Saturday, May 4, 2013

Three Sisters Loop

This last weekend, I hiked the Three Sisters Loop. That phrase just rolls off the tongue in robust braggadocio with a just hint of studied nonchalance. But no, the hike was not the formidable 75 mile loop (surely covered with snow, this time of year) around Oregon's massive Three Sisters near Bend. Nope, these three sisters are a set of fairly nondescript cinder cones in the desert badlands of Lava Beds National Monument, just barely on the California side of the Oregon-California border.

I learned the desert can get hot
For some reason, desert hiking had been calling me so Friday I hopped in the car after work and drove the 4 1/2 hours to the monument. Arriving at the tail end of a spectacular sunset, camp was quickly set up in the fading light. It had been fairly warm but the temperature quickly dropped into the mid-40's. The temperature in the desert can rapidly change from hot to cold for no apparent reason, just like a teenager's mood swings.

Schonchin Butte, from the Bunchgrass Trail
Starting out in the early morning, the day was sort of sunny as puffy white clouds provided intermittent shade. A chill wind blew, though, and the cool temperature was just perfect for hiking. The Three Sisters Loop began from the campground on the Bunchgrass Trail which angled along the base of Crescent Butte, yet another small cinder cone.  There were so many cones dotting the landscape, it was as if the earth had goosebumps.

Dwarf monkeyflowers
I'm not sure if it was spring in the desert or not, or if there is even such a thing as spring in the desert, but thick mats of phlox were blooming in the rocks and volcanic ash. I saw some specimens of blazing star, cinquefoil, currant, and dwarf monkeyflower. That was it for the flower "show" as the unblooming sagebrush was the dominant life form on the Lava Beds planet.

To the Bat Cave, Richard!

At the foot of Crescent Butte, a right turn was made onto the Missing Link trail and somehow that was fitting. A mile later through the treeless sagebrush, the trail ended on the Skull Cave (also fitting, for some reason) Road, requiring a short road walk to the cave parking lot. I didn't have caving equipment so I just walked to the entrance and peered into the inky blackness of the cave tunnel.  Inside, it was dark and cold like yesterday's coffee in the mug on my desk. Actually, the coffee is probably older than yesterday to judge by the rafts of gray mold floating on top.  

Hungry for hikers
Caves are a large part of the Lava Beds experience and as I continued on the trail (now called the Lyons Road) all manner of sinkholes, deep cracks, and cave entrances proliferated right and left of the trail. The caves are caused by collapsed lava tubes and I began to doubt the so-called solidity of the ground I was hiking upon. I am glad to report no hikers were swallowed up by the earth this day, no feeding the caves for me!

The Three Sisters
Resembling black pimples on a wide cheeky expanse of sagebrush, the Three Sisters came into view as I took another right turn onto their namesake trail. Normally, these low buttes would not be worthy of attention but since they were the only item of interest within a couple of cubic parsecs, they had become a noteworthy hiking destination.  Obviously, the Three Sisters were the  little sisters of the Lava Beds household.  Probably bratty, too.

View from the "campsite"
My guidebook suggested camping (I was dayhiking, no camping for me this time) at a tree near the buttes and there it was, a lone juniper as noteworthy as the buttes since they were the only things higher than knee-height. It was here that the wind eased up, clouds quit forming overhead, and the sun began to bake me like a candied yam. Coming from the cool jungles on the west side of the Cascades Mountains, I began to suffer from SDS (shade-deficiency syndrome). Or as King Richard said (with apologies to William Shakespeare) "shade, my kingdom for some shade!"

What constitutes jungle growth in the desert
Continuing east, the trail left the monument and entered the Modoc Forest and junipers began to appear. While my west-side Cascades sensibilities would deign to apply the word "forest" to this collection of low growing junipers, there were more than one and that constitutes a forest in these parts. At any rate, the shade was enjoyed at a lengthy lunchtime dalliance in what would be the first of several shade stops.

Sketchy trail

The farther the trail went from the monument, the sketchier the tread became as the ubiquitous sagebrush was intent on reclaiming the land from human intrusion. The only sounds heard were my boots crunching on the pumice and volcanic ash and the scolding from the blue jays. And maybe the odd hiker fart every now and then.  Just as I was getting nervous about getting lost in the desert, the trail looped back to west and reentered the monument. And in the monument the trail tread became clearly visible again and there was much relief.

Pahoehoe lava
Several miles back into the monument, the trail passed an interesting lava formation consisting of thick braids that had congealed, preserving the hot molasses drip for all eternity. As tired legs stumbled forward with several more opportune shade stops, the clouds resumed forming, the wind started blowing and it felt like rain was on the way. By the time I returned to the campground, the wind was in full force and the rain started.

Let the sunset begin
Of course, a half hour later, the clouds disappeared and the day went semi-sunny again, allowing campers to enjoy a spectacular sunset. Large clouds formed over Tule Lake and it was obvious the people of the lake's namesake town were getting rained on. The sunset was a great reward for a tough hike in addition to being able to truthfully and casually say "I hiked the Three Sisters Loop last weekend!"  

For more pictures of this scenic little park in California, please check out the Flickr album.

Green tiger beetle

1 comment :

  1. Enough desert hiking, time for some wooded Southern Oregon trails again......see ya at Grizzly Peak!!