Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Stuart Falls

In 2017, the Blanket Fire burned around 5,000 acres of the southwest corner of Crater Lake National Park, along with a much larger tract of the Rogue River National Forest. Flash forward five years and the area is well on its way to recovery and is beautiful in its own stark way. However, the lack of viable forest meant that much of our thirteen-mile hike to Stuart Falls was done in open sunlight, which can get pretty warm in this summer of global warming. And surprise of surprises, the heat got to me.

"But Richard said this hike was easy!"

There is a shorter route to Stuart Falls that approaches from the west but I'm not sure if that trail or trailhead is open, given the fire that wreaked so much havoc in the area in 2017. Besides which, there's so much more glory to be gained by hiking the thirteen mile route beginning from Crater Lake National Park. I enticed Cleve, Terry, Edwin, and Missy to come along by telling them it was only ten miles long and it was all downhill, purposely omitting the part about having to walk uphill in the hot sun on the way back.

The Pumice Flat Trail was flat and full of pumice

We started out on the Pumice Flat Trail, which basically follows an old roadbed through some relatively thin forest. In keeping with its name though, the one overriding feature of the Pumice Flat Trail is that it is virtually flat for three miles in what is a rather utilitarian route to the Pacific Crest Trail.

Typical forest scene on the Stuart Falls Trail

We'd only be on the PCT for a hiker's minute though, as we'd peel off onto the Stuart Falls Trail and basically commence the real hike. Here, the PCT runs along a ridge perched above the headwaters of Red Blanket Creek and the Stuart Falls Trail would then drop us several miles down into the creek’s canyon. The fire damage was readily apparent as the Stuart Falls Trail was surrounded by a vast expanse of dead trees.

Paintbrush livened up the rock gardens

Despite the death and destruction surrounding the faint (at times) trail, the hike was eminently beautiful. Green grass, fireweed, and bracken fern carpeted the ground beneath the tree skeletons in vegetative homage to the increased post-fire sunlight. Rocky outcroppings cropped up above the trail, and rock gardens abounded. Stuffed into cracks between individual boulders were stonecrop, blooming pale yellow; and paintbrush with its eye-scalding bright red color. 

If the trees were living, we wouldn't be
able to see Tom and Jerry Mountain(s)

I'm beginning to sound like an advocate of burn areas as I continue to extol the virtues thereof, and one of those virtues was increased visibility due to the dearth of live trees. Readily visible, the nearest peak to us was the symmetrical volcanic cone of Goose Egg. There was a complex of more rugged peaks to the west that were Tom and Jerry Mountain, located in the Seven Lakes area. And let us not forget the disturbingly-named Bald Peak looming on the north side of Red Blanket Creek's canyon.

Sketchy trail, to put it mildly

Because of the abundance of meadows and flourishing vegetation, the trail was overgrown and very sketchy, to state it charitably. But while it was challenging to stay on course, it never got to the point where the tread completely disappeared. More concerning was the continual loss of elevation as we hiked. It was nice to hike downhill but we all knew that an arduous hike back up to the PCT awaited us on the return leg. 

Stuart Falls was simply beautiful

Finally, we arrived at a backpacking campsite next to Red Blanket Creek. And just upstream was Stuart Falls itself, delicately fanning white across a cliff comprised of dark black rock. Much oohing and aahing took place and we all scrambled upstream to the base of the falls, happy to bask in the cool mist emanating from the cascade.

All those trees and no shade

After a lengthy lunch and general all-around gawkery at the picturesque waterfall, it was time to begin the slog back up to the PCT. By now the day had warmed up considerably and with no shade to shelter us from the sun, the hiking became as scorching as an illicit affair. I noticed that my legs felt tired and my mouth was as dry as the dust my listless feet were kicking up, no matter how much water I drank. My real cause for worry came when the dry heaves started. The struggle was real but I hiked piecemeal, making frequent stops along the way. So not fun.

Life flourishes at the feet of dead trees

I was so glad to reach the PCT, for it would be flat and slightly downhill to the trailhead. Even though the forest surrounding the trail was thin and sparse, faint shade is better than no shade at all, like in the tree graveyard within Red Blanket Creek's canyon. The hike was closed out in the lengthening afternoon shadows and despite the travails of the heat, I really did enjoy the beauty of the scenery I had been retching in.

Typical scenery along the trail

At the trailhead, Missy doled out seltzer water from an ice chest she had hidden in her car. My recovery was immediate and total upon drinking the precious liquid, although I think we would have all been better served if she would have toted the ice chest down to Stuart Falls.

Red Blanket Creek, below Stuart Falls

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

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Iron Mountain

Who knew Iron Mountain was such an amazing wildflower hike? The short answer is everyone but me, but that's not entirely accurate, either. I had heard rumors about the wildflower display on Cone Peak and Iron Mountain but had only ever gone on this hike either in winter or late autumn. During those two seasons, any vegetation capable of decorating the two peaks were either all dried up and shriveled like a mummified ancestor, or buried under a layer of snow like a mummified Eskimo ancestor. So, it was high time to make a July sortie out to the Tombstone Pass area and have a look-see.

