Wind. Rain. Angry seas. Oh yes, it was time for a trip to the coast.
The Oregon Coast is an interesting place. It’s not a place to put on a bikini and spread out your towel for a day of sunbathing. Growing up in Rhode Island, that’s what I thought the beach was for. Building sandcastles. Splashing in the waves. Running around in a bathing suit (unless the people were packed in sardine-tight). But here, the place where the ocean meets the land is different. It’s not the beach. It’s the coast. There are beaches, yes, but the atmosphere among beach-goers is quite different. There’s usually fleece, rubber boots and jackets involved. There are sneaker waves and killer logs and other death traps. The coast is a beautifully forbidding place. And it really hits its stride during storm season.
We booked a room with ocean views in Newport and then made the drive out there. After checking in and putting a bottle of bubbly wine on ice, we donned our weather barriers and set out on a walk downtown.
I felt like the Gorton Fisherman in my yellow rain slicker. I covered every inch of skin I could with gloves, hat, rain pants, waterproof shoes, etc. It was wet and very, very windy. A delightful afternoon for a walk.
We wandered along the waterfront and picked up some food to make for dinner back at the hotel. Fresh seafood and veggies!
During the evening we watched the rain pour sideways into our window and listened to the wind try to blow the place down. It was so awesome.
The next morning, we took a nice stroll on the beach. The waves came in fast and frothy. There weren’t too many people out and about. Once we got ourselves organized and out of there, we drove to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. I wonder what it takes to get that “outstanding” designation?
The wind was absolutely ripping. I could hardly stand up when it gusted. Watching the wind blow across the puddles on the ground was insane. I’d never seen anything move that fast.
We parked at the interpretive center and walked to the black pebble beach, then out to the lighthouse. Waves crashed far offshore. There would be no lighthouse tour today, but we had plenty to keep ourselves occupied. There was hardly a soul around, except for the people watching it all from the comfort of their vehicles.
The final stop was Salal Hill. A short, narrow trail took us up to the top of a very densely vegetated viewpoint. At least all the plants were small, so visibility was excellent. I was grateful to be wearing glasses as a shield from the wind and rain.
Hardly any of my pictures were salvageable because of the huge rain droplets on my camera lens. Trust me, it was stormy out there.
Pro tip: When visiting the Oregon Coast, always bring a spare set of dry clothes that lives in the car!
Cascadia State Park to Cascadia Cave (private) | 2 miles | negligible elevation gain
Cascadia Cave is a culturally significant site along the South Santiam River that has some of the oldest rock art, or petroglyphs, in the Pacific Northwest. I felt fortunate that I was able to go on one of the few public tours of the site offered each year. Led by archaeologist Tony Farque of the Sweet Home Ranger district, this all-day adventure was jam-packed with fascinating stories from Native American mythology, descriptions of found artifacts, and evolving theories of what the cave was used for in past millennia.
The tour began in Cascadia State Park, a lovely little park right off highway 20 in the town of the same name. We all gathered around a picnic table displaying artifacts and replicas of items used by the native Kalapuya Indians. Tony explained that the Kalapuya were known as the “medicine people.” They made use of the diverse plant species found in the Willamette Valley and Cascade foothills to concoct treatments for what ailed their people.
The plants also served as rich sources of food, although the nutrition was not always all that easy to extract. Huckleberries were gathered, not by hand, but with rakes that scraped berries and leaves off of the bushes. Berries were then sorted and dried before being carried back to camp. To render camas bulbs edible, for example, the Kalapuya built huge ovens in which to steam the bulbs for 72 hours. The camas bulbs were also mashed, mixed with dried fruits, seeds, and insects, and made into biscuits and cakes, which could then be used to trade for other items.
Other forms of currency included obsidian, beads, and tightly woven baskets. We looked at the array of crafted items on the table: obsidian knives, medicine grinding stones, antler tools, and strings of tiny shells. I imagined the skill and patience it required for each of these items to be created by hand.
After the introduction, we walked up the River Trail. The Kalapuya similarly used this area as a travel corridor, an ancient Highway 20 of sorts, and it looked much different in the past than it does today. According to Tony, the Kalapuya managed the land by using fire. Instead of weaving their way through a dense forest, they burned down the vegetation along travel corridors, permitting people to move more easily.
Potholes in South Santiam River
We stopped along the river at a section with many exposed rocks and potholes. This was a great spot for catching salmon. Salmon played a huge role in the lives of the native people all across the Northwest. Elaborate ceremonies were held to ensure the salmon’s return in the coming year. But today, we looked at the pretty rocks for a few minutes and turned to continue walking upriver.
Old Douglas Fir
Along the way to the cave, Tony pointed out some of the oldest trees in the park. One, just along the left side of the trail, was about 9′ in diameter and is an estimated 850 years old. As we continued, we learned of the many ways the native people used the Western Redcedar. The bark could be used to make clothing, bedding, mats, waterproof hats and ties. The wood was used to build canoes, homes and weaponry. Redcedar was also used for medicinal purposes.
At some point down the trail, we crossed the park boundary and walked onto private property. Cascadia Cave sits on land owned by the Hill family and managed by a timber company. Currently the only way to legally visit the cave is with a tour guide. Plans are now underway to turn the property over to public entities, including state and local government and Indian tribes. These groups intend to create a new community forest, providing opportunities for recreation, timber harvest and cave restoration. The most recent news story I can find about the proposal is here. You need a login in order to read the story, unless you locate Google’s cache of the web page. To summarize, people are still talking details and nothing certain is set. Unfortunately, efforts to restore and protect the cave for the future cannot begin until the land is in the public’s hands.
