How (not) to plan a road trip

March 19-24, 2011

All of the photos can be seen in one album here.

Plan A: Yosemite or Bust

My partner and I had planned to make the most out of Spring Break this year, by combining a family function outside of San Francisco with a radical rock climbing trip to Yosemite. I’d spent some of last year’s spring break climbing at Yosemite and was dying to go back for more. I researched routes, borrowed books, bought new gear, and trained at the climbing gym in preparation. I also tossed a few extra hiking guidebooks in the car just in case our plan didn’t work out. I had two rough contingency plans in place: Plan B was to do some rock climbing in southern Oregon, and Plan C was to make a hiking circuit through California and Oregon. So we made the long haul to central California, socialized with his family, and eagerly anticipated our adventure. On the way down I-5 we’d driven through a blowing snowstorm and tons of rain, so we called Yosemite the night before leaving the house to check local conditions. Due to the onslaught of another snow storm, all roads into the park were closed. CLOSED. Conditions looked cold and wet or snowy for pretty much the entire west coast. It was time to revisit plan C.

Plan D: Castle Crags

Next on our list of possibilities was Castle Crags State Park, a playground of granite peaks near Mt. Shasta. Located right off the interstate on our route back north, it was in a prime location for a day or two of camping and exploring. After a late breakfast Monday morning, we hit the road and drove for several hours to reach the park. When we arrived, the road to the campground was gated shut, and only day-use parking was available. None of the nearby campgrounds were open either, and there was too much snow on the ground to make staying in the forest close to the park possible. We stopped at a gas station to ask for advice, and we were directed to the town of Mt. Shasta for the closest possible camping opportunities. Plan E took us way out of the way to a series of closed campgrounds, and Plan F took us into the town center, where a disgusting KOA campground and lots of tacky, overpriced lodging options were available. Frustrated, we hit the road again and decided to head east to try and find some snow-free forest land.

Plan G: Camping under the stars

We veered off I-5 to route 97, which would take us northeast through desert and Ponderosa Pine forest through the last bit of California and then to central Oregon. North of the town of Weed, we drove onto a dirt Forest Service Road to find a suitable home for the night. Indeed, we did! Our first night of camping was glorious. We set up the tent amid sagebrush and sparse trees, coyote footprints, and views of rolling hills. There was plenty of brush and fallen wood to burn, so we ate dinner by a warm fire, gazed at the stars and gorged ourselves on Peep S’mores before going to sleep.

Plan H: Goosenest Mountain

So far, we had done no hiking. The only exercise we got were at two rock gyms in California, one in Davis (horrible) and the other in Concord (AWESOME!). Today, we were determined to get out of the car and stretch our legs. According to Sullivan’s purple book, covering Southern Oregon and a wee bit of Northern California, there was a hike up a small peak that was quite close to our camp. When we arrived at the turnoff, however, the road was completely snowbound. Bummer! I’d really wished I’d brought the yellow book for Eastern Oregon, but back in Portland I could not have possibly foreseen this many plans gone wrong! We pulled into a rest area and I ripped out the DeLorme Gazeteers for California and Oregon, poring over the maps and looking for the closest point of interest that might be accessible even with snow on the ground. We were fully prepared for walking in the snow, but we were unable to even get to a starting point in the car. I noticed the Lava Beds National Monument just south of the state line. Surely, if we continued east the snow levels would drop, and it would be likely that a National Monument would have access this time of year. We gunned it through the gorgeous Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and made it to the Lava Beds by about noon. Another late start for me…I was absolutely dying to get out of the car.

Plan I: Lava Beds National Monument

We had to drive through the entire Monument just to get to the Visitor Center. The place looked cool. There were cinder cones everywhere. The desert landscape was snow-covered, but shrubby plants and piles of lava rock poked above the blanket of snow. We pointed out some high points that we wanted to explore. But when we listened to the ranger’s spiel at the front desk, we realized that the draw of this place was the many lava tube caves that were developed for public access. As the sun finally made a bright and imposing appearance outside I dreaded the prospect of slogging through a slew of damp, boring lava tubes. Reluctantly, I paid the $10 admission fee, grabbed a stupid caving map and walked back to the car to pick up all the light sources we had with us.

The “introductory cave,” Mushpot, was located right behind the Visitor’s Center, so we went there first. Along the way there were conveniently placed samples of pumice and obsidian to look at. Upon entering the cave, I noticed the red rope lights lining either side of the walkway and thought this was bound to be a super-lame tourist trap. As I approached each educational sign I read it aloud and turned the light on to find the feature mentioned in the sign. This was certainly the most interesting lava tube I’d been in. Cool formations lined the ceilings, walls, and floors. Colorful minerals and bacteria created unique patterns on the rock. I was disappointed at reaching the end of the cave and I was interested in seeing what other gems this park had in store.

