Friday, July 29, 2016

Park Meadows (and Golden Lake)

Fire is nature's haircut for forests. A fire will take care of that unkempt shaggy look and the green hair coloring your daughter said would make you look cool. The destruction and regrowth of forests are all part of the circle of life and we hikers should be more understanding and accepting when our favorite hiking haunts disappear in a roiling column of ashy smoke rising up into a dirty brown smoke-filled sky. Hard to do, I know, but periodic wildfires are very much the natural order of things.

Golden tree trunk
I generally don't mind hiking in a burn zone (after the fire has been extinguished, of course), because a burn zone has a special kind of stark beauty all its own. True, there are acres of dead trees, their skeletal fingers raised to the sky in supplication and you can almost imagine them writhing with agony as the flames licked their trunks. Wow, that was an overly dramatic sentence! But life bursts forth on the forest floor, usually in the form of sun-loving vegetation such as groundsel, sedge grass, lupines, and fireweed. Jackhammering woodpeckers can be heard throughout the ghostly forest while bracket fungus consumes all the dead wood in much quieter fashion. And with the removal of that annoying clutter formerly known as "the forest", views are often wide and expansive.

Middle Sister, North Sister, and one beautiful tarn
There is a notable lack of shade in a dead forest, and I had ample cause to ruminate on all this during a recent hike in the Three Sisters Wilderness. The lack of shade is particularly accentuated when the temperature is close to 100 degrees and when the ruminator (me, in this instance) is toting a fully loaded backpack. It was oppressively hot and volcanic dust mixed with hiker sweat chafed in all those hard to reach places. Plus it was hot. Did I mention it was hot? If I didn't, then let it be known it was hot, hot, hot.

Swimming, anyone?

In 2012, the Pole Creek Fire burned most of the east side of the Three Sisters and I remember at the time not being too overly concerned about it. First of all, the forest on fire was that really dull lodgepole stuff and secondly, it was in a place where I normally don't go hiking, so who cares? Four years later, I did care, namely because it was a five mile slog in the burn zone in order to get to Park Meadows. And while I complain vociferously about the experience, pity the Three Sisters Loop hikers who have to hike two full days in that unpicked scab of a dead forest. 

Day 1

My view, for the next 5 miles
After a nearly 4 hour drive from Roseburg, I parked at a dusty trailhead well populated by dust-covered automobiles. Within 5 minutes, my car too was covered by dust. The trail was dusty and dust clouds erupted from beneath my boots with every step and within 10 yards, my shoes, legs, and the rest of my body were likewise covered in dust. Did I mention the trail was dusty?

Watch Richard melt into the volcanic ash
The trail was surrounded by a forest of ghostly snags but lupines were blooming profusely, bright purple spots in all the tan and black. At about the mile mark, which is where I decided I had become officially overheated, the trees faded out altogether and I lethargically slogged through a dry pumice barren like an ant on a hot sidewalk. North and South Sister loomed over the trees and visions of cool snowdrifts began to dance in my sun-cooked head.

Lewis' monkeyflower
The terrain was dry, dusty, and sere, and it was quite a surprise to have to cross a flowing creek of clear and pristine water. Snow Creek was quite cold but the water restored spirits and removed the dust from my skin. A pair of fallen logs made for a precarious hiker's bridge but I was not so lucky at Squaw Creek, where I simply waded through the shin-deep current. Each creek was flanked by banks of grass and magenta colored Lewis's monkeyflower.

It was a wet ford of Squaw Creek

Shortly after a three-way trail junction, a sign tacked to a tree announced this was where the Pole Creek Fire had stopped burning. The sign really wasn't all that necessary because there was a clear line of demarcation between sun beating hikers insensible, and the cool life-giving embrace of a shady forest. All I could do was sigh an appreciative "aaaaah...." as I entered the dark, as happy as a vampire closing the coffin lid at sunrise.

A paintbrush catches the light at Park Creek

Less than a mile later, the trail, without preamble, entered Park Meadows where I gave another heartfelt "aaaah...." The meadows were huge, about as big as Connecticut, and the jagged peak of Broken Top loomed over everything. Glaciers and large snow patches were draped over Broken Top's shoulders like a moth-eaten ermine stole. And two forks of Park Creek braided their way through the meadow while small fish darted in the amazingly clear water. 

