I’ve had the Steens Mountain on my mind since the first time I stepped foot into the region. Literally, one foot. I had just undergone ACL reconstruction surgery 3 weeks prior to my first visit. Needless to say, I couldn’t walk very far. So I spent my days wistfully looking up the mountain and dreaming of the day I could stand on its summit. Since then I’d taken a few trips to the area, but always in winter. During those winter trips, snow blocked entry to most of the vast mountain wilderness, leaving me to explore only the low canyons and streams.
We drove from Bend to Frenchglen on a Friday afternoon. From Frenchglen we started up the south side of the Steens Loop Road, hoping to score a campite at South Steens campground. Luckily it was hardly even half-full, so we were able to get a shady site near a dry creekbed.
Big Indian Gorge
After a satisfying camp breakfast we headed for the Big Indian Gorge trailhead, located at the east edge of the campground. We walked through what Sullivan called a “juniper woodland” for nearly 2 miles. It felt, however, like an open, African plain. The sun drilled deep down into my soul as we trudged along in search of this canyon. Eventually, the trail entered a small, shady grove near Big Indian Creek. The water was low and easy to cross in Crocs.
Several miles later, after walking through dry brush in the blazing sun, I decided I just wasn’t feeling it. Apart from the stunning Mariposa lilies, there was nothing special about this hike. It wasn’t what I wanted out of the Steens. We could have been anywhere. There was no perspective, no feeling of being up high. We took a rest break and re-fueled for the walk back. It was time for plan B.
The scenic drive
Back at the car, we hit the road and drove up the narrow, winding switchbacks towards the summit parking area. Along the way, we stopped at a few roadside pull-outs that began to make me feel like we were at the Steens. These epic viewpoints provided a broader overview of this special landscape. We could clearly see the large, U-shaped glacial valleys that were carved by ice millions of years ago. It was dramatic.
Around 3:30, we set off from the summit parking area to Wildhorse Lake. This short, steep trail followed a zigzag of switchbacks down a hillside to a pretty lake basin. The hills were painted with a surprising variety of wildflowers: buckwheat, paintbrush, thistle, penstemon, clover and many more I couldn’t identify.
We took our time ambling down the trail, trying to capture photos of all the delicate alpine flowers. As we approached the lake, we noticed patches of monkeyflower, which likes to grow in moist ground. Then, tall stands of false hellebore with another surprise: it was flowering! I’d never seen this distinctive plant in flower before.
Once we reached the lake, we found a small, sandy beach. The water was cold, but it felt so good to jump in and wash off the grime and sweat. We killed some time here just enjoying the gentle breeze, pretty flowers and sunshine glistening off the lake. Up next we’d have a grueling bushwhack up the south side of the mountain.
Our route took us along the bubbling creek streaming out of the snowfield that was still clinging to the upper mountain. We began by pushing through thick vegetation, which quickly diminished as we climbed higher. Scrambling up the slippery rocks and scree we made our way to the base of the summit. The cliffs looked impenetrable from a distance but we found an easy way to get all the way up. We stood below the radio towers at the top and looked over the rim to the desert below. A quick and easy 0.4 mile road walk brought us back to the car.
I didn’t want to leave this alpine paradise. On our way to the summit we’d scouted a few possible camp locations and so we drove back to our first choice. With a few gear shuttles from the car we set up a sweet campsite on a flat, gravel patch that was surrounded by boulders, meadows and snow. The sunset was spectacular. We ate chicken and veggies cooked on the camp stove, played ice cream soccer, and sunk into the tent for a well-deserved night of rest.
We packed up camp and headed off on some cross-country rambles. Our travels covered less than 4 miles, but I felt like we were transported to another universe. Walking across high alpine meadows, crossing snow-melt streams and scrambling over gravelly lava rock, we were explorers. Our journey consisted of arriving at one jaw-dropping viewpoint after another. Along the way, we found new wildflowers that I hadn’t seen at Wildhorse Lake: alpine marsh-marigold, Oregon campion, orange hawkweed and so many more.
The Steens just screams for exploration. There are only a handful of trails that span this massive wilderness landscape. It would take many, many trips to even begin to see what this mountain has to offer. With 7 huge gorges, several high alpine ridgelines and numerous smaller canyons and gorges, you could wander around here for a lifetime and still not know it all. While I am grateful that we did some backcountry hiking on this trip, I am now hungry to get deeper into the mountain’s secret spaces.
On the drive down, we stopped anywhere that looked interesting: two more viewpoints (that were much prettier than the summit itself), a couple of campgrounds and random pullouts overlooking impossibly beautiful wildflower meadows. The whole trip was a delight for all the senses, from the fresh mountain air to the colorful blooms, cold snow melt and textured rock. After ten years in Oregon I am still finding surprises tucked in every corner of the state.
In almost ten years of climbing at Smith Rock, I’d never gotten on Monkey Face. One of the most recognizable features at Smith, Monkey Face is a 350 foot tall spire with multiple climbing routes leading to its summit. Today, my climbing partner Keen and I decided to go for it.
We hiked up and over Misery Ridge to get to the base of the west face. From here we’d follow West Face Direct (5.8), a 2-pitch trad route that followed a few crack systems to reach a large ledge. I geared up for the first lead.
Still brushing off the cobwebs after several years of climbing little to no trad, I struggled to get past the first 20 feet or so, wriggling up an awkward chimney. Eventually I figured it out and got up to some easier climbing. But since I’d loaded up the crack with several pieces of gear, I had heinous rope drag that prevented me from climbing further. I set a piece and downclimbed back to the top of the hard section to clean a few pieces and help the rope move freely. Then I climbed back up and finished the pitch.
From my nice belay ledge, I belayed my partner up, traded gear, and he set out on the second lead. I watched him climb across a sloping ramp with lots of huecos to a crack/dihedral that disappeared out of sight. Once he finished, I followed the second pitch up to Bohn Street, where we’d sort out gear for the famous bolt ladder.
Keen had done tons of aid climbing but I had done effectively zero. So I watched a few videos on aid technique and he talked me through the first few clips. Then, I was on my way. I learned that aid climbing was all about getting into a routine and moving methodically. This was easy aid: I had no pieces to place, I just had to clip bolts. The only difficulty was in the bolts that were reachy for me, and also getting over the lip into the cave. There was a lot of yanking on gear, which I am not used to doing, and it was actually much more strenuous than I’d imagined. It was an awesome learning experience and it was fun to problem-solve and get up in the cave.
Once we were both securely in the cave we sorted gear again. Keen needed some quickdraws for the final 5.9 pitch to the summit. Everything else went in the backpack, which I would carry up with me.
The exit of the cave is called Panic Point, and for good reason. You’ve got to step out of the cozy cave onto the face of the rock, with nothing but air below your feet. There are good handholds and foot placements, so most climbers are capable of doing this route. While it is technically moderate, it is mentally challenging. Here, the wind blows, you’re fatigued, excited, and totally exposed. Hikers watch in awe from the trails all around you. And, I had a backpack constantly trying to pull me off the wall into the void.
Lucky for me, my partner led the route so I was on toprope. I fought my way up the last pitch and was delighted to reach the belay station. I scrambled up to the summit, took the pack off, and enjoyed the endless views from on top. One of the ladies on the trail nearby yelled “woooo!” and threw up her arms in excitement, as if to say “nice job, you made it!” That was cool. 🙂
But the climb wasn’t over yet. We still had to get down. At the rappel station, we carefully tied our two ropes together and I set up the first rappel. After the first section, the rock became overhanging, leaving me dangling a couple hundred feet off the ground. The wind pushed me in a gentle spiral and I took in the 360-degree views all around me. What a fun ride down! I landed as another pair of climbers was heading up the Pioneer Route, then my partner descended to the ground.
We walked around to the base of the route and sorted gear in the shade. While most of our climb was in the shadow of the towering rocks, our hike out would almost entirely be in the sun. On a hot day like today, the sun can drain the energy right out of you.
We took the long way back along the river. The Crooked River flowed by swiftly. The vegetation on either side of the river looked impossibly lush and green. We stopped a few times to look back at the Monkey and watch the other party make their way up towards the top. Along the hike, we saw several different varieties of wildflowers and shrubs. Several people were out hiking today, which was crazy considering the high temperature and the fact that it was a weekday. Smith Rock is popular almost any day, any time, no matter what the conditions are.
I was happy to have completed a climb on Monkey Face, finally… The route was varied, enjoyable, and just challenging enough. It required a wide range of skills: traditional, sport, aid, and multipitch climbing all rolled into one experience.
Get away from humanity. It’s not that I don’t like you guys, it’s more that it’s nice to get away sometimes. Like, really away.
Adventure. There must be some places to hike and explore nearby.
Dessert. Pie, ice cream, and maybe some dinner foods and even vegetables. But, clearly dessert is the highlight.
Desert. Yes, drop the “s” and you get another essential. In winter, being in the desert is akin to being on the moon. It’s cold, desolate, barren, and almost guaranteed to be free of people. It’s the perfect place for me (and Aaron) to experience solitude on this crazy holiday.
Planning for Thanksgiving is almost as fun and anxiety-inducing as undertaking the trip itself. I dug out some hiking books and pulled out the Oregon Gazeteer to scout some locations. Now that we’re in Bend, we’re three hours closer to the dry side, and that opened up a world of possibilities.
The day finally arrived, and we loaded up the car with supplies. Heading out of town on a late Wednesday afternoon, we quickly angled south and east, driving past Fort Rock, Silver Lake and Winter Rim. A quick stop in Paisley for dinner and our bellies were full for the last stretch of the drive. Our travels took us nearly to Nevada, then we turned off into a maze of gravel roads for 20 miles to our camp.
In the pitch black night sky, we swerved and skidded to avoid literal hordes of jackrabbits who were apparently meeting for a star party. There were SO MANY of them. I was relieved when we pulled off the road and didn’t find any pelts flattened on the car tires. We quickly set up camp under brisk 20-degree evening skies and fell asleep.
A four mile tour
I had acquired some rough hiking information for this area from books and websites. Today’s jaunt would be a 4.5-mile loop with about 1500′ of elevation gain. Pretty mellow by the numbers. But we discovered yet again that theory and practice are often very different beasts.
We began walking up a dirt road in the direction of a spring. When we arrived, we found a spot with slightly more vegetation than the surrounding area, suggesting perhaps there was water nearby. A small, fenced in area prevented us from walking straight towards our destination, so we veered left into a jumble of rock pinnacles, canyons and brush.
Making our way through, over, around and down the rocks took a lot more time than the “as-the-crow-flies” distance would suggest. But it was a fun little scramble. We found caves, interesting rock formations and lots of animal sign. The gray clouds above set a moody tone across the vast desert. We had all day to ramble, and so ramble we did.
The mountain we were ascending was more like a rolling plateau with several highpoints. We walked over one of them without even registering it as a destination since we were so focused on the higher point in our sights. Atop that high point, we sent a SPOT check-in to the family back home and continued towards the next peak ahead.
A barbed wire fence blocked our passage to the actual high point, so we sat on a pile of rocks out of the wind and finally ate lunch.
Coming down was an adventure, too. We aimed for a broad gully between the two peaks. The seemingly straightforward slope was a medley of tangled sage and loose rocks. Slowly we plodded downhill. It was nice to finally reach a dirt road and briskly hike out the rest of the way.
Six miles and 4.5 hours later, we made it back to camp. A couple of hours relaxing in the tent killed the remaining daylight. Then it was time for the real festivities to begin.
I’d learned a lot about preparing a massive holiday dinner on a camp stove in the last seven years. This year I streamlined the menu and the prep, and making an incredible meal was a cinch.
On our plates:
bread and butter
And of course, dessert. We had a delicious apple pie from Newport Market. Our campfire provided warmth and ambiance on that long night, and we marveled at how dark the skies above were. We’ve been to some pretty remote places, but it felt especially dark here. No moon, just some stars through the clouds. With no fire or headlamp, and no light pollution on the horizon, it felt like being in a cave. Pure darkness. And pure silence. No air traffic overhead. That particular combination of darkness and quiet was something I’d never felt before.
Another day, another hike
On our second adventure from camp, we walked back up the road we drove in to try and find a “trailhead” for a second mountain hike. This one started at an alleged road that would lead past a watering hole to a gate. We walked right past the road’s location, as confirmed by checking my GPS app, so we walked cross-country in the general direction of the aforementioned road.
Upon finding the watering hole, we kept climbing uphill until a gate came into view. The “road” was so overgrown it was barely even noticeable, so it didn’t help us walk faster or stay on course. The mountain was visible from camp so the route was very simple. The only obstacle was the barbed wire fence in our way.
Aaron figured out how to open the gate, thankfully, as I alone probably would have just climbed over the rock pillar to pass over it.
On the other side, we just walked uphill, avoiding the occasional boulder and the very frequent animal den. The rabbits were very busy digging holes in this hill.
As we neared the summit, the wind started blasting full force. When I stopped to catch my breath I was nearly knocked to the ground, so I just kept moving. On top, we again sent a SPOT signal and had a little snack as we tried to protect ourselves from the battering wind.
My hike directions mentioned that you could do a ridge walk over several other little highpoints, terminating on a pointy bit a couple miles away. Sounded like a plan to me, so we fought through the wind over the broad, rocky ridge, wondering exactly which of the many highpoints we were aiming for.
Along the way we encountered another fence, but found an easy place to cross it. As we ambled down the ridge, the wind began to die down a bit and the walking almost became enjoyable again. The remoteness of the region was so beautiful. With the exception of the fence and one dirt road, there was hardly a sign of human presence here.
Atop our final highpoint of the day we surveyed the area, trying to identify the valleys, peaks, mesas, and other features we could see from there. And, in the back of my mind, I was quietly scheming the next trip.
We set a bearing to our camp and headed in a straight line, cross country, to our destination. We knew there would be two fence lines in our way, and decided we’d just figure out that bit when we got there.
The first fence crossing had a conveniently placed board that allowed us to push the wire down and cross over. Easy. On we walked, crossing a field filled with golden grass. Aaron spotted a coyote in the distance, the first thing besides a rabbit that wed seen. Keeping right on our compass bearing, we continued over undulating valley hills. In the distance, I saw the fence. As we got closer, I saw a gate. Right. Where. We. Needed. One. It was kind of ridiculous. We passed through the gate and had nothing but time in between us and our camp. It turned out to be a glorious day.
Another restful afternoon in the tent, and then dinner. Chili, if you were wondering. It’s not only delicious, warm and hearty, but pretty easy to make in camp. But the highlight of this evening was ice cream ball soccer. We were a bit too full last night to have ice cream with our pie, so we saved the festivities for tonight. Ice cream ball soccer has been part of the Thanksgiving tradition for the past few years. It’s fun, and a great way to generate some heat on a cold winter camping trip.
The next morning, we packed up the car and had a quick breakfast: banana, ice cream and chocolate almonds (that’s all the food groups, right?) before heading out. We cruised over the gravel roads easily, this time in the daylight and without rabbits everywhere. Back on the highway we continued into Nevada with our destination in sight: Sheldon National Antelope Refuge.
I’d tried to find some information on sights to see in the refuge before we left on our trip. But information besides the basic logistics was hard to come by. The official refuge brochure states:
“Hiking is encouraged throughout the refuge where open terrain provides ample cross-country hiking options. No designated trails are maintained, but game trails may be followed up many drainages and onto plateau tabletops.”
The refuge overview map indicates some places, but there’s no information on how to get there or what there is to do/see there. I found a few newspaper articles mentioning hiking, but again there were no directions or recommended places to go. We would be on our own.
So we began at the Virgin Valley Campground, the only campground that was maintained for year-long use. The campground was nice, but really windy. On our way in we’d noticed a beautiful canyon and were curious if we could check it out. A road behind the campground led uphill towards a purported viewpoint. We drove up the road until we felt like stopping, then walked about 2 miles to an overlook above the canyon.