Walking back up into the sunshine we checked the map to see what caves were open. This time of year, many of the caves are inhabited by hibernating bats that should not be disturbed; the park closes these caves to public access to ensure a healthy bat population in the spring. The next cave we visited was Indian Well, which was really short, but had incredibly cool ice columns that dotted the bottom of the cave. The ice was unusually smooth and clear. This was the only cave in which we ran into other people; for the rest of the day we were able to explore the caves on our own, which fostered a sense of adventure.

By now we were hooked. We walked back to the Visitor’s Center and then circumnavigated the loop road on foot, entering every open cave we could find. At one point, we entered one cave, popped up through several holes like groundhogs, and ended up exiting through another cave at the opposite side of the loop! All the caves had interesting names: Hopkins Chocolate, Thunderbolt, Blue Grotto, Paradise Alleys… Each cave was unique and had its own special features. The caves were decorated with exquisite icicles and we felt fortunate to be able to see this place at this time of year. What I anticipated being the worst day of the trip turned out to be my favorite day. We returned to the car after about 5 hours of wandering, and immediately began to concoct our next plan.

Plan J: Towards Crater Lake

Sticking with the “What’s going to be open?” theme, I decided that Crater Lake would be tomorrow’s destination. Our goal was to find a place to camp nearby. This would be tricky, since Crater Lake receives massive snowfall each year and I knew this year would be no different. I thought we could stay somewhere near Fort Klamath, so we got back on to 97 and then turned up 62 towards Crater Lake. All the while I kept my eye on the roadside, trying to gauge when we would start to hit impassable snow. When we reached the small town of Fort Klamath we turned up a Forest Road, drove until we hit snow, and decided we’d try another road. Unfortunately, after much driving, we could not find anything else before the snow got deep. We checked out one campground (Plan K) that looked really sketchy, so we turned around and headed back up the SAME road we’d scouted an hour before, scanning the ground for a flat spot to pitch the tent (Plan J, revisited).

Brody spotted a reasonable location that had enough space for me to pull off the road, so that’s where we stayed. It was actually rather nice; we were nestled in the trees on a thick, soft bed of pine needles. Again, we scavenged enough dry wood to burn, ate dinner, and ogled the stars.

Plan L: Crater Lake

The drive to Crater Lake was just as I’d remembered it: overcast skies and snow piled higher than the height of my car. It was like driving through a rat maze. The surface of the road wasn’t too bad; it was icy in spots but I never felt a serious reduction in traction. Fortunately, no one else was dumb enough to be out here this early so I navigated the road alone.

We got to the Visitor’s Center about an hour before it opened, so we continued up the road to the rim of the lake. When we got out of the car, the wind was blowing powdery snow all around and it felt really cold. We dressed for snowshoeing as quickly as we could and then began our quest to see the lake. The hardest part was finding a break in the snow wall to ascend up to “ground level!” Right near the entry to the cafe we saw a little ramp that we were able to ascend, and then our journey began.

In winter time, the Rim Road that encircles the lake is not plowed, so it becomes the cross country ski trail. It is very difficult in spots to find the road, so we often walked cross country to see what we wanted to see. Brody took the lead, exploring high points, groves of trees, and several lake viewpoints. Just like the other two times I’d been here, the skies were gray and clouds clung to the lake surface like a shy toddler to her mother’s pant leg. Occasionally we were treated to views of Wizard Island and the opposite lake shore. Mostly we were squinting to try and find the water’s surface.

We walked for a couple of hours before heading back to the parking lot. By the time we returned, several groups of waddling tourists were awkwardly walking on the snow and angling towards the cafe. We tossed our gear in the car and made it up to the cafe to eat a big lunch and scan our maps for ideas for tomorrow.

Plans M, N, O?

Many possibilities existed from here. We could have gone a bit north to snowshoe near Mt. Thielsen, Diamond Lake or Mt. Bailey, but those places would have been socked in with no views as well. We could have headed east towards Summer Lake but that would have required a lot more driving. We could have traveled west over one of many mountain passes, stopping to snowshoe somewhere before we hit I-5, but that also would have very limited access and probably poor weather conditions. With all that under consideration we felt the best scenario would be to return to rt. 97 to the east, staying in the high desert and finding recreational opportunities there. This would also allow us to descend from the snow and find another campsite.

Plan P: Night 3

As we took turns driving, I scrutinized the maps and remembered that we’d pass Newberry Crater on our way north. We decided to camp somewhere close by so we could finally have a full day available to hike. Driving up the road to the crater, we searched for camping options. Several dirt roads led to more snow and provided little opportunity for a flat camping area near a car turnout. Once we hit snow on the main drag we had to turn around and check out some of the side roads for a second time. It was extremely frustrating to be denied over and over again. I had difficulty turning my car around on narrow, brushy, snow-covered roads with no visibility behind me as the car was fully packed down with gear. Tensions were high.