The trail slices through some of
that Tombstone Prairie greenery

Accompanied by trusty side-kick Missy, I set out on the Santiam Wagon Road which immediately dropped down into Tombstone Prairie. Here, the verdant meadows of the prairie reposed in the valley laying between Cone Peak and Browder Ridge. Rampant greenery flourished under a deep blue sky and already we were off to a fine start.

Columbia tiger lily, always elegant and eye-catching

After an appreciative gawk-stop at the green prairie, we grabbed the Cone Peak Trail and began heading uphill in earnest. At least the hiking was done in a beautifully shaded forest which gave rise to more greenery and a different cast of wildflowers to admire, causing us to almost forget we were walking uphill. The forest floor was strewn with queen's cup, Sitka valerian, Columbia windflower, and other white-colored flowers. Representing the non-white end of the color spectrum were peavine, Columbia tiger lily, woodland penstemon, and a small reef of Merten's coralroot

Golden yarrow, one of the brightest flowers around

Maybe it was a pre-existing condition, but our opinion was that the flowers in the forest were pretty spectacular. Nothing could ever top this. Oh, we were naive then, so early on in our hike. After a mile or two of steady uphill walking, the trail began to break out into intermittent rock gardens with golden yarrow, rock penstemon, and stonecrop stuffed into the cracks between rocks. Nearby, bloomed single specimens of dark purple larkspur, hinting at the larkspur show in our near future.

The larkspur hordes

One larkspur is elegantly beautiful but multiply that by a factor of 4.7 googols and you have the Cone Peak experience in summation. The trail passed through open areas with massive armies of larkspur marching forward to champion the cause of all things purple. Interspersed among the larkspur hordes were occasional specimens of white larkspur, something I had never seen before. The purple meadows were simply amazing and beyond words, although it seems I've managed to come up with a few.

Cone Peak looms above its wildflower gardens

Eventually the path made its way into the pumice barrens below Cone Peak, although they were not as barren as I have seen them in winter. A veritable rainbow of colored petals resided at the end of various flower stalks, splotching the slopes of Cone Peak with color, like a geologic paint palette. All hiking came to a screeching halt as we perused and/or photographed the fields of flowers.

South Peak rises next to Cone Peak

Even without the wildflowers, the loop hike around Cone Peak and Iron Mountain is pretty cool. Views of nearby peaks abound and to the east of Cone Peak, rise South Peak, Echo Mountain, and North Peak, seemingly placed there just for hikers to admire. Apparently, the colorful flower displays are not limited to just Cone Peak, for the other mountains sported large swaths of yellow on their shoulders, to go along with their green meadows.

Missy leads the charge up Iron Mountain

After several miles of mouths-agape hiking through the scenery and wildflowers, we rounded Iron Mountain by hiking through a shady forest of mossy fir trees before intersecting with the Iron Mountain Trail. Yup, it was time to hike up Iron Mountain itself, and this trail definitely put the "up" in "yup"

Dizzying view from the trail

Back and forth and always up, the switchbacking trail went to and fro through the ever ubiquitous meadows and wildflowers, affording me the opportunity to gawk or rest, depending on who you listen to. Iron Mountain is a rugged beast, and accordingly, we hiked past a series of rocky outcroppings, jagged cliffs, and one lone arch. The elevation gained served up ever increasing views of the surrounding river valleys and mountains.

Mount Jefferson was like a ghostly pimple

There is a wooden observation deck on the Iron Mountain summit and a 360 degree panorama that allowed us to play the Name-That-Peak game, although a nearby signboard inspired some of us to cheat. Beginning with Diamond Peak to the south, the Cascades stretched north in a successive chain of volcanoes, the taller ones being snowcapped. The Three Sisters, Mount Washington, and Belknap Crater all loomed on the near eastern skyline, but it was snowy Mount Jefferson looming over Scar Mountain that commanded the most attention. Further to the north was Mount Hood and amazingly, we could even see Mount Adams from all the way in southern Washington.

Bunchberry bloomed in bunches

All good things come to an end though, and regrettably, we hiked off Iron Mountain's summit and then down to Tombstone Pass via the Santiam Wagon Road, which is actually a trail that follows the old historical wagon route. The Santiam Wagon Road ran through another shady forest that sported the same wooded and flowered scenery we had started out through, so many epic hours ago.

Iron Woman on the Iron Mountain Trail

So, now Missy and I both know Iron Mountain rocks in July! Not sure if I'm quite ready to say I'll hike here every July, but that's a distinct possibility.

The Cone Peak flower show

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

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Windigo Pass to Bingham Lakes


Well, the Cowhorn Mountain day-hike was all over and done with and that was my cue to trade in my daypack for a backpack. I'm a glutton for punishment apparently, but doing a day hike and a backpack trip all in the same day really seemed like a good idea after knocking down several peach tea ciders the day before.

