Category Archives: The Long Roadtrip

Monkeyflowers at Diamond Craters

September 17-18, 2023.

Look, a crater!

Photo album

On our way to Steens Mountain, we made a last minute decision to pull off for the night at Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Most folks will never make it here once in their lifetime; this would be my third visit. It is remote, there are no services and it gets no press. But it truly is outstanding, and this visit it was unusually so.

Nesom’s monkeyflower

As we drove past one of the first volcanic features, I had an “Aaron, stop the van!” moment. What at first looked like autumn red leaves on the ground turned out to be a superbloom of Nesom’s monkeyflowers: showy, bright, fuchsia blooms peppered throughout the cinder. It was a magnificent sight. I jumped out of the vehicle to get a closer look. While I was out there, I also noticed some delicate buckwheat flowers and the characteristic late summer bloomers: smoothstem blazing star.

Yes, we’d stay here.

Another surprise on our evening walk

Further up the road, we found a nice pullout with a hilltop view of the surrounding hills and craters. According to the BLM website, this designated area has the entire suite of basalt volcano features, such as spatter cones, lava tubes and maars. If you are curious enough to Google those things, you might want to schedule a trip to Diamond Craters to see them in person!

That evening, Aaron and I took a short stroll along a the road. We found thousands more flowers in bloom, and then…a flurry of activity. Hummingbird moths were busily zipping from flower to flower, feeding on the sugary nectar inside. I’d never seen so many of them at once! The pastel colors spreading across the dusky sky provided a beautiful backdrop for the scene unfolding in front of us. Sometimes the most memorable moments are unplanned.

Can you see the hummingbird moth?

Take a hike

The following morning, Aaron got to work and I took off on a hike. We were within a few miles of Malheur maar, a volcanic crater with a spring-fed pond inside. I made that my destination.

It would be another oppressively hot day, so I started walking right after breakfast. Along the road I saw some interesting flowers in bloom, which I later learned are introduced weeds. Nonetheless, I enjoyed looking at the delicate, translucent petals tucked between sharp points projecting from the stems. Apparently, some local butterflies appreciated the plants too.

So pokey.

I veered off the road at Twin Craters, following a use path along the east side of one of the twins, then bushwhacking around the northern perimeter to the other one. The whole time, I was very cognizant of the possibility of running into a rattlesnake like I’d done just a few days before. No snakes today.

On the other side of the craters, I stumbled across many other cool lava features, including deep cracks in the ground and what I like to call sourdough loaves. I think these are more properly called “tumuli,” but they look so much like the cracked tops of freshly baked loaves of bread that I can’t resist renaming them.

I wandered through the features, poking around anywhere that looked interesting, until I eventually made it to a lava balcony above Malheur maar. This location was incredible because here, out in this hot and dry expanse, I heard a cacophony of water-loving birds. I saw a ring of luscious green grass. I felt like I was transported into a new and unexpected landscape. The maar is quite small, but it creates its own riparian ecosystem surrounded by sagebrush and craggy volcanic rock.

Malheur maar

It was a scene that asked to be painted. So, I sat there to paint. As I did so, the morning clouds began to part and make way for the blazing sun. The hike back was much hotter and sunnier than before. The bright light now glinted off of the many bottles and cans carelessly thrown from vehicles years, even decades, before. I collected them as I walked.

Another feature distracted me from my beeline to the van: an old wooden structure. I veered off the road to investigate, and even as I walked all around it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. It couldn’t be an entrance to a mine, out here? It was just lava for miles. And it couldn’t have been a bridge, because why? Perhaps a little encampment? Again, why here? The mysterious wood remnants brought me, however, to another magnificent patch of monkeyflower. I lingered for a few more moments to bask in their beauty before the sweaty hike back.

This brief stop reminded me of several things about travel. One: just because you’ve been somewhere once doesn’t mean you’ve checked that place off your list for good. You can have many different experiences in the same place, especially if you visit during a different season, with a different person, in different weather or with a different attitude. Two: it’s important to leave flexibility in your travel agenda. I had no plans to stop here. About twenty minutes from the road intersection, I just happened to notice it while scrolling around on my map and said “hey let’s stop at Diamond Craters tonight.” Three: the unexpected little things often bring more delight than the big, much anticipated ones. Seeing the purple wildflowers carpeting the desert in September shocked and amazed me. Then, when we saw all the moths flying around, I felt like I’d found myself in paradise.

I love the childlike sense of wonder that I often feel when we’re on the road. That’s one reason I think we’ll keep doing it beyond our initial timeline. We’re already about five months in, but it seems like we’re just getting started…

Wallowa traverse, south-north, day 2

September 6, 2023.

Colors and textures.

Photo album

I made muesli with warm water and huckleberries to kick off day 2. Since I’d been enthralled by the stark contrast of the red and white rock on the mountain outside my camp, I decided to sit and paint there before moving on. The geology of the Wallowas is so insane and pretty that the idea of hiking quickly through the landscape felt terrible. Instead, I really wanted to savor my time.

The breezy, mostly downhill walk from camp to the South Fork Imnaha five miles away was a little harder than expected due to downed trees. On a dayhike, the challenge of getting around obstacles can be fun and interesting. But a massive backpack sucks all the fun out of it. Several times, I had to take off my backpack and wrestle it over, under or around a pile of debris before scrambling around myself. Then, I’d load it back up again and start walking, just to repeat the process soon after. It got tiring. On the flip side, it made me spend a bunch of time crouching in the dirt, which meant I saw plenty of cool mushrooms.

Mushroom

After a particularly annoying stretch of blowdown, I heard an unexpected sound: a chainsaw. First, I thought chainsaws were explicitly not allowed in wilderness and second, I didn’t care one bit about the rules in that moment. I grinned widely as a small team on horseback rode up behind the man wielding the chainsaw. I stepped to the downhill side of the trail in order to let them through without spooking the horses. “Thank you so much!” I exclaimed. They asked how many trees were down ahead and I said enough to keep them busy.

I frolicked ahead at a canter after the horse team passed through. Life was good. At the river crossing, I changed into Crocs and waded to the other side, losing one of my pole baskets in the process. On the opposite bank, I had a nice lunch with some bacon, cheese and the rest of my baguette.

Shortly after hitting the trail again, I encountered my first hikers of the trip, a young couple from Spokane. They were very chatty, so we had a good talk for 20 minutes or so before parting ways. On to Crater Lake for them, which is where I camped the night before.

