August 5-10, 2015.
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.
View all the photos in the Lavapalooza album.
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
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
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
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.
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?