Postcard view of Broken Top and Park Meadows
I set up camp next to the creek and immediately thereafter, soaked my feet in the alpine stream. I immediately took my feet out as the water was ice moving too fast to be frozen, turning my shins into a finely vibrating tuning fork of pain. It was like having a brain freeze in my shins! After the setting up chores were finished, I walked around the meadows for a bit, taking pictures of all the flowers in the grass and about a million pictures of Broken Top. I did find some hooded ladies' tresses, a small orchid that I had never seen before and the day ended with alpenglow turning Broken Hand (Broken Top's lesser neighbor) a brilliant orange color. I'm not sure why, but I felt a certain kinship with Broken Hand, maybe it was because of the name.

Day 2

South Sister started the day right
The hiking got off to an early start the next day, with several million of my mosquito friends also getting off to an early start. The relentless persecution by the school of insectile piranhas had me wishing for the mosquito-free burn zone. However, the reason for the early start was to beat the heat that had me not-wishing for a mosquito-free burn zone. Boy, am I conflicted!

Golden Lake
At any rate, the day's itinerary was a short day hike to Golden Lake on the Green Lakes Trail. The path angled gently uphill, away from Park Meadows until a rock cairn signalled the jump -off point for those going to Golden Lake. The several guidebooks I had read had implied this would be a cross-country venture for hikers experienced with map and compass. However, the reality was that enough people have gone to visit the lake that a de facto trail has formed and was easily followable. 

Snow melt cascades down a rocky slope

Golden Lake sits almost at the base of Broken Top, like an adoring dog at the feet of the master. The small lake is surrounded by a huge meadow with small creeks draining the basin into Golden Lake. Not only was Broken Top eminently visible, but all Three Sisters impressed with their huge volcanic bulks flecked with snow. The lake's surface was mirrorlike and all four peaks reflected nicely from different vantage points on the lakeshore. On the east side of the lake, a small creek tumbled down a noisy series of cascades, eventually winding up in the lake.

There was a faint and sketchy path along the creek, it basically followed a steep slope alongside the flowing stream. As I climbed, large patches of snow began to appear alongside the creek. Eventually, the forest along the creek petered out altogether and the terrain became stark and rocky. The vegetation tended towards the alpine what with miniature lupines and paintbrush, partridge feet, and elephant's head louseworts comprising the multicolored rock gardens.

Let the oohing begin!
There were a number of small tarns in the rock basins and the sapphire blue water was simply stunning. Add to the mix the surrounding snow, rocks, blue sky, and volcanoes; and the scenery was beyond epic. And as the path gained elevation along the rocky ridge, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, and Mount Adams eventually showed up and joined the Sisters party.

On a clear day, you can see forever
I had joined up with a couple of fellows from Dundee who were also out exploring and all of us were suitably awestruck at the scenery. We had worked our way up a ridge ending at the base of Broken Top, startling a pine marten in the process. From up close, Broken Top was a rocky wall nearly blocking the noonday sun. At the base lay a series of glacial moraines and a rocky basin looking all the world like a moonscape. Perhaps this is where the fake lunar landing was filmed! Snow was melting in the heat and all manner of creeks trickled down into the valleys below. Central Oregon was prominently visible to the east and we picked out Fort Rock, which looked like a small brown pimple on the lava plains below. On the horizon, a layer of mist marked the path of the Columbia River.

The Green Lakes Trail
Bidding adieu to my new friends, I picked my way back down to Golden Lake and then returned to camp by way of the relatively civilized Green Lakes Trail. The rest of the afternoon was spent napping and reading, it's good to laze every now and then!

Day 3

Hot, hot, hot!
The next day I started early in an attempt to beat the heat waiting for me in the burn zone. It worked for a little bit but after an hour or so, it was hot all over again. I just lowered my head and methodically plugged along until like magic, the trailhead showed up. I think I forgot to appreciate the stark beauty of the burned forest all over again!

Park creek forms below Middle and North Sister
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. Those beautiful alpine meadows were worth the hot trek through that burn zone. I usually don't mind hiking through old forest fires, as the wildflowers are always nice - I think they like the nutrients in the charred soil.

    1. I usually enjoy hiking in a burn zone, I find them interesting and beautiful in their own way. It was just too darn hot that day but yes, it was all worth it!