I wasn’t sure how much further I wanted to hike, and my frequent stops to gawk at the stunning Cusick Mountain wasn’t helping me make miles. I found a decent enough place to camp in some trees by a stream. Then, I set my hammock up and wandered around to find a painting spot. Along the way I poked around at all the little flowers still blooming, including dwarf fireweed. This was a new one for me!

Dwarf fireweed

In the evening, I spent 20 minutes desperately trying to hang my food. I was just about to give up when my last throw made it. I lay in my hammock, listening to podcasts, doing crossword puzzles and dreaming of my ridge ramble attempt on Cusick Mountain in the morning.

Wallowa Traverse south-north, day 1

September 5, 2023.

Ready to go.

Photo album (all 5 days)

On the Tuesday morning after Labor Day, I hoisted up a backpack with five days worth of supplies and waved goodbye to Aaron. “See you on the other side!” I said, as I walked towards the wilderness permit box at the Summit Point Trailhead. I planned a traverse from the southern end of the range to the northern end, passing over several mountain peaks, climbing a few mountains and making a few side quests along the way. The forecast looked as good as it gets, so I set off.

Along Cliff Creek Trail.

I began hiking on the familiar Cliff Creek trail, which I used to access Cornucopia Peak three weeks ago. Although not much time had passed since my last visit, I noticed several changes. Most of the wildflowers had gone to seed. Some of the vegetation already showed off their bright fall foliage. So many mushrooms appeared. As I traversed under Nip Peak Pass I entered brand new terrain. The soft gray clouds and gusty winds gave the air a sense of mystery. I ate some snacks and followed the trail down to Crater Lake, where I set up my first camp of the trip. Miraculously, no one was there.

Above the lake, a little hillside offered up some nice camp spots with adequate hammock trees. I picked my favorite and took a rest. There was one more thing on my agenda: Krag Peak.

I built quite a bit of flexibility into my plan, since there were SO many options along this pathway and endless mountains to climb. But I wanted to kick it off with a scramble, so I outfitted a small daypack and began the charge up Krag Peak. I had a few route descriptions from my favorite websites as well as from my friend Rick, who had just climbed it.

From the lake, I walked to the right of the imposing white cliffs and up through the trees. The ground tilted sharply upward, so I shortened my poles and slowly plodded in the direction of the summit. Avoiding the big rocks and talus piles, I made my way to a large basin with some pools of meltwater left behind in a small meadow. I gained the ridge to the left of the basin and followed it until it looked annoying. Then, I dropped below the ridge crest and boulder-hopped below it (also annoying, but differently annoying).

The upper portion of Krag Peak.

The last stretch up to the peak was the worst. Since it was labeled Class 2, I wasn’t really expecting anything difficult. But the mountain top was crumbly and very steep. I carefully picked my way up the loose rock, testing everything and grabbing onto anything solid. Near the summit, I looked up and found myself right on the edge of a huge cliff face. Once I realized how the backside of the mountain dropped away, I found a better line and angled towards the small, but beautiful summit. There was no marker, cairn or register, but it would do.

Looking at the high peaks spread out in every direction from me, I was really glad to be there. I’d hoped a big traverse would come together and here I was doing the thing. Snapping out of my joy, I had to remind myself that I still had to get off of this choss pile. I took a different route down, skipping the ridge altogether and finding the least sketchy way straight down to that wet meadow. I don’t know if it saved me any time but it saved me a lot of stress. As I entered the forest, the lay of the land pulled me slightly away from my destination, so I used my GPS app to course correct. Once at the shores of Crater Lake, I took the long way around to my camp.

There were still no other campers at the lake. When I got to my hammock, changed into Crocs, pulled down my food bag and laid out a spread of charcuterie with all my heavy foods for the first night! I may be slow, my pack may be enormous, but I eat damn well on the trail.

Trail charcuterie.

Van Patten Butte

August 28, 2023.

10.7 mi | 3320′ ele. gain | 8 hrs.

Van Patten Butte from the saddle

Photo album

If you are looking for a route description for the Van Patten Butte scramble, this isn’t it. Check out these resources from Oregon Hikers, Summitpost and Peakbagger. This is a story about how to take a straightforward, half-day route into an all day, nail-biting adventure. I would not recommend, however I feel that if you are a person who likes testing creative routes in the mountains at all, some of your days will inevitably turn out like this. I’d say about 85% of my exploratory adventures are neutral to good, 10% are excellent and 5% are gnarly. This was one of the gnarly ones.

We were back at the Anthony Lake Ski Area for a few days so Aaron could get some work done. Since Van Patten was such a short route, I decided to hike to the trailhead from the parking area 3 miles away to begin the day’s adventure. It was all downhill, meaning an easy approach but nothing to look forward to at the end of the day.

The night before, I’d read through all the resources listed above. I eyeballed the topo map and Google satellite images. It was my usual prep routine. I thought I’d take the suggested route up the mountain and circle back down a different ridge, then either rejoining the route in or bushwhacking to the road to cut off some extra walking. On the hike down to the trailhead, I studied the landscape, trying to visualize what would make a good route back. I felt ready for a fun day in the mountains.

Once I reached the trailhead, I had a short, steep climb to Van Patten Lake. The lake was pretty, but the water level looked pretty low. While having a snack, I pictured how gorgeous it would be when it was full. I found a pair of sunglasses sitting on a rock near the lake; lately I’ve been finding these on nearly every hike.

Forget something?

From there, I walked around to the north side of the lake, where I followed an inlet stream up the vegetated slopes. As I climbed, I was presented with more and more options. I chose to follow a line where giant boulders occasionally punctuated the forested canyon walls. The route required a little bit of poking around, but it was generally straightforward and safe. Along the way, I found another pair of sunglasses that were hung up in a tree; they must have fallen off of someone’s head as they were scrambling the route. Once I gained the ridge, I had to navigate around a few obstacles to get to a wide, flat saddle. From that point, the summit of Van Buren was just a quick and easy walk away.

When things were going well

The highpoint, a pile of sloped boulders surrounded by thick and twisted trees, was not a great place to hang out. So I tagged the top and wandered around the high ridgeline, looking for a nice place to sit and paint. There, I also scoped out my options down. None of them looked good. My original plan, which looked okay on paper, most definitely did not look possible in real life. This sometimes happened, and I knew this was a possibility. The NW ridges looked mostly do-able, but there were enough narrow, loose and cliffy sections separating the good stuff that made it unsafe. That was out. The NE ridge was very knife-edgy, atop sheer cliffs. That was out. Even the gullies looked too loose and steep to want to attempt solo with no gear. My last option was to retreat the way I came.

I started along this path, the best and most intelligent choice. But then I got the idea to follow the ridgeline adjacent to my ascent route, the one that would take me right back to the lake! That seemed like a good idea. I veered off the beaten path and on to the ridge.