At last we found a place to pull to the side of the road and got out of the car. We decided on a soggy spot near a trail and stream where we could place the tent and start a fire. Remnants of another campfire indicated that someone else had stayed here, so that was good enough for us. It wasn’t particularly pretty, and several cars came down the road nearby while we were there, but it saved the drama of a longer search for a place to stay.

That evening, we tended to an attention-hungry fire, re-organized the car, made more Peep S’mores, and practiced tying knots. We were both feeling weary from all the driving, re-planning, and searching for stuff in the car. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could to not drive each other crazy, and hoped for a good night’s sleep.

Plan Q: Newberry Crater

In the morning, I cooked up a quick, hot breakfast so we’d have energy to trudge through the snow all day. We packed up camp and drove up to the Ten-Mile Sno-Park to snowshoe on the ski trails there. It had been years since I had explored this place, and I had no map or trail description to guide us. We took the last ski map from the trailhead and set off up the Paulina View Trail, which would take us the 3.5 miles to the lake.

This was clearly not the trail I remembered, and later I realized I’d gone a different way on the last trip. It traveled along roads through a young forest, with trees not yet large enough to protect us from the wind. It was boring. I couldn’t believe I was out snowshoeing in the forest and I didn’t want to be there. The path was wide and straight, so you could see where you were going quite easily. There were no interesting twists and turns, nothing unusual or pretty to look at, and the constant assault of wind wore down on my last nerve. I was so happy to come to the wide, snowmobile road near the lake because I knew our trek was halfway over.

Plan R: Paulina Peak?

Here we debated whether or not to continue to Paulina Peak. Last time I was here, I attempted to summit via the summer trail and I came really close to making it. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to try again. However, the summer trail wasn’t marked on the ski map and we couldn’t find the trailhead. We continued to Paulina Peak road, which snowmobiles can take to the top. It would add just one mile to our hike (according to the ski map), but it would be easier walking on a packed road so I thought it would be a favorable alternative to trying to find the trail. We walked up the road a ways, and again it was incredibly boring. At first sight of a sign that read “Steep, Winding Road next 4 miles,” I said, “NO WAY.” We turned back and arrived at the lake, at which point we needed to make another decision.

Plan S: Paulina Falls and a gentle walk out

I dreaded walking another 3.5 miles on the tedious Paulina View trail but I also didn’t want to walk through unbroken snow on the Ponderosa Trail, the only other option to get back to the Sno-Park. However, it had the appeal of being more interesting as well as offering the opportunity to check out a waterfall. We opted for the Ponderosa Trail.

Shortly we reached the waterfall overlook. The falls were breathtaking. Snow was piled up to the level of the railing at the viewpoint. We stopped for several minutes to take photos, eat snacks and enjoy the scenery. The water had created massive ice sheets on and near the falls. Snow was piled high on the rocks in the stream, creating postcard like views all around. Already it was worth the extra effort to take the other trail.

And there was more good news: apparently the Ponderosa Trail is much more beloved by winter travelers, as there were ski and snowshoe tracks the whole way back to the car. We ambled happily through the pretty forest, stopping to cross the snowmobile road many times as the trail mostly paralleled the road to the Sno-Park. Once back at the car we changed, devoured food, and plotted the most practical stop for food. We had decided that today was the day to make the drive back to Portland, and we still had enough daylight left to complete the drive before dark.

Plan T: Which way home?

We had a couple of driving options from here: take 97 north to the Gorge and cruise home from there, or turn west on 20 in Bend and go up and over the pass to I-5. I knew there would be better weather to the east, but Brody insisted on going west and taking our chances with the snow. I didn’t care either way, so we went west.

I love driving through this part of the state. Routes 20 and 22 offer some of the most outstanding views of the volcanic peaks in the Cascades, in my opinion. I was happy to show it off to someone who’d never been down there before. My excitement was quickly dimmed as the clouds started dumping snow down and reducing visibility to a few feet in front of the car. Before long I was stuck behind a truck barely driving 15 mph down the road and the long journey through the pass began. Fortunately, we had stopped to eat in Sisters so we had full bellies for this part of the trip. We passed one mountain marker after another, pointing to Mt. Washington, then Three Fingered Jack, and finally Mt. Jefferson. Each was obscured by clouds so thick I could barely see what was on the other side of the road.

Once we dropped back down to the Willamette Valley the skies cleared a bit and fields of green rolled out gently in all directions. Just another hour or two and we’d be home again.

Another adventure on the roads was put behind us, and hopefully many more lay ahead. I am now more ready than ever for the opportunity to get my hands on the rock. I dream of sunny days and warmer weather ahead. Summer can’t get here fast enough.

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