Cascadia Cave Tour
We reached the cave at noon. We all dropped our packs, found a seat and took out lunch. Tony continued to enrich the experience by telling stories of the changing interpretations of the cave’s significance over time. Experts, shamans, native people, and ordinary visitors each made great contributions to the body of knowledge regarding the cave. The first non-native visitors to the cave were artifact collectors in the late 1800’s, who took many of the precious remaining bits of stoneware, tools, and other items from the soil at the base of the cave. Collection of artifacts was the fashionable thing to do back then, and many of the discoveries were removed to private homes and lost to history. The floor of the cave as it stands today is three feet lower than that of the original cave, due to the hordes of people excavating dirt to find buried treasures. In the early to mid 1900’s, archaeologists explored the cave and attempted to document the rock carvings by drawing pictures and publishing their findings. Later teams would discover more and more secrets hidden in the rock wall. To this day, much is debated about the significance of the figures etched permanently into the wall.
We took a look for ourselves, surveying the massive zigzag lines that ran horizontally across the cave. Some other petroglyphs were easy to see—bear prints, rows of vertical lines, human faces made of holes, and a wide array of symbols representing male and female genitalia. Others were more subtle, and had to be pointed out. I could vaguely see feathers, salmon, and other shapes if I really used my imagination. As a rational thinker, the wild interpretations of some of the imagery felt a bit far-fetched. But, I was no expert.
Petroglyphs at Cascadia Cave
Scientists in the past applied paint to make the bear prints more visible
Switching gears, Tony shared stories from Kalapuya folklore and suggested some possible ways they may have used the Cascadia Cave site. Was it a rest stop along a riverside highway? A place of trade and commerce? Or was it a place of spiritual significance? What did the clues tell us? Each new story had the crowd more and more convinced that THAT was the true meaning of the place. There were clearly numerous ways to interpret the evidence. He asked us to imagine this spot where we were sitting as it once was, when the native people managed the land. Instead of a lush, dense forest, it would have been a clear meadow, burnt out to permit easy passage. Then, Cascadia Cave (more like a slight overhang) could have formed the headstone of a giant amphitheater. With a shaman leading ceremonies at the cave mouth, hundreds of others would have filled the meadow, drumming, dancing, and singing. This site could have held significance to the Kalapuya as the link from the physical world to the metaphysical world.
Of course, that’s one way to look at it. The most astonishing bit of information Tony left for the end of the presentation. That nugget tied much of the folklore, academic findings, and recent inferences together. What was it? Well, you’ll just have to take the tour to find out.
Learn more about upcoming tours at Cascadia Cave and elsewhere in the Willamette National Forest at recreation.gov.
When I returned to my car after a quick stop in the store, someone had broken my passenger door lock and stolen almost everything I had in my car: over $4,000 worth of gear that I’d accumulated over many years of traveling in the mountains. After carefully adding up the costs of lost gear and repairs to my car door, minus a negligible amount covered by insurance, I need $3900 to be back where I was before the thief targeted my property.
The story began in April, as always, on the day the Mazama climb schedule came out. I eagerly flipped through the pages, highlighting what climbs I deemed the most interesting and worth blocking time out of my schedule for. I have a few criteria: a leader I know and trust, a limited total number of climbers, and some out of the way destination or unusual link-up. This climb had all three. I would climb with a man known and beloved by many, with a great big smile and awesome attitude. I would climb in a small group of 6, and I would be heading up to a mountain that struck me down, twice, just a few years ago. This was going to be a great trip.
All summer, I worked. Yes, starting a new business in a relatively new town sucked up a good majority of my time. I didn’t have as many opportunities as I would have liked to go out hiking and climbing, training for the big trip. Oh well, I thought, the adrenaline alone will push me through.
The week before, I began preparing. I’d tested out a brand new climbing pack on a shorter hike. I started making and dehydrating meals I could bring back to life at camp. I began laying out the wide array of gear I’d need for this trek: snow climbing gear, rock climbing gear, warm clothes, lots of food, emergency equipment, a bivy sack and tent (since I wasn’t sure what I’d bring), my camera, and many other items. Spending 5 days in the alpine, far from the civilized world, means you need a lot of stuff. The varied climbing terrain also ensured I couldn’t get away with carrying a light pack.
The morning before leaving to meet my carpool, I stuffed it all into my backpack, threw a few creature comforts in my car for the first night of camping, and drove up to Portland. I made a quick stop at REI just a couple hours before meeting my carpool to grab some last minute items.
When I got back to the car, this scenario unfolded: my door was unlocked, which was weird, and I looked over into the passenger seat. My bag of snacks and clothes was gone. Quickly, I looked into the back, and my multi-day pack, tent, sleeping bag and small day-pack were gone. Slamming the car door, I ran to the passenger side and noticed the lock was neatly punched out. Metal bits were strewn across the floor. This was no amateur. Someone had his strategy mapped out long before and I was not the first victim.
I blasted down the stairwell and into REI, looking around frantically for an employee who wasn’t busy. Yeah, right. As I marched down the aisle, a man in a black T-shirt asked if I needed any help. He did work there, and he was heading home. He kindly brought me to the front of the store and tried to summon a manager or other help. This took forever. In the meantime I got on the phone with the police and, choking back tears, tried to get some help.