The mosquitos await me and my blood

The basic plan for the backpacking segment of the day was just to depart (immediately after the hike to Cowhorn Mountain) from the Pacific Crest Trailhead at Windigo Pass and hike a mile or so down Forest Road 60 to the Metolius-Windigo Trailhead. There is a creek running at the Metolius-Windigo Trailhead from which to water up at, and I figured I'd unceremoniously camp in the forest above the creek. However, I was all dressed up with nowhere to go, so to speak, and my legs still had plenty of pop so I just wound up hiking all the way to Nip and Tuck Lakes, roughly about 3 miles from Windigo Pass

Nerd alert!

I had hiked here a week prior and already there were a few noticeable changes. There were no snowdrifts for one, the drifts being supplanted instead by thick clouds of ravenous mosquitoes. It had been a long time since I had felt the need to hike with a head net on but there I was, my handsome visage geekily swathed in netting in a desperate attempt to retain a modicum of blood for my own personal use.

Sunset at Nip and Tuck Lakes

Camp was set up on the narrow forested isthmus forever separating Nip and Tuck Lakes, and in between cooking, eating dinner, and fending off vast clouds of miniscule Dracula spawn, I explored the shore along both lakes. The sky was blue but trending towards sunset and small puffy white clouds moved across the sky overhead. Eventually, sunset arrived, turning the clouds pink, and then it was time to get inside the tent while the mosquitoes whined outside, thankfully stymied by the tent's mesh fabric.

Trees dead and live

Hiking all the way to Nip and Tuck Lakes had totally screwed up my logistics. Because I had hiked farther than intended, Oldenberg Lake was now under two miles away and Bingham Lakes were only two and a half miles away. Not a lot of walking would be required on Day 2, making for a long fun-filled day of mosquito and human interaction.

Day 2 was a dry and dusty affair

The Metolius-Windigo Trail is about one hundred miles in length, connecting the Mount Jefferson Wilderness to Windigo Pass. I'd be hiking on the MWT but locally, the trail was signed and mapped as the Oldenberg Lake Trail, which only made sense, seeing as how I was hiking to Oldenberg Lake itself. The dry and dusty trail got there via a short but rigorous stretch that went up and over a forested ridge, followed by a longer descent down to Oldenberg Lake. It'd be a steep climb on the return leg but hey, at least I had something to look forward to.

Oldenberg Lake

Oldenberg Lake is a popular stop for Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers hiking the MWT as an alternate route, for unlike the PCT, the MWT passes by many lakes and makes water replenishment easy and convenient. However, on this day I had the place to myself, not counting about two million mosquitoes, and I kicked back for a while, appreciating the calm lake under a blue sky. Off in the distance, the tip of Odell Butte was visible on the horizon, with its lookout affixed to the summit like the world's smallest party hat.

If you like dry lodgepole forests, then this is your hike

Between Oldenberg and Bingham Lakes, lay a dense forest of spindly lodgepole pines. I don't think there was any other plant species growing in the pumice-based soils that lodgepole thrives in. There weren't any mosquito-hunting species of fauna either, judging by the unimpeded hordes following my every move. Nothing here but lodgepole, mosquitoes, and one incredibly handsome backpacker with tasty blood.

One of the Bingham Lakes

Bingham Lakes is a collection of four or five medium sized lakes situated below and on the northeast side of Cowhorn Mountain. When I arrived at the first Bingham Lake, it was still early and before ten o'clock. It was already pretty warm for early morning, too. Rather than set up camp and swelter inside a hot tent while doing battle against a relentless airborne armada of insectile piranhas, I decided to turn my three-day hike into a two-day affair. So, it was an early lunch and then a turnaround to begin the hike out.

Back on the dry trail

So, back through the lodgepole trees I go, the trees providing some shade but not nearly enough on a warm day. The hiking rendered me into one sweaty dude in no time at all, and the resulting ungodly goo of sunscreen, Deet, perspiration, and trail dust rolled into my eyes, making me cry like a child whose cherished yellow balloon had suddenly and unexpectedly popped.

So many trees, so little shade

But hey, the really cool (sarcasm!) part was that the long descent I had come down on when approaching Oldenberg Lake, was now a long and protracted climb out of the lake's basin that had me feeling the "Old" in "Oldenberg". While I had felt pretty darn walky the day before, on this day I felt more like a jelly bean melting on a hot sidewalk. Let's just say I took a few more rest stops than normal before the trail crested and all that bad uphill stopped. The good news though, was that the amount of mosquitoes trying to eat me decreased in inverse proportion to the rising temperature.

That ridge had been our route to Cowhorn Mountain the day prior

The Oldenberg Lake Trail dropped steadily back into the same forested basin that contained Nip and Tuck Lakes. Periodically, I could see distant mountains and peaks like Black Butte and Cappy Mountain. