In my quest to tick off the summits in Barbara Bond’s “75 Scrambles in Oregon” book, I organized a Cascades Mountaineers outing to Diablo Peak.
A sudden case of norovirus (tip: never, ever, get norovirus) knocked me on my butt the night before the hike, so I had to cancel it. Undeterred, I decided to reschedule, but it would have to wait for cooler fall weather.
And so our team of seven set out from Bend at 7:30 am for the 2-hour drive to the middle of nowhere. Following the excellent directions from Bond’s book we arrived to a particular dirt road on BLM land that would serve as our trailhead.
It was a sunny day that could only get warmer. I was thrilled to be starting the hike in short sleeves in what was practically November. Our cheery crew had a delightful 2-mile walk across the “sand dunes” to the base of the first hill. We picked our way up the hill, dropped down to an old jeep road and carried on hiking up a wash.
The desert was warm, dry, and quiet. There was hardly a sign of human activity, save for the occasional bootprint. Most of the tracks and droppings were left by animals. We used the GPS waypoints and route description to navigate towards the summit (which we couldn’t see yet).
The sun was absolutely roasting. This was not the best day to try out my new pair of black hiking pants. I was sweating like crazy. But the scenery was magnificent and the companionship was quite lovely, so the sweat I’d just have to deal with.
Across the wash, up some rolling sagebrush slopes and to a lunch spot. We were getting pretty hungry. The group paused to sit on some rocks, wolf down some food and chat about the weather. Such a nice day, have I mentioned that yet?
We picked our way up to what appeared to be the top of the rim and then, finally, we could see our peak. Across a broad, flat plain there was a little bump: Diablo Peak.
The route description mentioned scrambling up the “south ridge,” but that ridge turned out to be a fairly broad hillside. Not very ridgy. Pretty, though. The Diablo Rim was impressive, with deep grooves carved out of its east-facing side. The desert lay sprawled out in front of us, in all directions. We could see the massive Winter Rim, Summer Lake, Hart Mountain and lots of brown, featureless landscape in between. The scale was hard to wrap my head around. Fortunately, all we had to do now was gaze out at the vista, soak up the sunlight and eat Mystery Oreos. It was turning out to be a pretty killer day.
On the way back, I handed over the reins to a couple of team members so they could practice their navigation skills. They did a pretty good job of keeping us on track. At points of confusion a few people shared ideas until they came up with a plan. I really enjoy having team members who want to be part of the process, not just show up and follow the leader.
The afternoon sun really highlighted the texture on the old dunes. We stopped several times to admire the changing shadows, bumps, lines and ridges on the ground beneath our feet.
After the hike we took a 30-minute detour to Summer Lake Hot Springs for a soak. It was pretty packed, but we all squeezed into the main pool and even sneaked over to the outdoor pools once the crowds began to head out. What a fantastic way to end a day of hiking.
We said goodbye to four team members and three of us stayed behind to enjoy some camping and Sunday shenanigans. I checked Diablo off my list, but I’d do it again. It’s remoteness and quiet appeal to my need for solitude while hiking. I’d be curious to go back up in the spring to see the desert in bloom.
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.
This winter has been something else. Planning trips has been challenging due to the snow conditions on the roads and the trails. Plus, I’m still adjusting to my new home and figuring out where to go locally. Today’s trek brought me and a friend to Clear Lake, Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls. Looking through my maps and guidebooks, I patched together a route I thought would go.
We parked at the Ikenick Sno-Park and crossed the highway to the Clear Lake Resort. I knew there was a trail that went all the way around the lake. We decided to head south, along the lake’s western shore, to join up with the McKenzie River trail. There were only a few glimpses of the lake from the trail, which was somewhat disappointing. When we reached the southern outlet of the lake we picked up the new trail, crossed the road and headed towards the waterfalls.
A wooden footbridge crossed the McKenzie River. Snow was piled on top of the bridge to the height of the handrails. We moved carefully across on our snowshoes to the other side. This is where the real adventure began. The tracks all but disappeared and we set off in a dense, dark forest along the river. The snow covered the trail so we were sidehilling on a slippery surface, with drop-offs down to the raging river.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we made it to Carmen Reservoir. The footing was much more gentle and flat here. And on this side of the river the trail was broken out. At least we did the difficult half first. We ambled along the river, stopping to enjoy the tremendous views of the river and falls. Sahalie Falls was particularly memorable. The cold air had transformed the waterfall spray into magical ice formations. Frozen drops of water clung to the needles in the trees. Layers of frozen snow created abstract shapes near the river. It was a movie-set landscape, too good to be true. It was a nice place to stop and have some food. What a pretty sight.
