a big hike the next day, we ate fajitas until we just couldn’t eat any more.

Continue reading about our eastern Oregon adventure here:

Pueblo Mountain
Borax Hot Springs
The Alvord Desert
Pike Creek Canyon
Mickey Hot Springs and Mann Lake
Diamond Craters

Crater Lake Snowshoe: Applegate and Garfield Peaks

December 15, 2013. 

roughly 6 – 7 miles | 2000′ ele. gain | 5.5 hours

Photos from the entire trip are on Google+.

crater cliffs.jpg

We woke up to another tremendously good weather forecast, so we had to spend another day highpointing at the park. Amy had to head back to Corvallis, so Aaron and I were on our own. The previous day, the park ranger recommended snowshoeing up to Garfield Peak, a craggy summit just east of the Park Headquarters. In the summertime, a pedestrian trail leads 1.5 miles up to the summit. However, the trail crosses some steep terrain that poses avalanche risk for the snow-covered portion of the year, so the ranger suggested an alternate route that would permit safe passage.

We parked just south of the main parking area at a small pullout and began our snowshoe trek up East Rim Drive. Previous travelers had been here, so we followed nice tracks about a mile up the road. As the terrain to our left became less jagged, and with no sign of a hidden stream threatening to soak us, we left the road and headed due north through the forest.

going up.JPG

We knew there were steep cliffs to the west, somewhere, so we trended towards the east as we picked a reasonable route through the rolling hills. Trees blocked any chance of a view to the peak or to the crater rim, so we trusted the ranger’s advice and the compass, trudging northward. Eventually the thick trees gave way to huge meadows and smaller patches of evergreen forest. At last, we spotted a high point to the east. According to the map, this was most likely Applegate peak. Its broad, white shoulders looked more inviting than the patchy green forest between us and Garfield, so we decided to aim for Applegate.

garfield pano.JPG

Heads down, putting one foot in front of the other, we walked through a uniformly thick covering of snow that was getting denser and denser as the day wore on. The sun felt warm on our skin, although we didn’t need it to stay comfortable. Pushing uphill in unbroken snow is good, hard work. At one point, I noticed the land seemed to end abruptly somewhere in the distance. I angled upward until I reached the rim of Crater Lake. There I stood, in awe of the sight of the lake. It was a welcome image that contrasted sharply with the whites and greens we had been looking at all morning. From the rim, we looked back to see Garfield Peak and Dyer Rock, then turned towards Applegate and pushed on.

The last little bit leading to the cliffy top of Applegate Peak was sketchy at best. The angle got steeper and steeper. Patches of ice covered rock, gnarled branches, and loose scree. In other spots the snow was so thin and mushy it was easy to slip. But we made it to the top, where we had so-so views as we timidly approached the rim. (Note: so-so views here would be epic views pretty much anywhere else, so I’m not complaining.)

look back at applegate.JPG

After celebrating a minor victory on the summit, we scooted back down and traversed across to Dyer Rock, where we’d have our lunch break. Along the way, we found a viewpoint of Phantom Ship, a feature we hadn’t spotted yet. This spiky rock pinnacle juts above the lake’s surface at the eastern end of Chaski Bay. We took our pictures and moved on.

Over lunch, we discussed our options. We could head back to the car now, or take advantage of this awesome weather and bag one more peak before heading out. We chose to continue to Garfield. Again we crossed pristine snow slopes, choosing the path of least resistance across the meadows to gain the south ridge. We followed the ridge up to the summit, where we celebrated again and took in 360 degree views of the surrounding area. To the north, Crater Lake’s deep blue water reflected the streaks of clouds crossing the sky. To the south and west, huge tracts of green trees dominated the landscape. A wide, yawning valley situated southeast of here looked majestic with a cloak of freezing fog clinging to its bottom. Overhead, the yellow sun was blinding.

fog in the valley.jpg

We began our final descent at about 2:30 pm and hauled out of there at lightning speed, returning to the parking area just an hour later. While we opted for the gentler, more scenic route up, we took the steep and fast route down. Three highpoints and tens of thousands of footsteps later, I felt pretty darn satisfied with our winter explorations of Crater Lake National Park. Watch for the next trip to Crater lake in 2014!

Previous excursions to Crater Lake include a much snowier stop in December 2006, a much MUCH snowier stop in December 2009 (no blog!), and a “Plan L” stop in March, 2011.