“We can’t send an officer down for that, do you have Internet access?”
No, I asked if there was some other way. The operator said she’d have an officer call me back, which was way more comforting than getting on a computer to file my report.
The Response from REI
But this took some time, so I waited up front at REI for a bit and talked to a manager. She was also not very helpful. Let me paraphrase the message I received from both REI workers: “Oh yeah this happens to our employees all the time. Theft has been up lately, so we put up some signs. It would cost $50,000 to have security in the garage, so, you know…” I know? Really! Yes, I do think 50K (if in fact that is the cost) is a perfectly reasonable amount to pay for security for a company who sells high end outdoor gear. Even if they threw some GoPro cameras up in the corners or had an employee walk the lot every day, I bet they could nail some of the people that are cruising the lot for free goodies. There’s one way in and out of the garage, how hard could it be to provide security? This nonchalant attitude towards their own employees and customers getting ripped off made me sick to my stomach.
Taken: rock climbing gear, memories
My trip was canceled for the whole team. The financial investment I’d made in my gear–some of it, gear designed to last a lifetime, was gone. Not to mention all the little things I’d worked on myself: the homemade meals, personalized first aid kit, time-tested clothing system, and the painstakingly researched purchases. Poof. The value of these items to me far exceeded the money paid at the time of purchase. To replace these items with brand new stuff would be much more expensive. I waited for discounts, scrimped and saved for what I had, and upgraded to the nicer stuff once I used borrowed gear and thrift store finds for years. Besides, the memories of the red #1 cam holding my first lead fall, the nights spent curled up in my fluffy down bag, and the hundreds of trips my beat up, old green RidgeRest has been on made these things even more precious. I didn’t need shiny new things, as the old gear was holding up just fine.
The Insurance: Adding Insult to Injury
“At least your insurance will cover it,” many people said, in an effort to console me. Yes, I’d purchased renters insurance several years ago after reading other people’s stories of car break ins and theft. I told the agent when I took the insurance out that this was the point, I wanted to protect my belongings left in the car when out hiking, climbing, traveling, etc and I have to leave things behind unguarded. I had my car broken into once before, while parked at a trailhead in the Gorge, but luckily I left nothing of significant monetary value in the car.
So imagine my surprise when talking to the friendly insurance adjuster on the phone who said, well you’re insured for $13,000 and 10% of that value if the property is out of your home, so that’s $1,300. Plus you have a $500 deductible.
This is where I kind of stopped listening and the anger deep within my soul began rising to the surface again.
So after all this, being “covered” by insurance, and I only get a maximum of $800? Not to mention, there were damages to my car as well, and THAT has a separate $500 deductible, bringing my net intake to $300 paid to me from insurance. I’m not going to do the math and calculate all the insurance payments I’ve made in my lifetime, but I can guarantee that’s far more than $300. Whew, good thing I paid for that renters policy.
Here’s what I know. I feel angry. I feel like I’ve been wronged by several entities in many different ways. I feel like I did the best I could to acquire and protect my property, and those efforts were not enough.
#1: Most people are amazing. Here’s the part of the story I haven’t told yet. Within hours of getting the word out that my gear was stolen, people from all parts of my life were reaching out to me asking how they could help. Lending gear, donating gear, lending money, donating money, or offering emotional support. Everyone rallied, including people in my life I haven’t heard from in a while and even complete strangers. It was, and continues to be, unbelievable. I am deeply humbled by the number of people expressing concern, sympathy and anger right along with me.
#2: REI needs to take action. If a company is in the business of selling expensive items and said company is fully aware that these items are being stolen from employees and customers at their location, and they refuse to do anything to handle the problem, they’re not doing good business. Boy, that was the most civil way I could put that. I’m looking at you, REI, and know that this is not over. Things need to change. I will absolutely not be replacing my stolen gear by going back and shopping at REI. And I will work to ensure that no more shoppers have to endure this nightmare.
#3: Know what your insurance covers or don’t get it at all. I’d like to think I’m a smart shopper. I don’t spend money freely, and when I do spend money, I make damn sure I’m getting what I need. So it was a shock to learn that my insurance coverage was absolutely not what I thought it was. If anyone has any tips on choosing an honest insurance company, send them my way. From what I’ve heard, most people are pretty unhappy with their insurance once they actually have to file a claim.
#4: Don’t ever leave gear visible, even for 30 minutes. If thieves have their eye on a sweet parking lot/garage where they know there’s no security, you’re a target. Last minute stops at REI? Avoid them. Buy things in advance or shop online if you can. If you forget something, I guess you’re out of luck unless you’re driving with someone and they can stay in the car. I don’t know what to suggest for road-trips where you’re taking multiple short stops and you have to leave stuff in the car, except if you have a trunk or car-top box, stash items out of sight.
If you’ve been the victim of theft, please feel free to share how you recovered in the comments below.
If you can help me send the message to REI that they need to improve security for their employees and customers, please contact me now.
If my story resonates with you and you want to throw in a few bucks to help me gear up again, check out my donations page here:
Most of the year, the trek up Black Butte is pretty short and straightforward. When there’s snow on the ground, it’s another story. Fortunately for us there hadn’t been too much new snowfall, so the ground was really well packed down. Nonetheless, we prepared for a long day of hiking.
In an attempt to shave off some mileage, we turned up road 1110 towards the trailhead to see how far we could drive before the snow got too deep. The answer: not too far. It took us probably just as long to extract the car and get it pointed downhill again as it would have taken to just walk up from the base of Green Ridge Road 11. Oh well.