Just like the NW ridge, this one consisted of a jumble of tall, impossible boulders choked with vegetation, making it difficult to see far ahead. I poked along very slowly on and near the ridge, mostly on the west side to avoid the intimidating cliffs. The terrain was mostly loose and steep, with a mixture of rocks, dirt and trees. Occasional cliffs became frequent cliffs and my options were very limited. I was really struggling to find a line that would go.

After much frustrating zig-zagging around, I found an escape gully leading to a giant talus field. It was steep and loose, but with enough firm footing and trees to hang on to in order to be safe enough to descend. Without knowing what happened in the trees below the talus, I decided to just go for it. I needed to get off that damned ridge.

Down the gully I go

Once safely on the pile of rocks below, I sat down for a while to let my nervous system calm down. I ate some food, drank some water and thought about options from here. I was so annoyed with myself for making the stupid decision to try a different ridge despite having a perfectly good way to go down and also knowing that all the other ridges were too rugged for me. (So why would this one be any different?)

But, being annoyed with oneself doesn’t lead to better decision making. I had to snap back into rational problem-solving mode and I could berate myself later.

Below that talus, I could hear running water. No problem, a little stream. Unless that stream turns into a waterfall. Can you guess? Of course it did. I was having flashbacks to last year’s debacle getting off Chief Joseph Mountain, where it took hours to go less than a mile through similar terrain. I cut right away from the creek, where I began traversing a steep, forested hillside. But I kept getting cliffed out. Each time I reached another cliff, I could feel my heart race and my breathing get shallow. This was clearly type 3 fun.

As a strategy to move safely and efficiently, I settled into a way of movement that felt a lot like bouldering. I tested each hand and foothold before committing weight to it, I only moved when I felt in balance and I hyper focused on the task at hand. I was not (literally and figuratively) out of the woods yet.

Despite the shitstorm, I still stopped to enjoy the flowers.

Even though I had made it below the ridge and “just had to get through the woods,” the landscape was relentless. I desperately sought paths of least resistance through rocks, creeks and soggy hillsides. Once I finally reached the road, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and chugged some water. Then, I had nearly 3 miles of walking uphill on the road in the hot afternoon sun to wrap up this debacle.

On the return hike, I passed by what looked to be a promising huckleberry patch. I dropped a pin on my GPS app so I could come back another day. A silver lining, perhaps.

Lessons learned? I fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy. The further I traveled down the terrible ridge, the more committed I felt to that route. At any point (especially early on), I could have backtracked up to the saddle and taken my original route back down the mountain. Even though it would require going back uphill, it would have been faster, safer, easier and way more fun. A reminder that nature is indifferent to our hopes and dreams. And that respect and humility in the mountains is paramount to help ensure you can go back and explore another day.

Sumpter Dredge State Heritage Area

August 27, 2023.

Photo album

Situated 30 miles west of Baker City, 57 miles northeast of John Day and 108 miles south of Pendleton, the Sumpter Dredge sits in a pond of its own making. Once used to sift for gold along the banks of the Powder River, it now serves as a tourist attraction and reminder of a piece of Oregon history.

I was surprised to find several other visitors there at this fairly remote and off-the-beaten-path site. Aaron found a volunteer ranger who was available to give us a tour of the dredge (you can also just walk through on your own). He shared quite a bit about how the dredge was built and used as well as some of the greater context around mining in that era. The visitor’s center and signage within the dredge echoed the details from the guided tour. It was helpful for me to see the photos and illustrations, since I am a visual learner.

The dredge essentially housed a rotating line of huge buckets that dug up the rocks and dirt, then dropped the slurry through a series of sifting devices that separated the gold from the remainder. The non-gold material, or “tailings,” got left behind in rows behind the dredge. You will notice these tall piles of tailings as you drive past Phillips Lake on Route 7. Alternatively you can see them clearly on Google satellite view, where they look like intestines!

In the process of sifting for flakes of gold, the dredge literally flipped the underground layers upside down, leaving the rocks on top and the soil on the bottom. As a result, the mining dramatically altered the naturally functioning landscape . While nature slowly takes its course, there are theoretically some habitat restoration projects happening. When I searched for more information, I found some reports dating to 1984, 2006 and 2017. Sadly I found more references to restoring the railroad than the actual habitat.

Thinking back to my bike ride around Philips Lake, I remember seeing lots of wildlife utilizing the area around the tailings. I have no idea how much more volume or diversity of wildlife would be there had it been in a more natural state. I’m also curious how the use of mercury on the dredge impacted the environment. When we asked the volunteer, he was absolutely certain that the mercury was not found in any amount in the surrounding area, which I had a really hard time believing.

The impact of resource extraction is one that we will continue to deal with as our changing technologies require more and different minerals. I’m beginning to learn about lithium and cobalt mining, as these impact us both locally in Oregon and our fellow humans abroad. I am glad that our state parks work to preserve these historical sites. I just wish they addressed all of the impacts in a more transparent way, instead of focusing on the things like “what a cool piece of technology” and “how wonderful for this local economy!” I’d rather hear a more complex and nuanced story than that.

After our tour, we walked around a few of the trails in the park. In total, there are less than two miles looping around the area, so it’s just a nice place to stretch your legs. A few steps away in town, we wandered into the Sumpter Municipal Museum, which is also worth a visit. And to top it all off, a friendly guy in a food truck across the street sold us some corn dogs to fuel us up for the rest of the afternoon. It was my first time eating a corn dog, and I must say I quite enjoyed it!

Elkhorn Crest Traverse

August 8-11, 2023.

Some okay views from here

Photo album

The Elkhorn Crest Trail had been on my to-do list for many years. I had an opportunity to spend 4 days on the trail while in Northeast Oregon, so I researched the route, made a list, packed my backpack and hit the trail.

Day 1: Orientation

5.4 mi | 1130′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

Moody clouds

Upon seeing the weather forecast, I took my packraft and paddle out of my backpack. Highs only in the 70’s and mostly cloudy? That didn’t feel like it was worth the weight of a boat. I had mountains to climb, anyways, and I already hate backpacking. That decision would make the next few days slightly easier.

Hate backpacking? That can’t be right? Sure looks dreamy on Instagram. However, my body has never adapted to carrying an overnight pack, ever. No matter what shape I’m in, how much backpacking I do (which, arguably is never that much), what pack I have, how much weight is in it, etc. I just feel awful. It’s not just the “I’m working really hard” kind of awful, it’s the blisters and tweaks and aches and rubbing of pack against skin over and over and over that makes me ask, couldn’t I have just done this as a dayhike?

