December 22, 2006.
Paulina Peak is located within Newberry National Volcanic Monument, about 30 minutes south of Bend, Oregon.
In summer, Paulina Peak (7984′) is supposedly a walk-up. A drive-up, even, as the road goes straight to the summit. Winter is a different game, however, and it would be a round trip of 12 miles from the Sno-Park to reach the top. I hadn’t reached a summit in awhile so I figured I was about due.
At 8:45 I left my car behind with just one other at the 10-Mile Sno-Park. Today I had a map so I was ready to get moving and cover some real miles. I followed the well marked Ponderosa Rim xc ski trail 3 miles to the Lodge. There was hardly any snow on the ground and it was obviously well traveled so I didn’t bother with snowshoes for the first half mile or so. Walking here was monotonous. There were no views, the forest wasn’t all that pretty, and the snow was packed. There weren’t any cool animal signs, no little streams, no birds singing, nothing. I heard snowmobiles zooming around nearby and that was my wilderness experience. Soon I came across some restrooms and a snowed in parking area. A sign directed me to Paulina Falls.
Now finally I had something to get excited about. The falls were very pretty in the mid-morning sun. Ice glistened from the rocks and here, it seemed, the birds were starting to wake up. The stream rolled by and the forest just felt more inviting. Okay, what next?
I followed the snowmobile road to the lodge and wandered around to get a look at the maze of intersections and trail signs. None of the hiking trails were packed down so they were nearly impossible to find. After I oriented myself with map and compass I followed a snowmobile road that paralleled the hiker route for the first mile of the 3 mile ascent of the mountain. After a quick walk to the split I had a choice: follow the road, which was longer, but would be a very clear route to the top, or try to follow the trail, which was shorter, but wasn’t marked at all. The hike had been so boring today I decided to take the adventurous route and break out the trail.
For the first few tenths of a mile, the path was pretty easy to follow through the woods. It skirted the western edge of a bowl that made up the ridge to the top. At some point, the trail veered inward from the bowl but I stayed close to the edge to keep my bearings. That put me in a position of climbing some steep, slippery snow fields close to the very steep drops into the bowl. I could see what I figured was the summit of Paulina Peak very clearly, so with my eyes on the prize I suffered up the hill.
As I ascended, I thought there was no way in hell I was going back on this same route. One slip would leave me tumbling down the face of the ridge. But going down a different route could get me lost…
It didn’t matter much because the forest began to loosen its grip and spit me out onto some open fields illuminated by the bright, warm sun. Its glorious heat warmed me inside and out, and the indescribably awesome feeling of climbing a mountain pushed me further. I might not get to the top, but I’ll keep going til my 12:00 turnaround time 🙂
I reached one rocky spire, soaked in the views, and searched for something higher. There were bumps all over the top of this thing, which one was the summit? I scrutinized the map, trying to pinpoint my location and scouting out where a road might come in. I pressed on to another rocky outcrop and was again denied. But I stopped here for a few minutes to check the place out. Paulina Lake and East Lake lay below, with the snow-covered Big Obsidian Flow in plain view. Out to the Northwest, Mt. Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Three-Fingered Jack, Broken Top, Washington, and others I’m sure, dominated the horizon. The sky was blue and wind-free. The snow looked so strange, sparkling in the sunlight like fake glittery snow in the mall. There were no other signs of life up here, and it felt like I was on top of the world. Summit or no summit, this was my peak for the day.
It was noon. In a last ditch effort, I took a quick detour to investigate another bump and retreated when I found there was nothing there. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I just had to follow the ridge another tenth of a mile or so to find it. That’s okay. It was more important that I had time to find my way down and still have time to get to the High Desert Museum. After the views disappeared I left my old snowshoe prints behind and steered WNW hoping to possibly find the real route, and if not, a better way back to the road. A worst case scenario would lead me back to the road too soon, since the trail was bordered by the bowl on one side and the road on the other. There was really no way to get hopelessly lost.
Nevertheless, I gripped my map tightly and checked my compass often. Descent on the steep slopes went much quicker than coming up, and just when I thought I might be heading too far west, I came across the road. I picked it up at a pretty good spot, right before a bunch of sharp turns, so I could easily locate myself on the map. Not too bad for a map-and-compass rookie.
The rest of the hike was cake, since it was packed down all along the road and the 3 mile-long xc ski trail leading to my car. At the lodge, I encountered some snowmobilers and said hello. One more quick look at the falls brought a surprise: some dudes ice climbing. I soon lost interest in them since the climber was moving slow. But, these were the only folks I saw out there all day. What a wonderful experience. I just hope no poor fools ended up following my lousy route up the peak 🙂
It took only 2 hours to hike back to my car from the “top”; that was plenty of time to drive back to Bend and hit the museum before it closed. The following day, I took my last sightseeing stop at Smith Rock. It was a rainy, cold, windy, miserable morning so I took 2 pictures and went back to the warm car. After that I drove through rain, freezing rain, slush, and yuck for hours before reaching Portland and crashing in my apartment.
All in all, this was one incredible journey. Can’t wait for my next vacation!