It was jaw-dropping for a number of reasons. Glorious views, check. Dizzying heights, check. No guard-rail or signage to prevent you from free-falling to your death, check. Just nature in all her raw beauty. And we’d just kind of stumbled across it. There’s real value in adventure, something that is lost with astonishingly easy access to information.
That’s one thing that drew me here: the surprising lack of information. No trails, no hike descriptions, no step-by-step maps. As our parks and wild places become enticing destinations for more and more visitors, they appeal to me less and less. I don’t want to share the trail with 500 other people just to see a view I’ve seen posted all over the Internet thousands of times before. It’s just not that much fun anymore. When you venture off into places unknown, there’s greater potential for more memorable experiences. You run the risk of encountering duds, making wrong turns, and problem-solving obstacles, but isn’t that the whole point of exploring?
Now, our appetites whet for more we retreated down the road to find our way to the mouth of the canyon. Before heading in we warmed up some soup for lunch. The sun was reaching its afternoon peak and we’d appreciate that for our exploratory walk into the depths of the canyon.
We started up a game trail that led up into the jumbles of rocks beneath the canyon’s steep but crumbly cliff walls. Not good for rock climbing. Besides, every crack, hole, crevasse, and depression looked like an animal condo. I’d never seen so many middens, dens, and piles of animal scat in one place before. We hoped to see some critters in there, but they were safely tucked away for the duration of our hike.
Aaron led the way, and as the game trail petered out we hopped across talus fields, scrambled down to the water and tramped along the dry, cracked mud at the edge of the stream. We hiked to a sunny patch in the canyon, where we plopped down on a boulder and lay out like a couple of lizards, absorbing heat before continuing on.
We had planned to turn around there, but Aaron was wondering what was around the next corner…
That’s a dangerous road to travel in a twisty canyon. There’s always another corner. But it was so hard to turn back. Eventually we did, picking a different route and making new discoveries along the way. It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Last camp, and a surprise
Since the roads were clear, we decided to drive west through the refuge on one of the auxiliary roads to scope out a few more camping options. We drove through expansive sagebrush hills, looking hopefully for a herd of antelope, but to no avail. We saw about 8 deer near the Virgin Valley Camp, and that was it.
When we got out of the car to explore, we were met with bitter winds and cold that sunk right into our bones. It became more and more difficult to leave our cozy, mobile cocoon.
As the sun was threatening to go down, we pulled into the Catnip Reservoir Camp. A few haphazard fire rings sat near the lake. There was a pit toilet, but no other amenities. We chose our favorite site and began assembling our camp. The wind was constantly reminding us that we humans are not built for this. My frozen fingers set up the tent as quickly as they could while Aaron worked at getting a fire started. In my makeshift kitchen I squatted by the camp stove with wind pouring up my backside through the gap between my sweatpants and my five upper layers. So that’s why Patagonia sells onesies, I thought. I used the rest of our turkey gravy in our pork stir-fry, which was a warm and welcome addition to the meal.
We grabbed a chocolate bar and retreated to the tent soon after dinner to warm up. The wind would continue to blow all night.
And then, it began to snow. Icy pellets of snow pounded into the tent fly for half the night. I didn’t know what to expect the next morning, or how awful the roads would be. We still had many, many miles of unknown gravel road to get back to Oregon.
We waited for a break in the weather before bursting out of the tent. We moved efficiently to get a fire going, make breakfast and tear down camp. The snow relented enough so that we were only battling the cold and the wind. Only. I admit I was a little grumpy this morning, as I fought with cold hands, a finicky stove, and snow-covered everything.
After getting some cocoa and eggs in my belly I felt a little more human and rallied to pack up the tent and load up the car. The roads were totally driveable, and the whole scene covered with a blanket of fresh snow was nothing short of magical.
My photos do nothing to paint the picture. Thick clouds and filtered sun made everything on camera seem much darker and flatter than they looked in person. Score another point for actually being there instead of living through pictures. You really need to be in a place to truly experience that place. Even if I had a pro photographer documenting this trip, the pictures do little to communicate the wholeness of the experience.
Choose your own adventure
This year I’m signing off with a plea. Go out. Just go. Explore. Find a new special place. Be there, in the moment. Prepare to be astounded. Prepare to be frustrated. Prepare to learn a lot: about yourself, about your travel buddies, about your world.
But here’s the key: prepare. Here are some tips to planning and carrying out your next adventure in the wild unknown:
Do your research. Find out what you can about an area. Buy or borrow guidebooks. Pore over local maps. See what you can locate online. Find recent trip reports, if possible. Or at least look for trip reports around the same time of year you anticipate going on your adventure. A trip to Sheldon in July is going to require different planning than a trip in December.
Anticipate and plan for problems. If you’re heading into the desert, bring more than enough water and an extra can of gas. Have the tools and knowledge to take care of possible car problems on the road. There’s no cell service and no amenities for many, many miles.
Have a plan, and be flexible. Communicate your plan to at least one responsible person back home. Let them know where you’ll be and when. Let them know when you’ll be back in town, and when to sound the alarm if they don’t hear from you. Have a backup plan, or two, in case what you want to do just doesn’t work out. Make sure they know your backup plans, too!
Carry a communication device. I’ve used the SPOT messenger for several years. And while I’ve never had to call for a rescue yet, I know that I’ve got that option if the you-know-what hits the fan. By far the most important feature is that I can check in with my contacts back home to let them know that all is well. They get an email with my GPS location and an “OK” message.
Keep a positive attitude. You know all those epic photos from National Geographic and pro adventure athletes? There’s a lot of pain and suffering behind each one of them. Adventuring off the grid and into the unknown can have its ups and downs. It isn’t a totally blissful experience from start to finish. Stay positive, be ready to be challenged, and face each one with a smile. It’s all part of the experience. You’ll be tired, cold, hot, achy, and irritated. But you’ll also be joyful, curious, exhilarated, and awestruck. And these are the feelings that keep us coming back and pushing the envelope.
Weather window + free day on the calendar = adventure time. Today I decided I wanted to see some snow-capped lava. Since the Old McKenzie Highway was still driveable, I set out for the Scott Trailhead in an attempt to reach Yapoah Crater.
Just getting to the trail head was an adventure. Black ice covered the road west of Dee Wright Observatory, and the road to the trailhead looked more like a swamp than a road. I got out of the car and poked through the water with my hiking poles to see if my little car could make it. Luckily, the water looked much deeper than it actually was, in most spots.
I got to the trail head, crossed the highway, and set off along the very mucky Scott Trail. Parts of the trail were so waterlogged it felt like I was walking up a streambed. And the last thing I needed was soaking wet feet in the first tenth of a mile of a 12 mile hike. I carefully skirted around the worst bits, trying not to crush too much vegetation in my efforts to keep dry feet.
I fell into that comfortable solo hiking rhythm, following a serpentine train of thoughts in my head. As the terrain kept buzzing by, I had that sneaky suspicion that I was off track. How could that be, I thought, since I literally just had to stay on the same trail for miles until I had to make some decisions?
I came up to a trail sign, and that’s when I knew I’d missed a junction. I was headed towards the Obsidian Trail. Ah, crap, turning around always feels bad. How could I have made such a stupid navigational error?
I arrived back at the junction where I should have gone left instead of right and knew exactly why I had missed it.
I had been walking to the right of the creek, and simply kept walking on that side. The Scott trail crosses the creek right here and goes off to the left. There was no sign and you can barely make out a trail over there. Welcome to the joys of shoulder season hiking!
No worries, now that I was on track I could get back to being lost in my head. It was so pretty and quiet. There were lovely little footprints in the snow. Oh hi there bunny rabbit, where were you running off too? And you, little squirrel-y critter…what was your story? And you…. mister…..
Goddammit. Broken out of my reverie once again. The bear tracks continued straight up the trail, and they looked fresh. I broke into a loud song: “HEY BEAR!! HEY THERE BEAR!!! WHERE’S THE BEAR?!!!” I accompanied my melody by clacking my poles together and trying to be as loud as possible. When the tracks retreated downhill, into the forest, I kept up my noisemaking for a little while longer and then settled down.