Sure, there are some humans who can cruise the Elkhorn Crest in a day, but that was never my intention. I wanted to move at a pace at which I could really experience and enjoy it. Besides, there were side objectives I wanted to see. Mt. Ruth, Rock Creek Butte and Elkhorn Peak were all on my agenda in addition to the trail.

I set off from the parking lot at Anthony Lakes Ski Area after a long, slow breakfast and packing session. The morning was overcast and chilly, so I was in no rush to get out the door. The start of the trail wasn’t terribly remarkable. There were lots of tiny huckleberry bushes and just past prime wildflowers. The forest opened up near Angell Pass to provide a preview of the views I’d enjoy for the remainder of the hike. I then made my way down to Dutch Flat Lake, a pretty little lake with some giant campsites that indicated it got heavy use. After eating my lunch there, I decided to scout out a campsite away from the lake shore just in case a group decided to show up and be obnoxious.

Hammock camping

I was right about a group showing up but I was not right about how far away from the lake I’d have to go to not hear them literally yelling for 8 straight hours after setting up their camp. I put my headphones in and laid in my hammock, alternating between napping and crossword puzzles until dinner time. Wanting to enjoy nature, the whole reason I came here, I briefly took my headphones out to try and identify the various lovely bird songs filling the air. But they soon got drowned out by more yelling, so the headphones went back in.

Day 2: Finding a rhythm

9.8 mi. | 1765′ ele. gain | 5:20 hr.

Morning sun

Bright rays of sunshine brought me out of my quiet slumber. Ah, the sun! It was a beautiful sight to see after yesterday’s thick gray cloak. I had coffee and pop tarts and watched the clouds flitter across the sky. I got packed up to leave, and just about when I took my first steps, the group starting roaring awake. It was just in time.

The clouds eventually overtook the sun, which meant the air was cool and refreshing for hiking. I made my way up the trail to the base of Mt. Ruth’s northwest ridge. There, I switched to a tiny day pack and picked my way past granite boulders and twisted whitebark pine to the summit. The top of the mountain provided a comfy place to sit and enjoy the view for a bit. I munched on a bag of salty-sweet popcorn from Bend Popcorn Company; this was an excellent trail snack!

I returned to my pack, continued along the Elkhorn Crest trail to a very confusing trail junction, then found the path to Summit Lake. A mile of ups and downs led me to a picturesque lake surrounded in part by dramatic cliffs. I found a nice, well-established camp spot with trees for my hammock near the lake and settled in. I could hear a small family nearby but they mostly kept to themselves. This camp was a stark difference from the previous night. I didn’t mind having these folks as neighbors!

I read a bunch of my book and did a little painting at the lake. Dinner was a delicious dehydrated chili with crumbly cornbread topping. I do miss having access to a dehydrator, as I used to make all my backpacking meals from scratch. This one tasted pretty good, although it was expensive and it wreaked havoc on my digestive system later.

Summit Lake

Briefly, I caught a glimpse of a mama and baby goat racing through my neighbor’s camp. But in a flash, they were gone. I was promised goats on this hike, and so far it was pretty disappointing for wildlife sightings.

Day 3: The longest, hottest day

14.8 mi | 2640′ ele. gain | 8 hr.

Little pink buckwheat

In preparation for this trip, I used various mapping apps to calculate my daily mileage and elevation gain. Although there are many write-ups on the internet for the Elkhorn Crest Trail, none of them did exactly what I was planning to do. Today’s estimated mileage was 9.5, with a summit of Rock Creek Butte towards the end of the day. Anything under ten feels pretty doable with an overnight pack for me, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about getting an early start or getting psyched for a big day.

However, my calculations were wildly wrong. I figured out after I was done with the hike where I had gone wrong with my math, but that didn’t matter in the moment. The weather was much sunnier, which made for prettier views but hotter hiking conditions. The heat sapped my energy and I stopped for multiple breaks in just the first few miles. At some point, I saw a large cairn just off the trail, and it was not indicated on my map as a junction or point of interest. I had to see what it was though.

A phone to God? I immediately remembered seeing pictures of this thing while researching trip reports. I would love to know the whole story.

Sure.

I looked ahead on my map and chose a spot that I thought would make a reasonable lunch destination. I just needed to keep moving until then. As I rounded my final turn towards the spot, I saw a pair of eyes staring back at me. A cow. And her whole posse. I’m familiar with cows, as I frequently end up biking or hiking where they’re grazing. Generally they just get annoyed enough as you get close to them that they walk away. But this band of cows wanted to stand their ground. I managed to herd them away from my precious lunch stop for about 20 minutes, but then they were stubbornly piled on top of the trail headed my way. No amount of yelling, waving my poles around, walking towards them would get them to move. So I had to walk a big semi-circle off trail to get back on course on the other side.

Also not helping: foot pain and afternoon heat. I had no idea why my foot was hurting so badly, but nothing I did seemed to make it better. I did manage to figure out how to make it worse, though.

As I complained loudly about my ungrateful foot, I passed under peak after peak after peak. And at each one, I asked myself, “is this it?” The trail felt interminably long. How far have I gone, anyways? It had to be over nine miles at this point. And this is when I realized I’d messed up my planning. I sat with my map, using the distance calculating tool in CalTopo to help me re-orient for the remainder of the day’s route. I was so annoyed about this error. Had I known I was in for a nearly 15-mile day, I would have mentally prepared for that.

But, there was nothing to do but trudge ahead so that’s what I did. When I finally arrived at the base of Rock Creek Butte, I almost blew right by it, thinking it was just another blip on the ridge. I left my backpack under a large tree right above the trail and slowly hiked uphill. I was so tired that I used the step-counting method to help keep my pace. 1-2-3…15. Rest. 1-2-3…15. Rest. I repeated that on the steepest parts, then increased the number of steps to 20, 30, 40 as the grade mellowed out.

At least there were flowers along the way

At last, I collapsed near a huge cairn at the top and paged through some of the thousands of entries in the summit register. Apparently, this is a very popular place! I felt lucky to have it all to myself at this moment.

But, my day wasn’t done. I had to keep walking to the junction with Twin Lakes trail and then hike the horribly long and flat switchbacks to the lake. These were the most insanely gradual switchbacks I’d ever seen, and the last thing I needed to end a frustrating day. As soon as I found a campsite that had a couple good hammock trees, I called it good. I immediately dunked my feet in the lake and started chilling a beer.

At dinnertime, I got my stove set up to boil water, then I received my first visitors.

