Friday, September 4, 2020

Red Cone Spring

On my radar is an end-to-end hike from Boundary Springs to the Crater Lake Highway, the route being part and parcel of the 25'ish mile long Bald Crater Loop. I figure the hike would be about 12 miles with most of it passing through the remote backcountry of Crater Lake National Park. I have yet to persuade someone with a car (needed for the shuttle) to join me but I'll keep pestering my friends, someone will eventually crack. The cool part for me is that virtually all of the hike will be on trail that I've never been on, a rarity in southern Oregon. If I can't sweet talk anybody into coming with me, then I may just backpack the Bald Crater Loop as a solo venture.

The unassuming fount of Red Cone Spring

In 2015, the Crescent Fire burned up the north end of Crater Lake Park and pretty much the entire Bald Crater Loop lies within the burn zone. Because forest gets burned up in a wildfire, it stands to reason that much more sunlight reaches what was once the shady forest floor. Accordingly, sun-loving life bursts at the seams and vegetation quickly gets to work on claiming trails as their own. Over the years following a fire, dead standing trees become dead fallen trees that hikers have to clamber over. All of this plays havoc with trails, of course. With finances and resources being what they are, trails are often abandoned to the elements until such time as a trail crew can be mustered up to repair the damage. So, while I definitely would like to hike or backpack the Bald Crater Loop, the point is that I had no idea if the the trails were in hikeable shape or not. Clearly, a scouting trip was called for.

Life is tough for trees here

The damage from the Crescent Fire was readily apparent during the drive through the north entrance of Crater Lake National Park, mostly in the form of several miles of blackened forest. Next to the roadway, no trees that I could see survived the conflagration but at the Pacific Crest Trail, the trailhead was surrounded by a patchwork of both living and dead trees. The dead trees here were not deceased from the fire but from a lodgepole beetle infestation. Whether dead by fire or by beetle, either way the forests here are highly stressed by the effects of climate change.

Red Cone dominated the scenery near the trailhead

The Pacific Crest Trail was dry and dusty as a witch's cackle as it headed directly towards Red Cone. The ground was mostly bereft of  ground cover which would explain the dust being kicked up by my feet as I scuffed along. Next to the trail, a few specimens of low growing buckwheat bushes were already going autumnal red while rabbitbrush was reaching the end of its yellow-flowered blooming season. The top of Red Cone was mostly visible above the trees and yes, it was indeed colored a dark red. 

Trees with anatomical appendages

For the first mile or so I was visually entertained by dead lodgepole trees sporting burls and tumors resembling so many butt cheeks or other body parts of unknown purpose. I'm not entirely sure what causes burls to form and after doing some research it seems like nobody else does either. Take your pick, burls either form because of genetic predisposition, viruses, bacteria, beetle infestation, or all-around general forest stress. Whatever the cause, I found myself hiking in a forest full of misshapen trees that surely had to have originated from some other planet.

Window on a burn zone

Just as the route buttonhooked around the north side of Red Cone, a patch of forest flanked either side of the trail in a poignant reminder of what forests around here used to look like. The trees were uniformly well-foliaged and green, and the shade was cool, all of which had been up until now, in very short supply. But it was too good to last and after an enjoyable half-mile, the Pacific Crest Trail entered the burn zone.


The conflagration of 2015 must have been hotter than my homemade salsa (and that's hot!) for virtually all trees here had perished. The remainder of this hike would pass through several miles of stand after stand of dead trees. Skeletal snags stood straight and tall in the spot where they stoically met their demise. The younger trees that succumbed in the fire were all bent over in nearly the same direction, giving the appearance of a frantic and futile crawl to flee their impending death by fire. There were a few young seedlings sprouting here and there, but only just a few. This forest will be a long time in recovering to its once and former glory. 

Deer and/or elk left scuff marks all over bare ground

Life won't be denied though, and apparently the first order of business was for grasses to form a wide-ranging ground cover underneath the tree graveyard. Birds twittered and flittered while jackhammering woodpeckers were heard but not seen. Apparently elk and deer congregate here too. Although I did not see any, nor did I see any fresh scat thereof, the soil on and around the trail were full of scuff marks and hoof prints. It looked like a somnivalent army of zombie deer had marched through here, dragging their feet as they wearily trudged to battle. 

Beautiful meadows surround Red Cone Spring

Red Cone Spring is an important water stop for Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers, since there is little water available in the dry volcanic soils that so populate this section of the Cascades. The spring also made for a logical turnaround point so I left the PCT and ambled through some large, gorgeous, and grassy  meadows as I made my way to the spring. The trailside oasis was barely trickling but water is life and the weak current is more than enough to sustain both hikers and local wildlife. Lunch and relaxation at this peaceful spot in the middle of a tree graveyard was had before turning around and heading back.

This way to Boundary Springs!

At a trail junction on the way back, I went up the Boundary Springs Trail for a bit just to explore. The trail is somewhat on the sketchy side but if it doesn't get any worse, it will be followable which is my main concern. On the return leg, I did run into two backpacking parties who were doing the full 25'ish mile long Bald Crater Loop so people are hiking it, which gives me further hope for doing the same. But for now, it had been a pleasant day hike in the Crater Lake backcountry and that was enough.

Commemorative lichen bouquet on a dead tree

For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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