August 23, 2008.
Old Cascades Crest Trail | 8.6 mi | 2200′ ele. gain | 6 hours
On this gorgeous, sunny, summer weekend I decided to escape the crowds in Central Oregon by visiting some less popular trails. While my friends climbed to the top of South Sister with hundreds (literally) of other eager people, I found solace atop the wildflower meadows of Crescent Mountain, just a stone’s throw away.
Just west of Santiam Pass lies the Old Cascade Crest trail system, linking a bunch of smaller peaks overshadowed by their more dramatic neighbors. The benefit of hiking in this area is that you don’t have to work as hard to get some of the best views I’ve ever seen from any of the big guys. But shhh…don’t tell anyone, or else this special place will lose its peacefulness.
I pulled into the large gravel parking area at the trail head mid-morning, the only car there. A quick glance at the hiker’s log showed that this was not your typical hiking trail. On average it appeared that one or two hiking groups signed in each day. Perfect. As I packed up for the hike, a tiny yellow hummingbird hovered within three feet of my face before going on its way. Wow.
For about a mile, the trail passed gently through tall stands of trees. Ferns and small shrubs carpeted the ground around the narrow trail. At a small creek, I crossed a broken bridge and entered into a small clearing, much to the dismay of several grouse in the area.
From here, the trail slowly began to climb. Enough light passed through the trees to give the forest a friendly demeanor. After about an hour of walking through the trees, I was greeted by blue skies and some nearby mountains across a small, brushy clearing. Ten minutes later, the Three Sisters came into view. Now, the trail alternated between woods and meadows. The varying terrain was perfect on this hot, sunny day. Just as soon as I needed some shade, I walked into the protective cover of trees. Then, as my body temperature moderated, I was back out in the lush wildflower meadows. The only thing bugging me here were, in fact, bugs. Just enough mosquitoes were out to prevent me from stopping, even for a quick sip of water. My legs soon throbbed and itched with bites. But the views and the trail more than made up for the temporary agony. At each switchback I was rewarded with a different angle, looking across brightly lit meadows at the high peaks of the Central Cascades, without a single human in sight.
The last bit of trail before the summit wandered through the trees. The tread climbs noticeably steeper. Soon, the tree line dipped on my right and sunshine glared ahead. I knew my final reward was within reach. Atop the summit, there were remains of an old fire tower. What a place for a lookout. I could see from Mt. Adams in the north to the southern Cascade peaks. In between lay Mt. Hood, Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Black Butte, Mt. Washington, North Sister, Middle Sister and South Sister. Some snowfields on distant peaks shone brightly to the south. The viewpoint from this summit surpassed many other views I’d seen before. The Cascades were lined up perfectly; even the three Sisters appeared equidistant from each other.
I found a soft patch of dirt on the northern end of the cleared summit area, took off my shoes, and ate my lunch. There was a slight wind that tempered the hot sunshine. After downing my sandwich and lots of water I moved to a shaded spot under a small tree where I devoured a giant Milky Way. Heaven. Two guys reached the summit shortly after that, and they pondered which peak was which as I listened, entertained. We exchanged hellos and they left about 5 minutes later. I must have sat up there for at least 45 minutes.
My feet were a bit sore for the walk down so I took it slow, admired the wildflowers and the views, and enjoyed the relaxation of another solo hike. Once back at the bridge, I sat along the tiny creek and dunked my feet and shins in the water. It had been a relaxing and moderately challenging day. I was thrilled to get a chance to test my limits and get away from the crowds on what could possibly be one of the last perfect summer weekends.