Snowshoes on and loads of food stashed in our packs, we marched up the long road that winds up to the “start” of the Black Butte hike. It was chilly in the shade of the trees, but the knowledge that we’d eventually break out from beneath the evergreens brought warmth to my bones.
After about three miles, we reached the trail head, where the sun had melted away much of the snow covering the start of the trail. Interesting. The trees parted slightly here, allowing some bright light to reach the ground at my feet. It was lovely. Here we began the fun part of the hike.
The snow quickly returned as we continued up the trail. The sun felt hotter now as it was higher in the sky and the shade trees were less overbearing. We stripped down some extra layers and began taking more water breaks. Slowly and steadily we made our way up the trail as it traversed across the wide slopes of Black Butte. Once the trail took a sharp bend around the other side I knew we were getting close.
It was here we lost the trail and decided to head straight up the invitingly smooth snow slopes. The trees here were recovering from a fire; the charred, black remains of scattered tree trunks made an eerily beautiful backdrop for this magnificent day. Once the fire tower was in clear sight, we set a straight trajectory for its base. Little did we know, the trail would have taken us far across the other side of Black Butte’s summit area.
Near the fire tower we dropped our packs and enjoyed a ridiculously good pizza party while savoring the views of all the Central Oregon volcanoes. The sun was blinding, and we had to dust off our sunglasses and sunscreen to survive the intense conditions on this treacherous alpine summit. For the next hour and a half we wandered around, taking pictures and savoring the experience. We walked over to the actual touristy summit area, where the old cupola stands. There, we could see as far north as Mt. Adams! What a day.
Eventually we packed up to make the return trek. Despite there being lots of footprints up the road and along the trail, we hadn’t seen another human today so far, which was nice. We made it almost back to the trail head before coming across a group of three ladies and a dog, who said they hoped they didn’t block our car in with theirs. Thanks.
The walk out along the road was knee-jarringly dull, but it was totally worthwhile considering that the rest of the day had earned a high rating on the awesome scale. Just before reaching the car we passed another couple walking their dog, and then it was home free. Although there were three vehicles parked at the base of road 1110, we were able to sneak the car out through a gap that wasn’t too badly snowed in. Sheesh. Who parks straight across the base of a road with fresh tracks leading up it?
I highly recommend snowshoeing up Black Butte, especially in packed snow, as a decent way to spend a day on the trails. It’s not quite as challenging as its reputation, but it will make you put in some effort for the summit.
My friend Sue and I headed west for the Coast to take advantage of some rare, nice-weather days on the ocean. We made a quick stop at Devil’s Churn/Cape Perpetua to stretch our legs and make some lunch. The water was crashing quite dramatically on the rocky shoreline, and the barren rocks were awfully inviting for some exploration. We wandered carefully along the exposed rocks, watching the waves come in and keeping a safe distance. All sorts of tourists who’d just tumbled out of their cars for a quick walk were gathered at various spots near the water. It was not really our type of crowd, so we ate up and returned to the road.
Next stop: downtown Florence. Here, we cruised through the art galleries and shops, hoping to find a spectacular bargain. But alas, no amazing deals or unique treasures grabbed our attention. Anyways, it was a decent way to kill an hour.
Onward to do what we’d come out here for: hiking! We had just enough time to run out to Carter Lake Dunes.
Surprise! Carter Lake Dunes
This 3 mile roundtrip hike with negligible elevation gain would be perfect for enjoying the last couple hours of daylight. We walked through the mellow, open sand dunes and into the coastal forest. I was somewhat surprised to find a section of flooded trail that we could not walk around without getting totally soaked. I remembered another trip to the dunes in which I had to take my socks and shoes off to complete a short section of trail just before reaching the beach. I figured this was just par for the course in the winter at the Oregon Coast. So, we took our socks and shoes off and splashed through the cold, cold water.
The difference between this trip and my previous trip was that the flooded trail section was quickly followed by another, and another… and then the water started getting deep.
It was so deep that we hiked our pants up as far as they could go–just above the knee–before they just couldn’t squeeze up over our thighs. By this point my feet and lower legs had gone completely numb, as if they’d been injected with Novocaine.
At last we reached the final sand hill that promised to lead us to the loud, vast ocean on the other side. Woo hoo! It was beautiful, and we had the place all to ourselves. Only an idiot would have come this far. Oh, I don’t know why Sue puts up with this stuff.
The sun was bright and warm. We kept our shoes off and traveled across the sand for as long as we could, dreading the return trip through the frigid water. On the way back we took our pants off for an easier crossing. It felt much shorter and less painful on the way back; perhaps our bodies were more prepared this time.
We camped at a state park campground that night. We were the only people there, save for the camp host. It was quiet and peaceful. We planned our dunes assault for the next day.
Tahkenitch Dunes and Threemile Lake
Today we thought we’d start out with a 6-mile loop that would take us through forest and dunes to an aptly named three-mile long lake. I’d done this hike before, but in the summertime. I really hoped we wouldn’t encounter high water today.
Our hike began after a leisurely breakfast and chat by the campfire. About 30 minutes of walking through the sand brought us to an enclosed path crowded by dense, coastal shrubbery. An odd, painted and carved sign on the path gave us a general overview of where we were relative to the Pacific Ocean, which we probably could have figured out on our own. From the sign, we followed the trail as it snaked through grassy dunes and thick, short trees. Eventually we began catching sight of the aforementioned ocean and many random user paths spidered out in all directions from the main trail. We followed what appeared to be the “right way” to the beach, but it abruptly dead-ended at the top of a sand cliff.