Ok, now it was time to get down to business, I’d hoped. The trail broke out of the thick trees at a switchback and I got a brief view over the forested hills and snow-covered slopes nearby. Then, the trail returned to the woods where I finally was able to settle into a pace and put some miles behind me.
I’d hiked this trail a couple of times before. Most recently, I’d used it as a return route from a hike up the Obsidian Trail to the Collier Glacier Viewpoint. And several years ago, I’d hiked up to Four-in-One-Cone. But both times it was in summer. The snow cover gave this place a distinctly different feel. It was like hiking on a brand new trail.
Eventually the trail traversed past a crumbly lava wall. This was the part I was looking forward to. The contrast of the sparkly snow on the dark lava rock was quite beautiful. And soon I’d enjoy views towards North Sister.
But here, the walking began to get much more difficult. The snow in the trees was crunchier and much less deep. Out in the open, the snow drifted much higher. A thin crusty film overlaid light, fluffy powder below. Each step I’d lift up my foot as if I was marching, crunch through the top layer of snow all the way to the bottom, then repeat. It was exhausting.
As I slowly proceeded up the trail I could see that the conditions were only going to continue to get more difficult. I had a few more miles to go to Yapoah Crater. I could also see that clouds were moving in, and the weather wasn’t going to hold up forever. With each step I weighed my options, and decided to go for my backup plan: Four-in-One-Cone.
There was a spur trail on the map that led up to the summit. Once I got the peak in eyesight, I decided to just pick my way up there. Way off in the distance I saw something that looked like a signpost, but there was no point trying to stay on trail. Breaking a path up the perfectly smooth and untouched snow slope made me happy.
The snow up there was more wind-blown, so I sought out the thinnest spots where my boots could get some purchase on the cinder. I couldn’t believe I didn’t bring my snowshoes with me today. Stupid. I’d have been halfway between here and Yapoah Crater if I’d have planned better. Oh well, this was a pretty awesome consolation prize.
Once I hit the ridge, a blast of wind hit me and I quickly put on my rainshell before pushing on towards the summit. I walked up to a seriously twisted tree near the top and memories of my last climb up here came flooding back. Now it was a totally different scene: a pristine winter landscape, with an incredible halo above North and Middle Sister.
The view was surreal. And it was so quiet. I hunkered down out of the wind to eat the soup I’d packed for lunch. I took some time to just sit and be there. From my perch I looked out across a vast lava landscape, the one that inspired my Lavapalooza trip last summer. How different it looked back then.
This is the Three Sisters Wilderness. The one that screams of overcrowding and ill-prepared tourism. This is the place that can feel like a complete zoo on a nice, summer weekend. This is that same place, but a different place. On a Wednesday. In October. With not a soul for miles.
You do have to work a little harder to find solitude. You have to be flexible with your schedule. You have to choose the right trail, or choose to go off it. But in about 90% of this wilderness you’d be challenged to find another person sharing space with you. And to me, that little extra effort is 100% worth it. To be here, alone, with the wind and the snow and the bear tracks, is an experience that cannot be found on a hike up South Sister in August.
I killed a decent amount of time up there before deciding to pack up and go. It was a bit sketchy on the way down. I searched for the deepest snow I could to plunge my heels in and feel some security. No Yaktrax today either, so DUMB! Before long I was back at the deep postholes I’d left on the way up, and I dutifully followed them back to the trail.
On the walk out, under the blazing sun, everything was melting. The snow piled up on lava rock was more shiny than sparkly now, and by the time I made it to the woods, snow was pouring down off the tree tops. I put my hood up and moved as quickly as I could. But I got nailed with a couple of massive snow bombs: one right on the top of my head, and one on my forearm. They scared the crap out of me!
But the forest was still beautiful. It got me in the mood for winter. For snowshoeing and climbing and hot cocoa. For long, cold nights huddled around a campfire. For big skies full of stars.
After the hike I stopped by the Dee Wright Observatory at McKenzie Pass. There were several groups of retirees on sightseeing trips, waddling around in the snow. I walked up the stairs to the viewing deck and took in a panoramic view of all of it. All those snow-covered volcanoes. Picking out the ones I hadn’t yet climbed to the top of. Someday, Jefferson. Someday…
Living in Bend has opened up many doors for recreation. Now, Crater Lake is only a 2 hour drive from home. So we sneaked in this last chance opportunity to visit several of the park’s attractions before the north entrance and rim roads are closed up for the winter. Here are the highlights.
11 miles | 1600′ ele. gain | 5:45 | PCT > Union Peak Trail
So many Southern Oregon peaks have been on the edges of my radar, but I haven’t made too much of an effort to get down there. The way Sullivan describes the Union Peak hike in his book makes it sound like one to skip. So I knew we would find some peace and quiet here.
The long approach on the mostly flat PCT would have gone by more quickly if there weren’t so many cool trees to stop and look at. Many of the trees, maybe hemlocks (?), had multiple trunks and interesting features. We had to climb, play, and photograph before moving along.
It was still fall but there was snow up in the hills already. The slog on the PCT was mostly snow-free but once we reached the Union Peak trail we started crunching through the white stuff more often than not. Eventually we popped out in a meadow with a view towards the rocky pinnacle of Union Peak. Finally, we could see what we were in for.
After a snack break, we continued along. As Aaron scouted a nice viewpoint, I had to re-find the trail in an indistinct section. Before long we were starting the switchbacks that climbed up this steep hillside. While the trail sign warned us of “the steepest trail in Southern Oregon!” we enjoyed the nicely graded pathway that clung to the rocky wall.
All along we basked in the bright sun and had endless views of the countryside. In the last 15 feet of the climb, the trail was completely obliterated so we carefully picked our way up in the simplest way possible. The exposure was enough to remind us to really pay attention. The snow on top of the rock made it just slippery enough to feel like an adventure.
From the top, perfect views. Peace. Quiet. The kind unheard of in a National Park. We felt incredibly lucky to be there.
The hike down was just as mindful as the way up, making sure not to slip on the snow-covered rocks. And when we got back to the car, well, we still had some exploring to do!
We were in the southwest corner of the park, so next we hit up the Godfrey Glen Trail. This hike sounded much more interesting than it actually was, and if you’re pressed for time, I’d recommend skipping it altogether. To be fair, it does get close-ish to some cool ash structures, but the viewpoints aren’t great. So you feel like you’re next to something really cool and you can’t quite get a good look. Shocked that this is listed as a wheelchair-accessible trail. You’d better have off-road tires on your wheelchair and a buddy if you want to take this one on. Or maybe there’s a community of badass wheelchair users that I’m just not aware of.
0.8 miles | 150′ ele. gain
On to the next viewpoint hike. This one was fun. And also, comically, rated as wheelchair-accessible. I’d be terrified on some of those slopes. Gosh, maybe I’m just a big weenie? I dunno. This hike climbs up from the parking area to several beautiful views of Crater Lake. Since this one is on the main drag, you will be sharing the trail with lots of characters. Prepare.
You can see the Phantom Ship from this viewpoint, which is pretty amazing. From this viewpoint, it’s hard to imagine that the tallest spire stretches up 200 feet! It looks so tiny.
Phantom Ship Overlook
We kept puttering along, checking out all the viewpoints to find a good spot to watch the sunset. While Aaron was busy capturing the majestic golds, yellows and pinks as the sun dropped behind the lake, I was taking this SWEET photo of our adventure-mobile.
0.8 miles | 10′ ele. gain
Now this is the hike to do to see the ash spires. We went early in the morning, so none of my photos do this hike any justice. You’ll just have to go see for yourself. The easy trail edges right along the top of the canyon, where you can see the impressive towers coming up on both sides. It also gave us an excellent vantage point of Mt. Scott, which we’d take on next.
Mt. Scott is the highest point in Crater Lake National Park, it offers a view of the entire lake, the trailhead is right on the main drive, and it’s less than a 5 mile roundtrip. So as you can imagine, you’ll be sharing this trail with some people.
Actually, most people walk up the trail 20 yards or so, take a picture, and then get back to the car before their lattes get cold. So it’s actually not as bad as you’d expect it to be.
It was a chilly but sunny morning that we headed up to Mt. Scott. The trail was beautiful, crossing a pumice plain and some pockets of forest before making the ascent to the lookout tower. The twisted whitebark pine stood as evidence to the extreme weather conditions the native plants and animals must survive here. The trees were simply gorgeous.
Near the top the forest thinned dramatically and we were exposed to all the wind. The final stretch crossed a ridgetop leading right to a fire tower. There, some hikers were discussing some of the must-see places in the Cascades. We skirted by the conversation, found a quiet spot out of the wind and enjoyed snack time with views of the lake.
I didn’t get to all the points of interest I wanted to see on this trip, but we bought an annual pass to encourage more visits over the next year. There are still a few highpoints in the park I’d like to climb, and the west rim was closed for road repairs. While many online reviews list Crater Lake National Park as a half day trip at the most, I’m excited to spend more time on the ground adventuring around this beautiful landscape.
We spent new year’s just outside of Ashland, with so many new possibilities in Southern Oregon right outside our back door. After much deliberation I settled on Brown Mountain, a peak just across the road from Mt. McLoughlin, and one I’d had my eyes on since hiking a nearby piece of the PCT in 2010.
Our journey began at the Summit Sno-Park, where two other people were just getting their snowshoes on as we pulled in. They set off in the direction of Mt. McLoughlin, and soon we set off in the opposite direction: searching for the road crossing.
According to the summer map, the PCT led south from the parking lot to cross highway 140 and continued south towards the flanks of Brown Mountain. We followed a marked winter trail beneath power lines for a ways, then wandered around a bit with the aid of a map Aaron saved on his phone to find where to cross the road.
The snowplow had basically created a 5 foot tall snow cliff on the side of the road so we chipped away at the sidewall a bit with our trekking poles to make a safe descent. At the same time, we saw the two other snowshoers finding their own way across the road. Guess they realized they went the wrong way out of the lot.
We discovered that our plans were similar. As we paused to take out the map and get our bearings, they set off into the forest.
Since we’re usually the ones putting fresh tracks in the snow, it was a nice change of pace to settle into someone else’s snowshoe tracks and scoot along behind them. We took our time, snapping photos, layering on sunscreen and adjusting layers. It was below freezing in the shade, and the air felt bitterly cold.
As we crossed the lava flow, Aaron noticed a plume of steam rising from the snow ahead of us. What we found was one of several steam vents on the mountain. The snow melted in curious shapes around an open hole in the ground. It was a reminder that we were traveling in volcano country.
Eventually the forest opened up and the bright sun beamed down, warming our cold faces. The trail went in and out of the trees, and eventually our fellow snowshoers’ tracks left the PCT and headed cross-country in the direction of Brown Mountain. We dutifully followed the footprints in the snow.
The pair in front was a guy and a girl. Both had ice axes strapped to their packs. The guy looked like this wasn’t his first rodeo; his partner, on the other hand, came across as a newbie. He cruised ahead, occasionally stopping to look back, leaving her in the dust. Eventually her energy seemed to flag as she was stopping frequently and slowing her pace way down. We passed her, asked how she was doing, and she responded, “It’s going…” with a grin on her face.
As we climbed higher and higher, the landscape became steeper and more open. We had lovely views of the route ahead of us. There was now more sunshine than shade, and the views became prettier with each step. Fewer trees meant more wind, however, so we found a sheltered spot to stop and have lunch before making the final big push up the slope. The girl slogged by as we rested, and while I’m sure she was tired she seemed to be in good spirits. She appreciated walking in tracks. Her partner was taking long strides, and I was taking short and easy steps. Short steps helped me conserve energy and made life a bit easier for those walking behind me.
After refueling, we continued up the mountain. Suddenly, we caught up to the other group as they were headed down. They’d decided to call it a day. I thanked them for breaking so much of the trail and set off into fresh snow. As much as I enjoyed the ease of walking in someone else’s footprints, I lamented the loss of the sense of adventure I feel when walking into untracked terrain. Now I had my chance; with most of the routefinding done for me, I had the opportunity to do my favorite part of the climb on a clean slate of sparkling, white snow. I could hardly contain myself. I checked back frequently to be sure Aaron wasn’t too far behind; I didn’t want to let my excitement drag me away from my partner.
The slope got steeper and I paused to remember the snowshoeing fatality I’d read about just yesterday. While I was pretty sure I was not crossing avalanche terrain, the possibility messed with my head a little bit as I carefully trudged up the steepest sections of the mountain. In some places the snow just slid out from under me as my snowshoes struggled to gain traction. I was glad to have my poles to help climb over the worst of the obstacles, and breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the softly undulating summit plateau.
At the false summit, we could see a couple of other points on the horizon that looked higher than our present location, so we summoned up the willpower necessary to keep going. We skirted around a couple of steam vents and followed some mystery ski tracks into a stand of trees that brought us out to a high point on the other side. Just beyond another tree stand, I saw another point that was probably a few feet higher than where I was. But, I knew Aaron was tired. When he crested the last hill, I announced, “we’re here!” And, pointing to what was most likely the true summit, said with certainty, “That doesn’t look higher than this point, right?” We called it good, sent our SPOT message home, and quickly took off back down the mountain.
The descent always takes so much less time than the ascent. We made it through the worst bit pretty quickly, then it was smooth sailing down the wide open snowfields on the way back to the trail. We talked a bit about how snowshoe trips are analogous to life. Yes, the top of the mountain looks impossibly far away when you first set out, but if you set lots of intermediate goals and just keep taking one step at a time, you ultimately get there. The key is to make a plan and then stick with the plan, even if it feels really tough or it takes longer than you thought it would.
If more people figured that out, I’d be unemployed.
As we mused about these life lessons, the miles passed by. Soon we were back at the PCT and could hear traffic on the road. Going down the sloped snow wall on the south side of the road was easy, but going up the sheer snow face on the north side was tough. We chipped some foot holds into the sidewall and Aaron gave me a boost from behind to climb on top of the snow. He had to work a bit harder to make a nicer stepping platform for himself to get on top, too.
As we walked back on the winter trail that led to the parking lot, we passed a handful of people out sledding down the tiny hill behind the parking lot. Seemed like a long ways from anywhere to sled down a really boring hill. But, to each his own. At least they were outside having fun, just like we were. It was a nice end to another spectacular day in the mountains. I hope this sets the tone for an adventure-filled 2016.
Since 2009, Thanksgiving weekend was an excuse to bail out of social engagements for a few days and retreat into the forest. For six years, I hosted this personal retreat at a cabin in the Willamette National Forest. But this year I decided to do things a little differently. Looking for solitude, we pushed eastward and headed toward the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge.
The long road
We broke up the drive and camped at Marster Springs Campground outside of Paisley. The road was very snowy and it was a miracle that we could actually drive to the campground in the car. We set up camp in the dark, ate a quick meal and turned in for the night.
We woke up and looked at the frozen thermometer: it was a few degrees below zero. The air was frigid, and we only began to feel human again once the sun crested over the nearby peaks.
On we drove, taking a quick stop at the Warner Wetlands to use the restroom and practice some handstands. You go a little loopy sitting in a car that long. Then began the long and winding ascent up to the Hart Mountain plateau, until we eventually crested the top of it and chose a campsite.
It felt like such a treat to set up camp in the middle of the day. The sun felt warm, we could see without the aid of a headlamp, and we had lots of space to spread out. We dug out some paths in the snow, set up the tent and kitchen area, changed clothes, and greeted our chukar neighbors. Then, we scoped out the hot springs and took a little walk around the camp area before it was time to make dinner.
Thanksgiving dinner is a spectacle, whether I’m in the city or the backcountry. I had 2 pots, a skillet, a camp stove and a fire pit. It was time to get to work. I strategically warmed up our feast, which included:
turkey (white and dark meat)
mashed carrots and parsnips
bread and butter
cranberry sauce (jellied and whole berry)
I’d like to say we savored each bite, but it was so damn cold outside we wolfed it down and ran over to the hot springs. We even left most of the dishes for the morning.
The hot springs was magical. We sat and soaked, watching the nearly full moon rise over the stone walls of our little enclosure. The water temperature was perfect. The worst part was getting back out. Emerging from a hot pool, water dripping down your skin, entering the -20 degree air was an experience I hope never to repeat again. We toweled off and jogged back to our campsite, where we dove into the tent and settled in for a cold night.
We slept in, waiting for rays of sun to reach our camp. While making breakfast I encountered some fun new barriers: all of our food was frozen solid. Eggs crystallized as they came out of the shell (if they hadn’t frozen through already). I had a tough time keeping my pancake batter fluid. These were serious problems that I was kind of glad to have. I enjoy the challenges of making camp life tolerable in below freezing temps.
We got off to a late start for our big hike. At 10:30, we finally stepped out of camp ready for an adventure. The last time I’d hiked Warner Peak was on a hot and mosquito-infested day in July several years ago. The challenges then were much different than the difficulties we faced today.
Instead of following the bushwhack suggested in the Sullivan guide, we walked up Barnhardi road two miles to Barnhardi basin. From there we followed a path to the cabin and had a snack. The air was cold, but the bright sun warmed our skin and contributed to a pretty comfortable hiking temperature. The snow on the ground was light and fluffy, but it was already starting to make walking a bit difficult, especially where it formed deep drifts.
From the cabin we made our way up a thickly vegetated gully towards the ridge. This was slow going. It was walking uphill, through the snow, with loads of roots, branches and other traps buried out of sight. Eventually we crossed the stream and wandered up the other side of the gully, ridge in our view. On paper, the mileage looked really short and do-able. On the ground, however, it felt as if we were moving at a snail’s pace. The late start made us feel even more like slackers. The sun had already crested and we had miles of uphill travel to go. At one point, Aaron asked me to set a turn-around time. I had summit fever, so I estimated a time that would get us back to the road before dark. “3 pm,” I said, ” and that’s conservative.” The last part was to make sure that Aaron would agree and not spend too much time overthinking the math.
As we trudged along the ridge, each little up and down was like torture. A slight breeze began to blow, ominously foreboding a very cold night ahead. We reached the last false summit and caught a glimpse of our prize: a concrete building with some sort of antennae on top, like Mt. Defiance or Marys Peak. Aaron put his foot down here, convinced it was still too far. I glanced at the time: 2:15. “We’ll be there in 30 minutes at the latest. We can do this.”
As is often the case, that last hill looked way bigger than it actually was and we were on top in less than 15 minutes. We ducked behind the concrete building to get out of the wind, bundled up and got the heck out of there. Now, it was a race against the sun.
Much of the hike back was in the shade, and it was savagely cold. The hand warmers I’d opened up at breakfast time were beginning to lose their heat. We trucked downhill as fast as we could. It took a little over an hour to hike the 3 miles back to the cabin and another hour or so to get back to camp. It’s amazing how much ground you can cover when you’re going downhill and scrambling to generate heat.
By far, the highlight of the day was the incredible sunset we saw as we walked down the snowy road to camp. I stopped dead in my tracks to look up and take it all in. The pictures don’t even come close to capturing the beauty of that sunset. It was a fleeting, top ten moment, that made the late start totally worthwhile.
A couple short hikes
In the morning I came up with the best camp breakfast ever: cast-iron scrambled eggs and meat stuffing over a hot campfire. After breakfast, we were fired up to break camp and start making our way back towards civilization. As we were packing up, we both took off our down jackets and looked at each other as if to say “ugh, it’s really warming up out here!” The temperature: 18 degrees. How quickly one adapts to life below freezing.
We drove out to the visitor’s center to use the heated bathroom. A curious coyote came out to say hello, and then we went on our way. Partway down the road, we stopped to hike a 0.5 mile interpretive trail on the edge of the rim. The sunshine was brilliant and the air was so still. It’s amazing that such quiet places still exist in the world.
Further down the road we pulled off to hike DeGarmo Canyon, which was listed in a hiking brochure we picked up at the refuge. The road was unmarked and split into a few other roads, leading to some confusion and false starts. We eventually hiked to the mouth of what we thought was the right canyon. But there were no signs of a trail. We were thwarted by snow-covered slabs and thick trees choking off any reasonable path up the canyon, so we turned right back around. But our time wasn’t wasted; we watched a massive golden eagle fly gracefully along the dramatic rock formations in front of us. We again marveled at the open space and quiet, then jogged back to the car. Did I mention it was cold?
After a wholly disappointing stay at the Summer Lake Hot Springs, we started the long trek home. On the way, we stopped to stretch the legs at Hole-in-the-Ground, a volcanic crater somewhat near Fort Rock. Aaron read his book in the car while I bounded down the steep, snow-covered trail to the bottom of the big hole. I followed a couple of sets of human tracks, and then deer tracks, and then no tracks to the large, flat basin in the center of the hole. The sun illuminated the landscape, making the snow sparkle. It was a worthy stop, much unlike the less dramatic Big Hole (skip it).
And alas, our weekend of adventures came to a close. The one thing I really wanted was solitude, and we found it. As cities continue to grow and spill into our natural spaces it gets harder and harder to get away. But for now, there are many special places left in Eastern Oregon that only the most determined traveler will make the effort to visit. Especially when temperatures drop into the minus double digits.
I can’t believe this is my first trip report for Iron Mountain. Located conveniently on Highway 20, with easy access to an incredible wildflower display in spring and summer, Iron Mountain is by far the most popular stop for hikers traveling through the South Santiam River Corridor. Even Portlanders have heard of Iron Mountain. Coming from Corvallis, this is a pretty standard hike for me, and I’ve been on these trails several times since moving here.
But today would be an unusual visit to Iron Mountain. The flowers have long since disappeared, and the large parking area at the trailhead sat completely empty. It was a dreary November Tuesday with hardly any visibility and a lousy weather forecast. Most fair-weather hikers have hung up their boots for the year and have settled in to wait for spring.
This was precisely my best opportunity to pounce on a popular trail, and today I would not be disappointed.
The first half a mile of trail descended to a small meadow just below the noisy highway. The slick mud made for an attention-getting start to the hike. After crossing a small creek on a bridge, the trail led up to the highway for the first of two road crossings (the most dangerous parts of the hike). Then, the trail switchbacked through the forest to rock outcrops and meadows below Cone Peak.
This was the part I’d been looking forward to. Much of the forest floor and tree branches had a light coating of snow from recent snowfall, and it looked like more would be dropping down today. As I proceeded up to the awesome vistas on the south flank of the mountain, I spun around to appreciate not endless views of the rugged landscape, but instead a snow-frosted wonderland enclosed by a dense fog. It was incredibly quiet; the road noise had faded away. Tiny snow flakes drifted down from the sky. Winter had arrived.
I plucked myself out of the mesmerized state I found myself in and continued traipsing along the trail. Some parts were quite narrow and eroded, prime locations for some trail work next year. As the trail left the meadow it dropped back into the woods. Now on the northwest side of Iron Mountain, I could feel the winds blowing from the west and sending snowflakes right into my cold face. I pulled my sleeves down tighter over my hands and kept charging down the trail.
Once at the junction with Iron Mountain trail, I set off on the last climb of the day, gaining over 500′ of elevation to reach the wooden platform on the summit. Walking uphill is a very efficient way to stay warm, so I appreciated the opportunity to keep going without having to add another layer. Icicles formed on the exposed rock beneath the summit. Visibility dropped significantly, and as I continued up I began to get really excited about dreaming up some winter adventures. Surely there would be snow this year.
At the top, an inch or two of solid snow covered the platform and all the interpretive signs. I ducked behind a stubby tree to sit and eat my lunch out of the wind. It was incredible to feel the cold air on my face after an endless summer of warm weather hiking.
On the way down, it was all business as I moved quickly to stay warm and get back to the car. The weather was continuing to deteriorate and I’d seen this all before, anyways. The best was behind me, so now it was time for some cardio conditioning.
I crossed the road once more and reached the junction with the Santiam Wagon Road, which read 1.0 mile to Tombstone Pass. I looked at my watch and started jogging down the trail. I had a lasagna to make tonight. Arriving at the car 9 minutes later, I decided the sign was inaccurate.
According to William Sullivan’s guide, that last stretch of trail is only 0.6 miles, which seems much more likely considering my pace and time. (Don’t trust those FS signs!)
The mountains are saying it’s winter! I’m ready for it. Time to dust off the traction devices, break out the big puffy coats, hats and gloves. I’m so much in love with hiking in Oregon.
Ever since I’d read the first trip report of someone hiking to the top of South Sister in time to catch the sunrise, I’d had this trip on my to-do list. The thought of having the scenic advantages of being camped on top without having to lug all my overnight gear up there was very tempting. And so, at 11 pm on a Friday night, I set off on my quest.
It was 55 degrees out and the air was still. My headlamp afforded me a good 20 feet or so of visibility before fading into an inky abyss. I knew the trail well, and even under the darkness of night it was rather obvious. So many people hike this mountain every year, there’s a freeway packed into the earth. Well, at least on this part of the hike.
I was told to hike slowly to modulate my temperature and avoid sweating. But I don’t think I traveled any slower than normal. I was in a tee-shirt and light pants, and was sweating like crazy because of my gaiters.
In an hour I reached treeline, the first view of South Sister. I could barely make out a shape on the horizon that was slightly darker than the night sky. That was my mountain.
I wandered ahead, crossed the plateau, briefly distracted by two pairs of reflective patches that looked like eyes. Deer, maybe, or sasquatch. Whatever they were, they weren’t moving, so I kept on walking. It’s amazing the stories you can dream up when you’re alone in the dark for hours on end.
I began climbing again, this time on the shattered, gray rocks that lead up to the Lewis Glacier. This is where the trail became braided. I anticipated this, and kept looking for the cairns reinforced with tall, ghostly tree limbs. This worked great until I reached the end of the cairns. I knew there was a small rock outcrop to the left that I needed to skirt around, so I cheated to the right a bit…too far.
As I continued climbing, I knew I’d gotten off track but I figured I would stumble back onto the route soon enough. Instead, I kept walking up and up an increasingly steep slope that forced me up on a ridge with steep drop-offs in every direction. At the top of this feature, I stopped to assess where I was.
The lack of visibility put me at a huge disadvantage, but I had a map, compass and the GPS track that was running on my phone. After poking around a bit and using the tools I had to approximate where I was, I caught a very faint reflection of what I knew was the lake at the foot of Lewis Glacier. Bingo.
I scrambled back down the narrow ridge to the lake. Back on track, I sent a check-in SPOT message and took an extended snack break.
The wind began to pick up. I was way ahead of schedule so I packed on some layers and started walking, hoping that the extra clothes would force me to slow down. One foot in front of the other, I marched ahead on that final push to the crater rim. From the top, it was an easy traverse over to the rock pile marking the summit.
It was only 3:45 am and darker than ever.
I put on my big down jacket, hat, gloves and rain pants. I crawled into my light bivy sack that isn’t much more than a reinforced emergency blanket, and hunkered down until sunrise. I wished I would have brought a foam pad for comfort and warmth. I closed my eyes, but only got a few minutes of sleep here and there. The wind was blowing just hard enough to be annoying but not freezing.
At last, the giant headlamp in the sky began to shine. It was just after 6 am. I’d never paid attention to how much a production the sunrise really is. Chilly and bored from having sat around for hours at 10,000′ I was amped up to keep walking. I poked around a bit, looking for good angles to look at the scenery without being too exposed to the wind. A half an hour later, I gave in and packed up to go.
I walked counter-clockwise around the summit rim, taking lots of pictures the whole way around. It’s a beautiful route that few people bother to take. There were only a few spots that were a little sketchier than walking on the climb route, and easily navigable if you’re paying attention. From the other side of the crater, there were changing views of Middle and North Sister, and you could see down the rugged north side of South Sister. Looking back at the summit area, I saw one person emerge from an orange tent and walk out to enjoy the same views I was having.
I slowly progressed along the rim, savoring the changing colors of sunrise. In one spot, what appeared to be rock was actually scree-covered ice, so I took a nice little tumble and whacked my knee. I chose a route on higher ground and got back to my circumnavigation.
As I wrapped up my circular route I saw another person sitting at the edge of the crater and prepared myself for the onslaught of humanity I was about to encounter.
On my way down I had to explain to several groups that, no, I didn’t camp up there and yes, I hiked alone. There was the usual parade of archetypes trudging up the mountain. I’m always fascinated with the broad cross-section of people that make the pilgrimage up Oregon’s third highest peak. Matching shirt and fitness tights babe, REI-from-head-to-toe guy, bouncy youth group with tired leader in the back, grizzled old dudes, boyfriend carrying the backpack for girlfriend couple, these are all frequent fliers up here. But I was surprised to encounter a new character: guy hiking with a duffel bag in his hand. If I’d have seen him in any other context I’d be tempted to report him as suspicious.
But none of that bothered me much. I was thrilled to be on my way down as the temperatures climbed up. Predicted to be in the 90’s that day; no thanks. I enjoyed seeing the scenery that I’d missed in the night. First, the fire red cinder bursting with color in the early sunlight. The dirty glacier and associated lake, plus the hill I’d inadvertently ascended on my night hike. Then, the dusty gray expanse snaking down to the broad plateau. The sky was hazy from nearby wildfires, so views of the surrounding peaks were obscured. Along the plateau, plants began to re-emerge. Tiny groundcover plants, prepared for the coming winter, lay flat against the earth, while rugged trees stood twisted and stubborn, anchored in for any kind of weather.
It was, and always is, a stunningly beautiful landscape. It’s a no-brainer why this area sees so much visitation.
I got back to the parking lot 2.5 hours after starting my descent. The parking lot was positively overflowing with cars. I wonder when this area will get a permit system. Seems like only a matter of time. I couldn’t believe how many people were starting their hike well after sunrise. It would be interesting to see what percent of hikers actually make it to their destination.
Another adventure in the books, another hike checked off the to-do list. Strangely, no matter how many I cross off the list, it doesn’t seem to get any shorter… I’ll be heading back to this mountain at the end of September with a group of (mostly) first-timers. It will be so much fun to experience the mountain through fresh eyes; I am thrilled to accompany each of them on this trip.
As for my next solo adventure, well, I’ve got some ideas.
I planned this summertime getaway for the Mazamas as a way to get people further afield from their usual hiking spots. And, as an excuse to skip town for several days and get lots of miles in on and off the trails. The Central Oregon Cascades is such a magical place to me, and I was happy to share it with some adventurous hikers on this car-camping trip.
Black Crater Trail to summit and back | 7.8 miles | 2500′ ele. gain
I met up with a few folks at the Scott Lake Campground the night before our first hike. It served as a lovely base camp to explore the nearby trails. We watched the sun set over Scott Lake, then headed off to bed. In the morning, with fog rising off the lake surface, we were treated to yet another scenic view as we packed up for the day’s hike.
Our trip began with a trip up one of my favorite trails to the beautiful summit of Black Crater. Today I was joined by Lauren, Karl and Amy. We enjoyed the shady hike up through the trees on this warm, summer day. The trail climbed up and up the dry, dusty trail until breaking into the open near the top. As we ascended the pebbly lava we were amazed by the grand views of the Sisters beyond the gnarled and twisted trees. We snaked along the trail until reaching the blocky summit, then scrambled up to sit on top.
The views from the top were spectacular; it’s one of the most expansive viewpoints in the Central Oregon Cascades. We were in no rush to get back, so we lingered up there for a while as we ate our lunch. On our return hike, we passed a surprising number of people on their way up for a Thursday afternoon.
Lava River Trail
On the drive back to the campground, Amy and I stopped off at McKenzie Pass to peer across the mountain viewfinder and stroll along the paved, half-mile Lava River Trail. This trail was dotted with interpretive signs that described the natural history, human history and geologic story of the lava field. From this vantage point we could clearly see Black Crater (where we had just been) as well as Little Belknap and Belknap Craters, our two destinations on the next day’s hike.
Belknap and Little Belknap Crater
PCT > side trails to Little Belknap and Belknap Craters | 8 miles | 1650′ ele. gain
Amy left our group to head back to civilization and we were joined by Anna, so our group was back to four again. We began this hike from the PCT trailhead not far from McKenzie Pass. It was another bright, hot and sunny day so we prepared for the onslaught of the summer sun. This stretch of trail went straight through a huge lava field with few opportunities to duck into the shade. Once we passed the few small, tree islands, we were out on the lava for good.
A couple of thru-hikers heading the other direction were well-prepared for the summer sun; they hiked with very reflective, silver umbrellas.
Our first destination was Little Belknap Crater. There was an official signpost directing us to a spur that lead to its summit. Along the trail were a handful of small caves. After exploring the caves and the summit, we returned briefly to the PCT and continue towards the bigger of the two Belknaps.
Although described as a faint user trail in the Sullivan Guide, the route leading to the top of Belknap was very obvious and easy to follow. The mountain looked daunting from the sandy plateau beneath it, but before long we were cresting the summit ridge and sitting in the breeze on the top of the crater. From there we could easily see Mt. Washington and several other highpoints in the area.
The hike out went much faster than the hike in, and we encountered many more colorful characters on our return trip. At the trailhead, we ran into two thru-hikers from down under who were out of water and were clearly in desperate need for snacks. We were happy to share our food and water with them since we were heading back to camp. They chatted and devoured our simple offerings and we went on our way. There was another delightful evening at camp with freshly made ice cream, a hearty dinner and good conversation as we headed into the weekend.
Scott Mountain to Hand Lake
Benson Lake Trail > Scott Mtn Trail > Scotty Way Trail > Hand Lake Trail > lava crossing > back to Hand Lake Trail | 10 miles | 1300′ ele. gain
A few other hikers joined our group for this trek, bringing our total up to 7. I was really excited to show off this hike, since I’d done it a year ago and I knew how much interesting variety there was to see.
We began right from the trailhead at our campground and began walking towards Benson Lake, our first landmark. At the lake’s edge, we stopped to take photos of the gorgeous blue water filling the lake. In such a dry year, it was extraordinary to see such a picture-perfect view of deep blue water.
Next, we headed to Tenas Lakes and took a short side trip to the banks of the first lake. There were people camping right on the lake shore (poor form), so we looked around a little and then kept walking. Our next stop was Scott Mountain. This would be the highpoint of the hike. We followed the trail as it climbed in a spiral, through forest, meadow and lava, to the partially wooded summit. There were a fair number of groups there and several more would arrive as we ate our lunch. It felt a bit too zoo-like to me. So I was glad to head out into the less frequently traveled portion of the hike.
From Scott Mountain we headed east along the Scotty Way trail, taking us towards Hand Lake. This crossed a large burn. Charred tree trunks and fireweed provided the backdrop for much of this hike. The elevation gain was negligible, so we casually walked along and enjoyed the scenery.
As we turned towards Hand Lake we began to approach the edge of the lava flow. We looked carefully for the entrance to the old wagon road, which was very clearly marked with a huge cairn. So much for adventure.
On the other side of the lava, we walked towards the lake. And kept walking, and walking…the lake was completely dried up! In its place was a basin full of dry, caked mud. It was a very different scene the last time I was here, when it was shallow but swimmable, and a nice reprieve from the hot afternoon sun.
With just a mile and a half to go to camp, we continued on at a comfortable pace. I looked forward to another big dinner and an even bigger hike day on deck.
Obsidian Trail to Collier Glacier Viewpoint
Obsidian Trail > PCT > > Viewpoint Spur > Scott Trail | 17.3 miles | 1300′ ele. gain
It’s days like this one that I really appreciate having a strong team.
It all began with securing permits for the Obsidian Trail. I’d never hiked this stretch of trail before, because there are permits required, and I usually don’t bother with that sort of business. But, this was a special trip, planned well in advance, so I picked up some permits and was happy to cover some new ground.
Our group was back to five people on this cloudy Sunday morning. We started up the Obsidian Trail, weaving our way across the undulating lava field. Pockets of forest provided some shelter and blocked us in from the epic views we’d enjoyed on the first half of the trip.
It was still quite beautiful, with obsidian shards glistening alongside the trail and the occasional foreboding view of the clouds through the trees. We romped across meadows, lava rocks and dry forest. We noted a random memorial embedded into a stone and Obsidian Falls along the trail. We then turned onto the PCT and took a lunch break at a clearing soon after. It was there that we faced a big decision.
Option 1: Stick to the original plan. Turn left in a quarter mile and complete the 12-mile Obsidian Loop, or
Option 2: Continue on the PCT to Opie Dildock Pass and return via the Scott Lake trail, adding another 4-ish miles. I don’t remember if that was my idea or Karl’s idea, or both.
I smiled as the group agreed to take Option 2, so we loaded our packs back up and hunkered down for the long haul.
This next section was by far my favorite stretch of hiking in the entire weekend. The landscape was indescribably alien and beautiful. The looming clouds gave the environment a mysterious air as we walked through the volcanic landscape. Streams trickled through the grass and lava rocks. Views of the massive lava walls and bleach-white trees clinging to the rock surrounded us. The trail crossed a stark and barren landscape as it led towards the pass.
Eventually we got a peek at Middle Sister to our right. A dusty spur trail led even closer; we decided to take it. Trudging up another hill covered in loose rock, we reached its highpoint above Collier Glacier and stood in stunned silence. The glacial meltwater at the foot of the ice looked like a pool of chocolate fondue. The mountain rose up dramatically from the mounds of lava rock near the glacier. We celebrated our victory with a few squares of chocolate bars, but we knew we still had a lot of walking to do.
On the other side of the pass, we walked through yet another picturesque meadow before reaching the junction with the Scott Trail. Most of the hikers were driving back home tonight, so we cranked out the miles as quickly as we could. We reached the parking lot around 5:30, where we changed into comfy shoes and the group parted ways. Karl and I drove into Sisters to have someone else cook us dinner before retiring to camp.
PCT > N Matthieu Lake Trail > Scott Pass Trail > Trout Creek Tie Trail > Millican Crater Trail > off-trail to summit and back | 8 miles | 1500′ ele. gain
The last hike on the planned agenda was an easy 6-mile jaunt to Matthieu Lakes. I chose this hike in order to give people an easy day before driving back home. But, I had no takers on this hike so I was free to make my own plans. I was curious about this hike but not too inspired by 6 flat miles. I noticed a bump on the map named Millican Crater that looked accessible from the nearby trail system. The weather looked good, so it was a go.
I got started around 8:30 and zipped up the PCT to try and beat the heat. I passed a few thru-hikers on the trail, the only trail that gets much use around here. I was in a hurry to get out into the wilderness.
The lakes were small and drab, and under a gray sky looked even less impressive. I was glad these wouldn’t be the highlight of the trip. Beyond the lakes, the trail climbed up to a pass, which was streaked with red rock and dotted with yellow flowers. A light breeze completed the experience and gave me some encouragement to travel on to parts unknown.
The Tie Trail led down several switchbacks through the forest to a lower plateau and the Millican Crater Trail. This trail, unfortunately, traverses underneath the crater and not up to it. So I walked along the trail as far as it seemed necessary and scouted a route up the side of the hill. The hillside began as a mellow slope, as do many volcanic craters in this area, but it quickly became steeper and looser as I climbed. It was also choked with dense manzanita in some parts, that made uphill progress get rather challenging. Despite the obstacles, I headed up into the blazing sun to a false summit. From there it was a short stretch to the top of the hill, which was marked with a rocky cairn. I couldn’t find a register or anything but it was clear that I was not the first to step atop this summit.
It felt so nice to be out in the wild for real. No people, no sounds, no distraction. I could have stayed up there forever.
And so ended the first group camping trip that I organized. Minus a few speed bumps and issues, I’d say it was pretty much a success. I met some wonderful people, had lots of fun on the trails and in camp, and ventured out to some new places. Now, where to go next year?