July 11, 2020.
12.3 mi | 3,965′ ele. gain | 7:45 hr.
I first completed the Rebel Rock Loop in October, 2012. At that time, its upper reaches were blanketed with newly fallen snow. It was before the 2017 Rebel Fire that burned down the lookout tower as well as a huge swath of forest. I had little idea what to expect on this adventure.
Just a couple weeks prior, I hiked up the Rebel Creek trail in order to gain access to Pyramid Peak. Despite the Forest Service informing me that no trail work had been done on this route after the fire, its condition wasn’t too bad. I knew that at least part of the loop would be easily navigable.
As the trail gradually gained elevation along the creek, we saw classic west-side wildflowers: coralroot, twinflower, vanilla leaf, wild ginger. It was lush and dense, hardly impacted by the fire. Occasionally, the trail would disappear amid charred tree skeletons and windblown dirt slopes. But looking closely for clues, I kept us on track.
A few miles in, the trail began to climb fervently in a series of switchbacks, heading for the meadows beneath Rebel Rock. But we had set our sights on the summit, so we angled straight up the steep hillside. The meadow, seemingly a monoculture of thimbleberry, gave up its secrets only once we were crashing through it. Among the soft, broad thimbleberry leaves hid lupine, bluebell, larkspur, cow parsnip and innumerable other perennials. Strangely noticeable and consistently in our way, red columbine boldly marked our path all the way to the summit.
The top, a viewless jumble of dead beargrass and fallen fir trees, was not a remarkable place to hang out. So we returned to the adjacent meadow to have some lunch and enjoy views of the neighboring peaks. We could see the remainder of the loop trail, on the burned-up ridge where the lookout once stood. My original plan was to do this high-point mission as an out-and-back; but that ridge looked so enticing. As I finished my sandwich, we discussed our next move: we’d chance the ridge. I was hoping for some nice views through the burn, but I was concerned about how destroyed the trail would be.
Our return route to the trail brought us down very steep-sided meadows filled with wildflowers. We had to skirt some steep cliffs and forest patches along the way. Back on the overgrown but still noticeable trail, we were greeted to a fantastic wildflower show that shifted from west-side blooms to east-side beauties as we entered the burn. All that sunshine fostered a happy environment for Oregon sunshine, cat’s ear, several variety of buckwheat, farewell-to-spring, sedum and owl’s clover. We were dumbstruck by the quantity and diversity of the blooming plants all around us. It was one of my highlights of the year so far.
At times, I got distracted by a colorful new flower that led me off trail, but for the most part my fears of losing the route were unfounded. We floated along blissfully as we poked, squeezed and prodded every flower that caught our eye. We found Washington lilies as tall as LeeAnn and big, poufy buckwheat clusters that melted my heart. Butterflies bounced from flower to flower, gliding in the gentle breeze. In the distance, the Three Sisters jutted up behind the Old Cascades peaks, framed by stands of burnt trees. We had found a peaceful Shangri-La tucked away in the side of the Three Sisters Wilderness most people will never visit. All it took was a little sweat, stubbornness and curiosity. I never wanted to leave.
Leaving that last big meadow, the trail dropped into Trail Creek basin via a series of switchbacks. Some of these were quite tricky to find, but between the two of us, we stayed on track…until we didn’t.
Less than 2 miles from the car we encountered a huge downed tree on the trail. Not to worry, I thought, we’ve already tackled several of these today. But on the other side of the tree, there was no trace of a trail. We descended a steep slope littered with boulders, loose rock and bare dirt with a few scraggly shrubs to keep things interesting. To our left, there was a steep gully that I knew we had to cross. But where?
We eventually found a safe place to scramble down and then back up the other side, kicking steps into the duff and grabbing onto tree limbs (after testing them for integrity). After some serious sweat and maybe a few tears, we popped right back onto the trail. Out of curiosity, we followed it back upslope to see where we’d made our mistake. Of course, a hidden switchback crossing the gully lay beneath that big wreck of a tree.
At that point, we were home free. The remainder of the trail was a delight; we’d still have more flowers to discover. A ghost orchid? I had no idea that was a thing. And ripe blackberries? YES PLEASE!
I wonder how such magical trails like these fall to the wayside and get forgotten. With more and more people heading to the outdoors, we really need places like this to get some maintenance and use. Otherwise, they become historical footnotes. I’ve contacted the Forest Service to see if there are plans to resurrect these trails, and I’m ready to step in and help if need be.