Much to my surprise, Sue pushed ahead of me and leaped, gazelle-like, down the vertical edge and landed in a crumpled pile on the sand. Sweet! I approached much more tentatively and dug my heels in to try and produce a softer landing. In the end it was much less death-defying than it looked from the top. I was sure glad we decided to do the loop in this direction instead of the other way around :).
We walked along the beach, watching the birds as they darted around the sand, avoiding the incoming, frothy waves and rushing out towards the water as each wave receded. But then the trail took us back across the dunes and low-growing plants towards Threemile Lake. It was here we sat down to enjoy lunch before finishing the loop.
The only way to get to and from the lake was by going down a steep sand dune. There was hardly a nice place to sit at the lake, as the water came right up to the edge of the slope. But we were out of the wind and the view across the lake was pretty gorgeous.
The remainder of the trail was in the woods. The coastal forest was lush, green, and lovely. In some places, the trees competed for space with the sand dune, and a slow-motion battle was being waged between the green and the taupe.
Wide Open Spaces
With half the day remaining, we hit 101 and headed to the Umpqua Dunes. I remembered these dunes as being really impressive, conjuring up images of vast deserts in faraway lands, like the Sahara desert, or a dramatic movie set at least. I was very excited to return, and curious what the water levels would be like on the trails near the beach.
For over a mile, we made our own path up and down the massive sand dunes, keeping the blue-painted posts far off to our right. The air was chilly today, and a steady breeze made sure we kept moving towards our destination.
Once across the dunes, we picked up a trail that took an abrupt 90 degree turn to the right as it first paralleled the tree line, then made another abrupt turn towards the ocean. This trail was almost completely flooded. We walked alongside the trail for awhile, until it became impossible to avoid the high water, then did the inevitable: we took our shoes and socks off.
The water was shockingly cold and the trail seemed to go on forever. Fortunately, a nice boardwalk had been erected that kept our chilled toes out of the water. Then, it suddenly ended and launched us back underwater for a bit until we finally reached the sand. Ugh.
We looked cautiously up at the thick blanket of gray that had been closing in on us the whole afternoon. Just a tiny porthole of sunlight remained. I was sure we’d get rained on while walking back.
After exploring the beach, we retraced our path straight back to the dunes. At the 90 degree bend, we kept our shoes off and instead launched straight out into the sand dunes, angling towards the posts so we could retrace our steps back to the trailhead. Along the way I rescued a lost Swiss Army Knife. We explored some ponds, raced down some steep sand piles, and checked out the hardy plant life. The wind was really blowing now, as captured in this video.
We made it back to the car without feeling a drop of rain, but our camp was soaked all night long.
To the Lighthouse
Before driving back to the valley, we made one last stop: Heceta Head. William Sullivan describes a 6-mile loop in the coast hiking book that stars from Washburne State Park; that was our plan for the morning.
The start of the hike is a 1.5 mile or so walk along a wide, flat beach. We were in luck: it was t-shirt weather and the sun was shining extra brightly that day. There was even a patch of rocks corralling small tidepools that were teeming with life. We had to go check those out.
We ambled along, cowering in the intense sun, until we ducked into the woods and picked up the Hobbit Trail. This lovely trail rises a few hundred feet through a mystical coastal forest. Sun beams shone down through breaks in the canopy and sedge lined some sections of the muddy trail. We gawked at all the big trees as we slid and sloshed along in the mud.
Once we reached the lighthouse, we had some snacks and talked to the park volunteer. The lighthouse was undergoing renovation so we couldn’t get very close to it. Reluctantly, we left the sun and walked back into the woods. It was a no-brainer: we wouldn’t finish the loop by completing the entire trail through the forest to get to the car. Instead, we retraced our steps on the Hobbit Trail to get another mile and a half of glorious, sunny beach walking.
It was a wonderful way to bring Winter Break to an end. The coast is a quiet and peaceful place to visit in the winter when most tourists don’t bother going, and those who do don’t stray more than a couple hundred yards from their cars and lattes. Thanks to Sue for helping to make this trip happen!
It was the last wake-up for our trip. Sadness. I knew I had to prepare a big, filling breakfast, because we’d be snow-slogging through fresh stuff up at the pass again today. So I lovingly prepared what Aaron called “gruel” as he began to break down camp.
The “gruel” consisted of polenta, almond milk, butter and pumpkin puree, topped with chopped Macadamia nuts and maple-flavored agave syrup. HELLO! Most people eat instant oatmeal straight out of the packets on winter camping trips. This was four-star dining here.
As we drove towards Santiam Pass and checked the time, we decided we had just a couple hours to play in the snow. We decided to park at the Potato Hill Sno-Park and set our sights on the treacherous and feared summit of Potato Hill. I mean, come on, they couldn’t have come up with a slightly more intimidating name?
Big, fluffy snow flakes poured down on top of us as we geared up for this last snowshoe hike. We headed out in knee-deep fresh stuff, each step feeling as strenuous as ten. Progress was slow. We traded positions frequently and stopped for water and snack breaks as needed. About an hour and a half of walking brought us only marginally closer to the bigtime summit of Potato Hill. In an attempt to get on top of something, Aaron pointed to the closest bump and we headed up there. That would be our turnaround point of the day. The wind blew a little more steadily up here and the snow continued to fall. Standing around made us cold fast so we took our pictures and got going quickly.
One Potato, Two Potato
We turned back and trudged along our broken path back to the car. We made it back to the Sno-Park at our predetermined return time, 2pm. We happily swallowed some homemade cookies and brownies as a reward for the day’s hard work. We watched as long trains of cars driving 10 mph dragged along highway 20. Meanwhile, a guy in a massive pickup truck rolled down his window to ask how deep the snow was, and if he could drive down into the Sno-Park safely. One quick look at our low-clearance Subaru should have given him the answer, but alas, I think inclement weather dampens everyone’s IQ.
As we exited the Sno-Park and started driving west, I smiled in satisfaction. Another wonderful road trip was under my belt. How soon is Spring Break?
This trip had been an exercise in bending time and space. With no regular access to a clock, we paid little attention to time and hardly cared to power up a cell phone to check. The days were so short, we could roughly estimate the time based on where the sun was in the sky: morning, lunchtime-ish, or uh-oh it’s getting darker.
So we got up sometime in the morning with the intention of starting a fire and having a nice breakfast. I’d planned out every meal for this trip and today’s lineup included bacon, eggs and fruit. Much to my surprise, I awoke to find a thin layer of water at the bottom of the cooler and all of my food frozen solid. While Aaron nurtured a roaring fire, I fought with prying frozen eggs out of their shells. Yes, frozen eggs. In all my experience winter camping this was a first for me. I mixed some partially frozen almond milk into the egg slurry to try and bring it back to an egg-like consistency. Meanwhile, I was also preparing to fry up some bacon. I got a cast iron pan hot on the propane stove, then tossed in the bacon. Surprise #2: the bacon almost immediately burned and left little fat behind in the pan. It was as if the frozen fat just vaporized, leaving blackened chunks of burnt meat behind in the pan. Rats.
To salvage the bacon I quickly put all the “cooked” strips into a foil pouch and tossed it near the fire to keep it warm while I fixed the rest of breakfast.
I kept all the grease in the pan, then poured in the frozen egg mixture. The eggs cooked nicely and absorbed all of that tasty bacon fat. Yum. At the same time I worked on peeling oranges with a sharp knife, then cutting the— you guessed it— frozen oranges into bite-sized segments.
Once the eggs were cooked, I unwrapped my bacon pouch and, voila, perfectly cooked bacon! I was floored. Bacon, eggs, orange-cicles and containers of yogurt made for a wickedly delicious and belly-warming treat. With that, we were ready to take on the day.
After packing up camp we hit the road for a few hours and stopped at the Oregon Badlands Wilderness just outside of Bend. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since my guidebooks didn’t cover it and the website was, predictably, useless. We chose a short 3 mile loop, since daylight was already running short and we still had a bit of exploratory driving to do to find our last camp.
Our loop began at the Flatiron Rock Trailhead. We started up the Ancient Juniper Trail, following hordes of human and dog prints along a wide trail leading through the relatively flat, sagebrush-studded landscape. We stopped to admire the many large and twisted juniper trees. There were fewer cool rock formations than I’d expected. Maybe we chose the least scenic trail of the bunch. It was no matter, it just felt nice to feel the cold air on my face and get my legs moving. It was very cold and windy, as most of the trip had been, and the wide open plains offered no refuge from either.
About 2 miles into the hike we turned on to the Flatiron Rock Trail, which led straight back to the car. Although we saw a few folks with their dogs at the trailhead, we never came across any hikers on our loop. While it was a pretty place to walk, there was nothing all too special about the park. Perhaps with more time or in another season I could come to appreciate the Oregon Badlands more.
I didn’t have a solid plan for camping tonight. I’d hoped that one of the Badlands Trailheads would offer up some easy camping, but being so close to the road and so close to Bend it felt really overrun with people. Huge, fancy ranch houses loomed over wide fields just outside the boundary of the wilderness. It would have felt like camping in someone’s backyard. So we decided to zip through Bend and head south on 97 to hit a Forest Road to camp away from civilization.
Ironically, we ended up pulling into a sweet camping spot just barely off route 97 (we could see taillights through the trees) just before the snow got too deep to drive through. Although the wind swirled intently down the road and howled through the treetops, our spot was calm and protected from the wind. Aaron made quick work of getting a fire started while I set up the rest of camp.
We still had a lot of wood to burn so we made it a mission to have a raging fire this evening. We powered through a big dinner, tasty S’mores and refreshing beverages while continuously feeding fuel into the hungry fire. What a great last night of camping!
It was finally time to get down to business. Today promised to be a long day of hiking. Based on the snow level at camp last night, I knew we’d be wading through snow all day today. I chose a summer hike that held some potential for winter exploration, but I had little idea of what to expect.
We drove towards the McClellan Mountain Trailhead with the ambitious goal of hiking to McClellan Mountain and the more practical goal of reaching Fields Peak. Since we didn’t roll out of camp until 10am or so, I ratcheted down our plan to get as close to the summit of Fields Peak as possible.
We parked the car at a bend in the road where the snow began to deepen and the grade of the road ticked up a notch. Here we packed up and bundled up for a cold day. The sun was shining and the snow was light under our feet. We began walking uphill in the snow, aided by snowshoes. In less than an hour we reached the actual trailhead. I guessed the road walk added about 2 miles and a couple hundred vertical feet, round-trip, to our 4.6 mile, 1850′ elevation gain hike.
