Deschutes National Forest
A fantastic trip through Central Oregon. My dad gave me a lift to pick up the box of food I’d shipped to Shelter Cove on Odell Lake and then he dropped me at the PCT Trailhead at Willamette Pass on Hwy 58.
I started on a Sunday afternoon and I passed the Rosary Lakes just about three miles into the forest. There were plenty of people around camping, swimming, and generally enjoying the view. I climbed up above the lakes and found a perfect viewpoint up at the top where I pitched my tent. You could see the Rosaries, Odell Lake, and Crescent Lake behind it.
I settled in for the night and just at dark was joined by a 74-year old PCT thru-hiker lady called Listener who started from the Mexican border. The next morning we hiked together towards Charlton Lake, where I stopped to camp while she put on more miles. Charlton was deeply blue and deserted when I arrived. There are developed campsites (cleared spaces with fire rings) but you can’t drive in, you have to hike.
Another two PCT thru-hikers arrived that evening (Flag Man and I’m Fine) so I went over to say hello to I’m Fine. He had a cooking pot and he just dropped a pile of spaghetti, cut some chunks of cheese into it, and heated it up. A little different from my dehydrated soups approach so I was pretty jealous.
The next day took me into a several miles of dead white pine, victim to the pine beetle, through which the wind whistling kept making me think people were shouting in the distance. I resolved not to camp there because I’d just be creeped out all night. Plenty of new growth was creeping up and fireweed was everywhere.
At the Harrelson cutoff I sat down to have a rest and was soon surrounded and thoroughly investigated by fluffy-headed, utterly fearless gray jays. When I moved on I nearly went down to the horse camp instead of continuing along the PCT but Flag Man, who’d caught up, set me right.
Just inside the Irish-Taylor Wilderness, I ran across a stretch of what I think was bear track and then I came around a corner … and had caught up with Listener! We hiked on and off together throughout the day and ended up camping together at a prepared site by an unnamed lake northeast of Cougar Flats.
This is about the time I managed to finish China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station by light of my headlamp so I spent the next day hiking through the forest and New Corbruzon simultaneously, thinking about it. I’m not sure the city itself made up for what was a very bleak book.
We pressed to get on above Elk Lake Resort by dark and were successful – and that’s where I left Listener and headed on in search of a campsite further north. I was afraid, if I went into Elk Lake, that I’d ask for a ride home. It was tough being solo and waking up to the prospect of lots of miles the next day when civilization was so close. There was someone who’d give hikers rides into Bend… so tempting… but I held out and knew I’d made the right decision when I woke the next morning near Horse Creek Trail cutoff.
The creeks and streams were mostly low when they weren’t entirely dry, especially out in the open meadows. Still, there was enough water for me and the countryside was gorgeous. I saw deer, chipmunks, and plenty of birds. Shortly I was up on top of Koosah Mountain and took a long break just to take in the views.
There were plenty of views of South Sister to keep me going as I moved north. Sisters Mirror Lake was gorgeous, of course, and I started seeing lots of small groups of hikers either heading to summit or just out for a loop. It was great to see Three Sisters Wilderness so appreciated and used.
Emerging from the tree line, I headed north through the Wikiup Plain. The horses and hikers have pounded the trail into two or three inches of loose sand so it was slow going in full sun.
Fortunately, the view only improved as I approached Mesa Creek, and finally, back in the trees, the loose sandy trail resolved itself into firmer rock and packed dirt toward Separation Creek through meadows full of wildflowers.
I met a couple at Mesa Creek and we leapfrogged each other throughout the afternoon, finally reaching Reese Lake past Separation Creek at around the same time. Two guys were already camped above the lake but there was a fire ring in the meadow and a lake is always nice, so we made camp there and stayed up late talking.
On the last morning, I woke and hit the trail early, intending to stay at either South Mathieu Lake or Lava Camp Lake below Hwy 242 at McKenzie Pass. I figured I had a long day ahead of me… little did I know how long it would turn out to be…
Every day I went to sleep later and woke up earlier. I felt like I was finally getting my trail legs, but I was feeling quite lonely instead of energized by the solitude. I think what most got to me were the arbitrary deadlines and the uncertainty of where I would be sleeping, what the landscape would look like, and whether I’d be safe.
Descending into the plain to the west of the North Sister, I saw scattered groups of people all around me as I hiked, and it was here I managed to borrow a cell phone to call for a ride out for the next morning.
I paused briefly at Obsidian Falls to wash off the morning’s dirt and grab a bite to eat. I hadn’t realized that obsidian actually is everywhere once you get above the falls. I just couldn’t get enough of the volcanic landscape.
Shortly thereafter, I came out of the Obsidian Area and was kind of shocked – despite reports from southbound hikers all day, I hadn’t appreciated the existence of the Pole Creek Fire on the other side of the mountains. I had to check the map and discovered that, yeha, not only had I been told that the PCT the western boundary of the fire, but the PCT itself turned east for a while as it went up and over Obie Dildock Pass. I started to get a little worried but kept on.
There was a lot of ‘up’ as I went on but the view from the top of Obie Dildock Pass did make me feel somewhat sorry for swearing at him all the way up. The loose pumice path was nearly entirely ice-free but there was a lot of ‘two steps forward, slide one step back’.
The view at the top, though.
I saw no PCT signage at all as I came down past Minnie Scott Springs and the Glacier Way Trail cutoff until, finally, at the other end of the meadow, there was the cutoff to the Scott Lake Trailhead! I checked the maps and knew it was only five miles to Hwy 242… but I was committed to the PCT and, besides, there was a lot more ‘up’ in that direction. If only I’d known about Yapoah Crater…
I passed another group of hikers that told me the fire had closed access to Lava Camp Lake so I started worrying about my scheduled ride. I was nearly up and over the last real ‘up’ of the trail, which is the climb up and around Yapoah Crater, when a ranger came down the trail toward me. I asked him if he had a cell phone so I could update my ride with where/when I was going to be there – and he said he’d take a message for me but also that he was closing this section of the PCT from the Scott Lake intersection behind me.
He said I couldn’t camp at South Mathieu Lake or at Lava Camp Lake, but I could hike on through to hit Hwy 242 and camp north of there near the Dee Wright Observatory. I decided to press on (in retrospect I could’ve gone back and camped elsewhere and taken a more leisurely pace) because I was tired and really just done with the hike. I passed a lot of flagging for eastbound trails from the PCT but it was all pretty much downhill until that last horrible mile of big, loose pumice from which I emerged onto Hwy 242. I roadwalked up to the Dee Wright Observatory and ran into the same ranger who’d see me on the trail!
There were also a couple guys up there and I asked them if they were headed back to Salem or Eugene, by any chance. Turns out they lived in Veneta and were heading back in a couple hours – “but you’d have to hang out and stargaze with us, we’re going to watch the fire as the sun sets” – so I told the ranger to pass on the message that I’d call my ride the next morning from Eugene. I hung out with them and we spotted shooting stars and lightning, watched the stars come out and the fire’s smoke change the sky, and generally talked a lot of politics.
I spent the night in Veneta and took the Amtrak back to Salem in the morning.