Mountain goats. A dozen of them. They barged right into my camp, so I cautiously backed away to give them space. They were not at all frightened or impressed by me, so they kept pushing towards me. I backed up, they came forward. Over and over again. I knew there was one other party camped at the other end of the lake, so I decided to hustle over there and find safety in number as the goats were clearly not afraid of me. When I arrived, I met two kids who were standing around a campfire (don’t even get me started). We stayed together until the goats moved past the lake. I thanked them for letting me barge into their space and retreated to my camp.

Goat…friends?

The goats visited me again that evening, but I was comfortably bundled up in my hammock and was too tired to be bullied out. I yelled and waved at them and waited until they left to fully relax into my book. Then I reminded myself that I wanted to see goats…

Day 4: The long walk home

10.5 mi | 1410′ ele. gain | 5 hr.

Lupine

I awoke early, with the sun, and slowly began preparations for breakfast. The goats wouldn’t have it, however. This time, twice as many animals appeared and completely overran my camp. I desperately tried to give them adequate space as I hurriedly shoved food in my face and packed up what I could. Being completely acclimated to people, they did not give me any space and practically ran over all my supplies. I aggressively shooed them away so I could load up my bag and get out of there. The whole encounter felt so ridiculous.

No zoom needed

But the baby goats were so cute.

I put my head down and marched up the horrible switchbacks. At the saddle, I stashed my backpack and headed up towards my last summit: Elkhorn Peak. Although it is the namesake peak of the range, it’s not the highest (that’s Rock Creek Butte). However, I found this scramble entirely more interesting and fun than Rock Creek Butte. At the top, there was no summit register. But I did find an odd, makeshift beacon-looking thing. I just never know what I’m going to find at or along the way to all these highpoints. One of many reasons why I love chasing after them!

Back at my pack, I knew I only had a few more miles to hike before reaching the other end; the end of the trail, not of my hike. I still had many miles of road walking to do to get to a place where Aaron could pick me up in the van. Tales of the shittiness of this road have traveled far and wide.

I barreled though this last part as fast as I could, slightly annoyed that I couldn’t enjoy it. The Elkhorn Crest Trail, famously one of the best high routes in Oregon, according to hikers on the internet, and here I was just trying to get it over with. But I reminded myself that there is no “best” and “top ten lists” are meaningless.

A hike is an entire experience. It’s the trail, sure. But it’s also the weather, the conditions, the wildlife, the solitude, the companionship, the frame of mind, the physical state of your body, and so many other things. And just the idea that I was supposed to enjoy this trail more than other spectacular trails I’ve been on felt a bit silly. I’m very fortunate to have spent time in so many incredible spaces across the state of Oregon. As nice as this was, it wasn’t quite the standout that I expected. And perhaps the expectation set me up for feeling this way.

On the way to the trailhead, I encountered two groups of mountain bikers and two pairs of backpackers. These were essentially the only people I saw on trail in fours days. It was wild that they all came in a sudden blast. I knew a shuttle ran on Friday mornings, dropping people off at this end. I assumed that was the result.

Elkhorn Crest, traversed!

I took a break at the trailhead, airing out my feet completely. Meanwhile, I sent Aaron a check in on my Garmin InReach to let him know my progress, then began the questionably long road walk past the bad sections of road. I estimated up to a 6-mile road walk, so I screwed my head on for that. Based on previous flubs, I checked my estimate multiple times before embarking on this last leg!

To my great surprise, a beautiful wildflower display greeted me along either side of the road. They were the best flowers I’d seen on the entire trip! What a treat. I had not looked forward to the drudgery of a road walk, but it was actually one of my favorite sections. What was that about expectations?

Roadside bouquet

About 5 miles down the road, I stopped near a rushing creek. The road surface had been consistently good for at least a half a mile, so I felt confident that Aaron could drive the van there. I sent one final check in, dunked my feet in the ice cold water and laid down with a book. A couple hours later, my chariot arrived, loaded with fresh wood-fired pizza from Anthony Lakes!

In sum, I turned a 28-mile trail into a four day, 40-mile adventure with three highpoints, three lakeside camps and some mountain goat encounters I’ll never forget. The wildflowers didn’t wow me, but so many other things did. I am just glad to have these opportunities to spend multiple days alone on the trail as we travel full time in the van. And I can’t complain about a warm pizza upon pickup.

Steens Mountain wildflower hunt

July 24 – July 31, 2023.

How many different wildflowers can you see?

Photo album

One of my must-see destinations for my cross-Oregon wildflower hunting trip was the Steens Mountain. Located in Southeast Oregon, the Steens is a unique fault-block mountain rising up from the expansive desert. It’s shaped like a wedge, gradually ascending from the west to a highpoint of nearly 10,000 feet. Then it drops abruptly in a series of craggy cliffs about 5,000 vertical feet to the Alvord desert. In most years, visitors can drive a loop road up from Frenchglen to the summit of the mountain and back, passing by multiple scenic viewpoints overlooking glacially carved canyons. And at the right time of year, you can marvel in an explosion of wildflowers, many of which grow nowhere else but there.

It was that time of year.

Unfortunately, a landslide and subsequent road work closed a portion of the loop road. We had to make a choice about which way to go. For me, it was a no-brainer; we drove the north side of the loop, which was open to the summit and several miles down the other side. That gave us the most opportunities for exploring, camping, hiking and hanging out.

Page Springs campground

Our trip began at the base of the mountain, elevation 4200″. We’d camped at Page Springs before, but only in the fall/winter. It’s a different experience in the summer. The heat of the late July sun was absolutely brutal. The only respite we had was the cold Blitzen River running along the edge of our campsite. At every chance we got, we plunged into the refreshing water.

Western clematis seed heads along the river trail

I attempted to take a hike along the river trail that emerges from the campground, but I ran into two problems: voracious mosquitoes and a trail long abandoned by the BLM. It’s too bad, because it has the potential to be a lovely place to walk. I’d hiked it back in 2013 and I even described it as brushy back then. Despite the challenges, I made it about a mile up before turning around. On the way I found some pretty flowers and even saw teasel (invasive but whatever) in bloom for the first time.

Iconic viewpoints

One nice thing about Steens Mountain is that it is an experience right from the car. You don’t even have to go on any massive hikes to have an enjoyable experience. Of course, if you are able to and want to go hiking I strongly recommend it!

Aaron and I pulled off at every signboard and marked viewpoint along the north loop road. We learned about history, geography, weather and more as we putt-putted along the drive. It became refreshingly cool as we ascended the road. I had to put some layers on as temperatures dipped into the mid-fifties at time. It was a far cry from the 90-degree weather we had down below.