The Revised Trailhead
The trail was very easy to follow even under the snow. Aaron and I took turns breaking trail as we walked in and out of the trees. The desert forest was open and sunny, with views of the surrounding valleys and ridges at several points of the hike. Once we started getting views of big mountains ahead, I began getting excited about the prospect of reaching a summit.
The first real view of what looked like a mountain ended up being Moore Mountain, which was not on the day’s to-do list. I was pretty disappointed. Moore Mountain’s bare, white flanks glistened in the sunshine and just beckoned for exploration. But, I wanted today to be a success and I thought that Fields Peak was our best bet.
It’s Just Moore Mountain
We continued along the trail, watching the trees get smaller and more twisted, as anticipation started to build. I’ve always enjoyed the excitement that comes from leaving the comfort and safety of the trees and entering the vast, open unknown. As we left the last gnarled tree behind, we entered a Martian landscape of wind-scoured snow dotted with tiny branches from the rugged shrubbery lying just beneath the surface. We cinched down our jackets tightly as we faced into the wind and kept pushing up. The trail spiraled up towards the summit. It re-entered a stand of trees and got steeper. Once the summit cairn was in view, we left the trail behind and angled straight up to the top. The combination of blinding sun rays, steady wind and bitter cold made it feel more like the summit of Everest than a 7000′ bump in the Oregon desert. But it was precisely the combination of wild, wintry conditions and the exhaustion of a hard day’s efforts that made the accomplishment feel so sweet.
We celebrated on the summit after putting on extra warm layers and taking lots of pictures and videos from where we stood. We happily shared steaming, hot chicken soup from the Thermos I’d carried up there. The rest of lunch would have to wait until we were out of the wind. Once my SPOT message sent, we hurriedly left our prize behind and headed back to the relative safety of the trail in the trees.
As the conditions returned to warm and sunny, we stopped to take many more pictures of the rime-crusted trees, sweeping mountain vistas, and glistening snow. We devoured our PB&J sandwiches and basked in the warmth of the December sun.
The hike out was great. It was all downhill and the trail was already broken. We were riding high on sugar and the success of our summit. We arrived back at the car five and a half hours after we began.
Three hours of driving brought us through Burns, Oregon (the next Bend, I hear…) to Crystal Crane Hot Springs in Crane, Oregon. I went here last year for a soak and I finally had a great excuse to go back. We arrived well after dark. The cold air outside of the hot car was surprisingly exhilarating and hit me like a ton of bricks. I rushed inside to reserve a private tub room and soon we were in hot springs heaven.
Ready for a Soaking
For $7.50 each we got to soak in our own private little hot tub room, fed by the natural springs outside. Days of sweat, grime and soot blissfully melted away. After the soak—a shower—then it was off to find a camping spot for the night.
I remember having a hard time finding forest land near Burns so we drove back up 395 to a Sno-park/Campground called Idlewild. It was empty, of course, but the little car made it through the snow to a campsite so we called it good here. By 10 pm or so we were finally settling down to a home-dehydrated meal of beans, pasta and ground beef. It tasted gourmet.
It would be a cold night but I’d strategically planned a lazy start tomorrow morning so we could stay bundled up in our sleeping bags as long as we wanted.
We woke up to cold, wind and sun the next morning having survived our first night in the wild. After chowing down some hot breakfast we took a short drive to Smith Rock State Park. We had no intentions of hanging out, just taking a few quick photos and getting on our way. The parking lot was eerily empty. A magpie squawked loudly from a tree just above my head.
Why not stay? We had some driving to do. Besides, I’d been to Smith a million times, so I was happy to seek scenery elsewhere. We drove through Prineville and the Ochoco Mountains amid beautiful snowy mountains and sprawling ranches.
We made it to our first destination just after noon: the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. Temperatures were chilly and the wind was still blowing quite furiously, so we got decked out in warm down jackets and wind protection, then headed out on the first of three very short trails. No one was here. The sun was shining through occasional clouds as we admired the bright colors in the hills.
My favorite hike here is the Painted Cove trail. This 0.2 mile loop is the prettiest little hike around. The boardwalk takes you right up against the colorful mounds, where you can truly appreciate the texture of the rock up close. These ancient hills were formed from a tumultuous volcanic history that deposited layers of ash, rock and minerals that have been eroded by wind and water.
The Christmas socks made a brief appearance in a sheltered spot on the trail out of the wind. I daresay this might have been the first Christmas sock sighting at this location in all the history of the fossil beds. I guess the dinosaurs couldn’t have celebrated Christmas. And I bet they didn’t mass-produce seasonal socks.
As we ate lunch, a light snow began to fall. It didn’t last long, but it did add to the beauty of the place. Reluctantly, we left and headed for the Sheep Rock Unit.
We drove through Picture Gorge and stopped at the Blue Basin trailhead for a mile of hiking. The sky had clouded over but the scenery was still spectacular. We walked along a creekbed, crossing several metal bridges, as we ooh-ed and aah-ed over the milky green water pooling beneath our feet. The blue-green rock on either side of us was crevassed, eroded, and sculpted into interesting patterns. It was late by the time we ended this hike, so we wouldn’t have enough time to see the last item on the day’s agenda: the Alaska Cedar Grove some 30-odd miles away.
We drove in that direction anyways, to camp somewhere near tomorrow’s destination. We ended up at Billy Fields Campground in the Malheur National Forest. There was about an inch of snow on the ground, but it was the dry, fluffy stuff that felt as light as air. We had a picnic table, fire ring, and outhouse here. It was a classy place to call home. The sky was clear and we could see hundreds of stars. We broke out all the down we had to sleep warmly on this cold night.
Every year I try to get out and do some exploring over winter break. I’ve always done it solo, but this year someone was gullible adventurous enough to join me in my foolish road-tripping. Knowing I’d have a partner with me, I planned accordingly: nothing too crazy, but just crazy enough to make him want to hit the road with me again someday.
What’s more, it was day three of the 12 Days of Christmas Socks, and I had some serious picture-taking to do. This was bound to be a trip to remember.
As we drove over Santiam Pass I talked up the snowshoe trek that would christen our trip: the Prairie View Loop. According to Snowshoe Routes Oregon, this trip “is a good trail to take some snowshoe ‘newbies'” so I thought it would be a nice introduction to snowshoeing for Aaron. On a nice day it would offer up spectacular views for little effort and very moderate elevation change. Perfect. Although it was snowing today and there would be no views, I figured a short ramble through the trees would provide an excellent first experience.
If you were watching a horror movie right now, this is where you’d hear a suspicious noise in the background and yell “don’t go up the stairs!!”
We spilled out of the car, which was stuffed to the gills with firewood and winter camping gear, and suited up for snowshoeing. Lunch in the packs, gaiters and snowshoes on, ski poles adjusted, wind and snow layers packed away neatly, appropriate hats and gloves donned. Check, check, check. We were ready to go.
We got moving around 11 am. The route followed a gently inclining forest road that would be passable to motor vehicles in the summer. We took our first right up another road and wandered along past several other unmarked roads that did not exist on the map. Snowshoeing through fresh, wet, heavy snow is hard work, so the time passed quickly while the miles passed slowly. I had a hard time judging just how far we’d gone when we suddenly dead-ended at a Y-junction to nowhere. Both forks of the Y petered out to nothing, and there were no trail markings anywhere. According to the map, there was a sharp right angle in the trail that crossed a small creek and continued off in a northerly direction on the other side. But there was no sign of anything, and we’d barely just gotten going. I didn’t want to turn around yet. We poked around in the woods a bit, then turned to walk back along our tracks. I scoured the side of the trail and looked towards a valley that looked like the perfect place for a creek to be.
The Hidden Bridge
Buried deep in the trees was a little blue diamond with an arrow on it, barely visible from the road. Aha! We walked down to the diamond and after a little trudging, located the creek and a snow-covered footbridge. I carefully poked around on the bridge with my ski poles to make sure it was still intact, then crossed to the other side. Aaron followed after capturing some video, during which I am sure he was hoping to catch me falling in the creek 🙂
On the other side, we entered a clearing with lots of tree stumps and paths potentially leading anywhere. Aaron spotted the continuation of the road, so we got back on course. This road was covered over with lots of fallen trees, adding another layer of challenge to our snowshoe adventure. This felt like a long-forgotten route.
We arrived at another Y-junction, not on the map, and decided to turn left. This ended up being the shortcut we didn’t want to take, so on the other side we turned north again to try and pick up the non-motorized trail, which would be more interesting than the road.
Again, the junction with the trail was not well-signed, so we began poking around in the woods once we estimated we’d traveled far enough. Miraculously, we found it fairly quickly and headed off into the trees.
It was very pretty here, walking in, around, and over the snow-covered trees. Snow continued to drift down from the sky, making me feel as if I was ambling through a life-sized snow globe. Somewhere along the way we ducked under a large, umbrella-shaped tree to get out of the snow and eat some lunch. Then, we continued along the trail.
The trail abruptly ended at an impassable bog. Large trees littered the forest floor and everything in the general area seemed to be covered with inches of standing water. There was a blue diamond with an arrow pointing into a stand of thick shrubbery growing in the water. That surely couldn’t be the way? We looked around for a little while, then decided to bail towards the road, which was just a hundred yards away. We took the road back to finish the loop. The next hour felt like FOREVER. The snow had changed to wet snow and felt an awful lot like rain. My gloves and hat were starting to soak through. Group morale was starting to drop. We had no idea where we were or if we should have taken any of the unmarked junctions we passed. Based on our snail’s pace, I didn’t think we’d gotten to our junction yet. Okay, we decided, just a little bit further…
And sure enough there it was. A road sign saying 2 miles to the Sno-Park. 2 miles?! That didn’t jive with our map or any degree of common sense at all. But at least we knew it would get us back, so we took it. In 30 minutes we arrived back at the car–so the sign was probably wrong, or based on some creative Forest Service rounding rules. Four-and-a-half hours total? That was some intro to snowshoeing.
It felt really good to get those wet clothes off.
Since we were out there, we decided to take a quick run to Sahalie Falls. The parking lot wasn’t plowed so we parked on the roadside and ran down to check out the falls. It was raging. My camera was fairly well hydrated so the photos don’t paint the best picture, but trust me, it was worth the short walk.
We got back in the car and decided we didn’t want to camp in the rain/snow tonight, so we drove east. We stopped on BLM land outside of Smith Rock State park and called it a night.
The wind was blowing, hard, as we set up camp, ate dinner and relaxed by the fire. We put the tent up near a tree hoping for some wind protection but the rain fly was still whipping around all night. Day 1 was under our belts and we had much more adventure yet to come.