We followed the trail back to Clear Lake. Suddenly, it wasn’t so clear where to go. We had to find the other segment of the trail, the part that went along the eastern shore. Wandering around, we stumbled across a sign and set off on the lake’s edge. This side of the trail was much more scenic than the other side. There were beautiful viewpoints over the lake. Neuron-like shapes were frozen into the lake’s surface. The air was so quiet.
As we wrapped around the north side of the lake, there was again a bit of confusion. Where would we cross the creeks? Were there bridges? Signs? Did we miss something? Would we have to cross on our own?
No, we just had to keep walking for another 5 minutes or so. The trail was right there.
On the final stretch back to the resort we came across two people taking a short jaunt from the cabin. We knew we were close then!
Winter presents its challenges, but not without its rewards. The extra hard work, uncertainty and routefinding enabled us to see a unique landscape covered in snow and ice. And solitude at Clear Lake? Unheard of. I won’t be back this summer, but perhaps I’ll venture out here the next time we’re in a deep freeze.
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.
On a cold and blustery day, I headed south to North Bank Ranch. It’s hike #1 in William Sullivan’s 100 Hikes in Southern Oregon (the purple book). I followed the directions for the 6.9-mile loop. Not a soul to be seen all day.
At the trailhead, I was greeted by an unusual sign on a rusty barrel: “NBHMA DEER KIDNEY SAMPLES.” Awesome! I hoped it wasn’t deer season. Funny, seeing as how this was set aside as a preserve for deer. Lure them in and then shoot them, I guess. I don’t know how this hunting thing works.
The hike began through meadows surrounded by oak trees. The open meadows offered no protection from the strong winds blowing across the landscape. They did, however, provide dramatic views over the green, grassy hills. The air was thick with clouds and drizzle. Beads of water coated everything in sight, including my glasses. So much for sight.
I climbed up and over South Knob, then Middle Knob, which were just bumps on a ridge. Then I descended into a forest. The trail followed an old road, which was very muddy and rutted. I slipped and slid downhill, my boots and outerwear completely soaked. The vegetation was pretty. So much green! Moss, Oregon Grape, other stuff I couldn’t identify. There was some old farm equipment positioned just so along the trail. And a cute little stream: Chasm Creek, which had water today but was noted as seasonal.
The weather was far from perfect, but I had a nice little walk in solitude, with a beautiful backdrop and some real spring conditions. Not a bad way to spend a day, even if it did involve lots of driving!
Today’s adventure included Spencer Butte, among other things. Spencer Butte is something of a Eugene landmark, crawling with visitors from sunrise to sunset. But it’s a short trail to the top and I wanted something more. I pulled into the Blanton Ridge Trailhead after 2:30 pm to start my hike from there.
I followed the gorgeous and nearly empty Ridgeline Trail towards Spencer Butte, reveling in mid-day sunshine and pretty green leaves all around me. The trail was well-defined and obviously well-loved, muddy in places but totally passable. I cruised along the ridgeline, passing by a sign indicating the summit of the trail, then descending towards the Willamette Street trailhead. A short road walk and road crossing brought me to the east side of the trail and the gentle climb up the north ridge of the butte. I could tell when I was approaching the closer trailheads because I started to hear and see people. Ah, well, the solitude wasn’t going to last forever.
The summit felt like a bit of a zoo but it was nice up there. Thunder clouds loomed in the distance and I was grateful that they were way over there. Still, I wanted to get back in a dry state so after a brief but enjoyable mountaintop respite I headed back down.
I savored the views of a handful of early spring wildflowers as well as the cool-looking fungi clinging to the trees. Lichen draped off of every oak branch. It was a delightful spring day. As the sun fell closer and closer to the horizon, I reached my car around 5:15 pm. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon in Eugene.
I had been trying to lead hikes for the Mazamas from lowly Corvallis. It was only kind of working. I started out choosing locations that were somewhat mutually convenient to Portlanders and those of us in the valley. But these places soon ran out and I focused instead on leading things I wanted to do. Thus, I landed on the Brandenburg Loop for an easy snowshoe.
My two takers were people I’d met through my business endeavors and fun ladies, to boot. We took off on a gray and dreary day from the Ray Benson Sno Park, which already had several vehicles parked there (including some school buses!).
We snowshoed on tracked out, packed snow, following the South Loop route. About halfway through the loop we reached the Brandenburg Shelter, a three-sided wooden warming hut with a wood stove. It was still stocked up with wood so we made a fire and settled in for lunch.
We retreated back to the parking lot, wondering what everyone who’d parked at the lot was doing, as we hardly saw anyone along the trail. Perhaps they were on snowmobiles. Yuck.
I didn’t attract the big crowds for this one but it would be a bit of a haul from Portland to do this mediocre snowshoe route. I’ll have to get creative in planning future hikes from Corvallis.