Fields of yellow as seen from the loop road

With each gain in elevation, we got to see new and different wildflowers. Aaron’s favorite is the elk thistle. This unusual plant grows up to 6 1/2 feet tall, has long leaves covered in spines and produces bright purple flowers. It is one of the more aggro plants I’ve seen in the world.

Elk thistle

My favorite is quite the opposite. It’s a subspecies of cushion buckwheat that is made of a low-growing mat of leaves, from which long stems protrude. Each stem is topped by a pink pom-pom looking thing that is a cluster of tiny flowers. Many of the plants lie prostrate, like they are resting. Others stand tall and look like they were invented by Jim Henson (the Muppet guy). They are cute and precious and I just want to stop and touch every one.

Cushion buckwheat ala Steens Mountain

We saw both of these flowers growing right by the road and at our feet at the highest elevation pullouts. Other high mountain finds included silky phacelia, balloon-pod milk vetch, orange sneezeweed and the tiniest little lupine.

At the tops of each U-shaped valley, we tried to imagine a time where they were filled completely with ice. Over time, glaciers carved the incredible landscapes we see today. It fascinating to learn the geologic history of such a special place.

View from the Steens summit trailhead

Freedom to roam

In my opinion, the best way to experience the Steens is on a cross-country adventure. And with such a wide-open landscape, this is easy to do. I did a few hikes on my own while Aaron worked. I plotted routes that led down into the canyons, across vast meadows, along stunning creeks and up to the rocky ridges. Despite the elevation, the days still got pretty hot so I tried to stay near water whenever possible.

I was impressed both by the number of different types of wildflowers as well as the overall volume of flowers. In places, the ground looked as if it was painted yellow or purple or a collage of colors, simply due to the density and number of plants in bloom at once. Any creeks or wet patches were easily identified because of the deep green adjacent to whatever was flowering there. In the span of a couple minutes, I could walk from a boggy swamp to a dusty, dry desert. And back again!

These pretty yellow paintbrush were everywhere.

It was on one of these excursions that I ran into my most unusual hiking find yet. Below the summit, on some random, rolling ridgeline lay what appeared to be a death mask. I didn’t have the heart to touch it or get too close but I took some photos and video of this object. People seem to think it was someone’s art project. I thought it was utterly creepy without any explanation next to it. Although I hike alone a ton, I’ve never felt as weirded out as I did at that moment. I hurried out of there to get back towards the road, which is when I discovered a little cliff. It took just a couple of rock climbing moves to get up over it, which made that find feel even more out of place. Whoever left that mask there really wanted to get to that spot.

Go ahead, you explain it.

What I wanted to see was bighorn, but no luck. That’s the thing with wandering around outdoors. You never can be quite sure what you’ll find.

Wildhorse Lake

Our friends Kevin and Casey joined us up in the Steens for the last few days of our visit. We took them to all the scenic pullouts as well as a couple of short hikes, including this one. If you’ve been up to the top of Steens Mountain, you’ve likely done this one too. It’s only 1.2 miles to walk to the lake, but it’s nearly 1000 vertical feet downhill. That’s a lot of climbing up to get back out to your car.

So close, so far away.

I was not going to waste the opportunity to get our packrafts in the lake, so I took my 60L pack and loaded both rafts, paddles, picnic supplies, art supplies as well as the usual ten essentials to make for a fun day. It was worth the effort. Once we found a nice spot on the lakeshore, we settled in for the afternoon. Aaron swam, Kevin read, Casey painted and I dreamed up a plan for rafting. A strong wind blew across the lake, which was not ideal for our flatwater boats. But I decided we’d hike to the opposite side of the lake, put in and let the wind blow us back to our beach. And that’s what we did. For an added bonus, the hanging meadows we saw from our put-in spot were astonishingly beautiful.

We had to stop many times on the hike up to catch our breath, which meant lots of time for wildflower watching! There were many varieties of paintbrush, buckwheat and penstemon. We also saw bog orchid, desert parsley, field chickweed, asters, thistle and a variety of GDYC‘s.

Nature’s bounty

Steens summit

I visited the summit twice on this trip, once alone and once with Kevin. By far, the best native plant on this walk is the balloon-pod milkvetch. I’m usually not a big fan of the plants in the vetch family, but this one is a stand out. I’m not even sure what the flowers look like, but the seed pod it creates is so bizarre. Picture a hollow kidney bean that’s translucent yellow-green in color with mottled red spots. Now picture thousands of them covering the ground in clusters, dangling from vetchy leaves. When new, the pods are plump and squishy. When they dry out they become hard, detach from the plant and shatter as the wind blows them into surrounding rocks. This spreads the seeds and thus spreads the plant. What a weird, alien life form!

Balloon-pod milkvetch

But this is not all there is to see on the Steens Mountain summit. Buckwheat grow in great profusion. Some form rather large mats with flowers embedded between the leaves, sprawling out like tentacles along the ground or spiking tall above the plant. Clumps of yellow composites, some with ray flowers and some without. In stark contrast, beautiful purple penstemon blooms nearby. All with the surreal backdrop of the vast Oregon desert.

Steens Mountain is one of Oregon’s treasures. Whether you visit for an hour, a day or a week; whether you hike, bike or drive; whether you know your wildflowers and geology or not, you will have a novel and beautiful experience there. Anyone who’s spent any time living in Oregon should make it a point to journey there. For tips on planning a trip, check out ONDA’s Steens Mountain region guide. Or, post your questions in the comments. I’ve visited several times in different seasons and I’ll likely go back and visit again!

Diamond Lake bike trail

July 9, 2023.

11.2 mi. | 550′ ele. gain |2.5 hr.

Photo album

On a warm, sunny summer day, Aaron and I took our bikes out on a lovely paved bike trail around Diamond Lake. While clicking and zooming around my favorite mapping app, I found the Dellenback Trail, which encircles Diamond Lake in the course of about 12 miles. This was perfect for a casual outing. Most of my memories of this area involve fighting crowds; this goes for winter and summer! It’s a popular destination for a number of reasons, and therefore it’s rarely on my shortlist for places to visit.

Since most folks head to Diamond Lake in the summer for pizza, ice cream and water sports, I thought maybe the trail would be a little less crazy. And I was right. We chose to start the loop at the South Shore picnic area and rode clockwise. This was strategic, since that would mean we’d finish our route at the ice cream shop!

We started pedaling as the day was heating up. Soon, we reached a wooden bridge crossing Silent Creek. We hopped off our bike to admire the pretty water and wildflowers. But in that short pause, the mosquitoes found us. Back on the bikes, we rode just fast enough to prevent them from biting.

The trail is generally fairly flat, but it does gain a few hundred feet over the loop. Therefore, we had to ride up and down some hills as we circumnavigated the lake. As we rode, we made sure to take many different kinds of breaks: wildflower, view, breath, and snack, to name a few. The purpose of the ride was to spend Sunday afternoon together, not to break any speed records. So we traveled at the pace of Sunday. At the north side of the lake we pulled out our picnic lunch and relaxed in the shade of a large Ponderosa pine. From there, we watched the numerous folks on watercraft traverse the lake.

The east side of the lake was a little less scenic since much of the trail crossed through one of the biggest campgrounds I’ve ever seen. It was packed with RV’s, trailers and massive tents. Enormous trash cans overflowed with garbage. As in, people walked up to a full garbage can and decided to pile their trash on the ground next to it instead of find another can or bring it home. I could not believe that even those huge containers were not enough for the amount of trash produced by campers. What do people bring camping?! We fill a couple tiny bags each week. It was disturbing.

But I knew we had ice cream ahead, so I put my head down and kept pedaling. We couldn’t have arrived soon enough. We were both feeling pretty hot by the time we rolled up at the ice cream window at South Shore Pizza. Aaron found us a shady picnic table while I ordered us a couple of cones. It was cold, refreshing and delicious. We were among only a handful of people there. After that, it was only another half mile or so to the parking area.

All in all, we saw maybe a dozen people riding all day. The route was well-marked, well-graded and accessible to beginner riders. With plenty of options for starting and ending, as well as services on the south and east sides of the lake, I can recommend this bike ride for just about anyone. You can even rent bikes at the lake if you’re traveling without bikes. Glad we made this stop during our travels.

Pilot Rock and Porcupine Mountain

July 7, 2023.

8.5 mi. | 1965′ ele. gain | 5.5 hr.

View of Pilot Rock

Photo album

Since we were getting ready to head north, I prioritized one more highpoint before we left Southern Oregon: Pilot Rock. Based on my research, it would either be a death-defying scramble or a yawner of an after-work hike. My guess was it was something in the middle, but I took the warnings seriously and hoped it was easier than it looked. I wore my approach shoes with sticky climbing soles and planned to assess the route as I went, ready to turn back if I didn’t like the idea of soloing up the rock.

Pilot Rock

In an effort to beat the heat, I got an early start. It took no time at all to hike the mile of trail to the Pilot Rock junction. From there, I hiked up a series of steep switchbacks to the base of the rock itself. The route was completely in shadow, which helped my body temperature but upped the intimidation factor. It was steep and dark and there was no one else around. I left my poles at the base of the route and started up.

What you can’t see might hurt you.

Decades of rock climbing experience has made me more hesitant to climb without a rope, even on a “scramble” route. Having spent a lot of time in high consequence terrain has made me very conservative in my decision-making, especially when I’m alone. So, I took each section of the climb seriously, choosing the most solid line and anticipating challenges I’d have on the way down (turns out, you’ve got to go both ways!). I had to pause after each vertical section to let my heart rate slow down and feel good about making the next decision. There were two short, steep sections that required a chimney move or two to get up, followed by what I’d consider more normal steep scramble parts. The rock quality was generally good, which made me feel secure in my footing and decision-making. However I would never take any of my non-climber friends on this route, nor would I recommend it to them.

Before too long, I stood at the summit. I was in no rush to get back down, so I poked around the summit area looking at wildflowers and trying to identify the mountains off in the haze. I also studied the map for the next section of my planned hike to Porcupine Mountain.

Summit!

I dreaded the downclimb. I’ve never liked unprotected downclimbing. I would have felt much better with just another person there, to say things like: there’s a good foot two inches to the left or, you’ve got this! But no one had come up since and I felt incredibly alone.

So, I gave myself a pep talk and slowly made my way down. At the top of the first tough spot, I miraculously found an easier slab to climb down right next to it. When I turned around to look at what I’d just accomplished, I realized that I hadn’t gotten to one of the hard parts yet. Dammit! Still two challenging sections to go.

When I actually got to the two spots I struggled with on the way up, I sat down and took a few deep breaths before analyzing the route and making a plan. I had to do some weird sideways chimneying and take some mega big steps, but I made it through unscathed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I reached my poles because I knew I just had hiking ahead of me from there.

Porcupine Mountain

It was already getting hot, and I wasn’t sure if Porcupine Mountain would even be worth the effort. I started walking in that general direction just in case, but in the back of my mind I was willing to turn back and do some painting instead of a bunch more hiking.

As I walked along the PCT, it took me around to the backside of Pilot Rock and then dove into a shady forest. Oh, how I much appreciated the shade. And then the wildflower show turned up to 11: paintbrush, coyote mint, columbine. But what’s that? A phantom orchid? I took a bunch of photos of the first solitary plant I found, then proceeded to hike among hundreds of these beautiful and unique flowers. Just like me, they love a shady forest. Suddenly I felt like I was surrounded by friends.

Phantom orchid.

In order to get up to Porcupine Mountain, I bushwhacked off trail to find an overgrown old road leading to the peak’s south ridge. There I picked up another road/trail that rambled over a few bumps to the summit. Along the way, I hiked through a desert landscape decorated with hardy buckwheat plants, owl’s clover and mountain mahogany (one of my favorites). The actual summit here was unclear, so as usual I walked around until I felt like I hit all the possible highpoints before picking a shade tree to relax under for lunch. I had good cell service there, so I shot out a bunch of messages to friends and stretched out my shade break as long as I could.

Plein air painting

If an opportunity exists to create a loop, I’ll take it. While on my break, I noticed a trail on the map leading east from my road junction that connected to the PCT. It would add nearly a mile to my hike but it was on trail and it was over gentle terrain, so I went that way. On my hike back I crossed paths with 5 or 6 people hiking the PCT. They were all headed north, all walking singly, all wearing roughly the same uniform. Sun shirt, sun hat or ball cap, light hiking pants, sunglasses, beard. Some had poles, some didn’t. One guy had a Hawaiian shirt instead of a sun shirt. None of them stopped for the flowers.

Thru-hiking has never appealed to me. To each their own. On my hike back, I stopped at a killer viewpoint of Pilot Rock, where I picked a small patch of shade to sit and take out my painting supplies. My new little watercolor pad, it turns out, has poor quality paper in it, but I did my best to capture the scene. If anything, the mere act of stopping to paint is valuable in and of itself. The actual finished painting, to me, is the least important part. The process of painting in plein air requires attentiveness and curiosity. As I’ve said in many previous posts, just being still is enough to see more, feel more, hear more and notice more. Painting is sometimes just an excuse to take an extended break. Walking constantly has its benefits as well, but I’m finding that striking a balance between motion and stillness is providing me with an experience that just one or the other cannot provide.

Watercolor!

The rest of the hike breezed by. Later that afternoon, we headed into Ashland for First Friday art walk, dinner and a stay/soak at Jackson Wellsprings. That’s a story for another time.

Mt. Ashland to Wagner Butte

July 5, 2023.

15.2 mi | 4012′ ele. gain | 8 hr.

Pointing to Mt. Ashland

Photo album

I wanted to do a big hike along the Siskiyou Crest while we were in the area. It appeared that I could hike from the Mt. Ashland parking lot up the east side of Mt. Ashland, down the west side, follow NF-20 to the Split Rock trail all the way to Wagner Butte and back. I didn’t calculate the miles because I knew it would be longer than I wanted it to be, but that I’d go anyway. So, on this warm July morning I gave it a go.

Mt. Ashland

The trail up Mt. Ashland gets right to the point. It is short and steep and breathtaking (in the literal and figurative sense). I took many breaks to look for wildflowers and observe the absurdity of being on a ski hill off season. All the lifts and machinery and such. At the top, I found a building in the shape of a giant soccer ball and a bunch of other structures. I found the summit marker, took a short break and then began down the road on the other side.

While I saw a ton of wildflowers on the hike up, I didn’t find much that was new or unusual. After reading so much online on the special flora that exists on Mt. Ashland, I was a little disappointed. But I would make a complete change of attitude on my road walk off the mountain. Almost immediately, I noticed something only familiar from the images I studied online the night before: Henderson’s horkelia! I audibly squealed, then dropped into my wildflower squat and took a bunch of photos. I touched its fuzzy leaves and searched for a “good” looking flower. They all seemed a little roughed up or withered. I wasn’t sure if that was just their look or if they were going out of season.

The rest of the road down was a cornucopia of flowers, shrubs, rocks and birds. Something to look at around every corner. While I generally try and avoid road walks, this one was rather pleasant.

Split Rock Trail

From the base of the Mt. Ashland service road, I needed to make my way to the Split Rock Trail. This required a bit more road walking, although I short-cutted one big switchback by tromping straight up a hill in the forest. Near the trailhead, I encountered my first snow patch of the day and made a mental note for later. It wasn’t hot yet, but I knew it was coming.

I loved hiking the Split Rock Trail. It traversed on or adjacent to a beautiful ridgeline, with the occasional steep up or down segment. I walked through meadows, rocky outcrops, shady forests and sagebrush desert. As the environment changed, so did the flora. Wildflowers were profuse and diverse along the trail. And the butterflies! So many butterflies flitted and swirled around me, hardly stopping for a second before heading to their next destination.

View from Split Rock trail

Along the way, I took short detours to the summits of McDonald Peak and Split Rock. The last item on my agenda was Wagner Butte. On my map, a trail went to “Wagner Butte Lookout” but not the butte itself. I decided I’d hit both of those. At the time I had no idea that the lookout was anything more than a nice viewpoint. But I figured if a trail went there, then it must be worth checking out.

Wagner Butte and Lookout

Weighing my options, I decided to cruise the trail to the lookout first, then walk the ridge back to the true summit and then return to the trail. By this point, it had gotten very hot and I appreciated every moment I got to spend in the shade.

Near the end of the trail, I found myself scrambling up huge granite boulders towards what appeared to be a handrail. At the top, it all made sense. It’s an old lookout site! A very faded sign shared the site’s history, and what a fabulous viewpoint it was. An old ammo canister contained a sign-in book, and it was filled with names from people visiting just this year. I’m glad I didn’t go on a weekend! I was the only one on top at that moment. With not a shade tree in sight, the direct sun completely zapped my energy. I sat down for a few minutes, but quickly got back up. I still had to bushwhack to the summit and hike many miles back to the van. At this point, I was 10 miles into my dayhike.

Lots of stonecrop. Stonecrop loves sunny outcrops.

On the map, it looked straightforward. How many times have I made that mistake…

I walked back down the trail to a point where I could easily gain a saddle on the north ridge of Wagner Butte. Then, I pushed through forest debris. First it was chinkapin, then snowbrush, then manzanita. The trifecta. Plus, there were tons of downed trees, piles of huge boulders and tangles of thick vegetation. When I finally made it to the summit area, there were three major pinnacles, of which any one could be the true summit. In order to make sure I got the right one, I made my way to the top of each one, then retreated to the pile that offered the best lunch rest stop. I was really hungry and very hot by this time.

I sat down and ate my lunch in a state of delirium. Out of nowhere, a bright green caterpillar appeared on my leg. Or was it a delusion? Nope, I’ve got video to prove it.

The return

Re-fueled and ready to get out of the sun, I began thrashing through shrubs again to get back to the trail. At least it’s easier to push through manzanita on the way down than it is on the way up.

Back on trail, I moved at a comfortable pace and made sure to pause at every shade stop after a sunny stretch. My body felt so hot. I sipped on my water regularly and calculated how long it would take me to get back to the snow patch. Back on Wagner Lookout, I’d messaged Aaron a pickup location that would save me a few miles of hot, exposed road walk to get back to the van. So, I also had that to look forward to.

All my shade stops turned into flower and bug-watching stops, too. I sat in one meadow, mesmerized by the bees buzzing around a particularly stunning monument plant. It was better than any Netflix documentary I’d ever seen. A good reminder that stopping can be good for a number of reasons, but one is certainly that I see so much more cool stuff when I sit in place for a while.

Monument plant and bee

The highlight of the hike back was reaching the snow patch. I threw off my pack, turned around and laid down flat on the snow. How refreshing! I stuffed my pants pockets full of snow, put a snowball under my hat and filled my water bladder with snow: I had plans for that later. With fresh energy, I finished my hike back to the van.

Cool down

Aaron had the AC running in the van, which felt so luxurious. I stripped off my sweaty clothes, filled a mug with snow and poured cold tea over the top. Iced tea in the AC! It was a fabulous way to finish off a hot summer hike.

Compared to the dozens of people I’d seen on the PCT section we hiked the day before, this place was completely deserted. I saw one person near the Wagner Butte Lookout and one person near the Split Rock trailhead as I was finishing up. For the rest of the day I got to hike in quiet solitude. Those big-name trails attract people like bugs to a nightlight, but the less well-known trails are no less worthy of a visit. If you like to hike alone, skip the things you’ve heard of and venture onto a neighboring trail. You’ll get all the wildflowers and views and natural beauty without the crowds and noise.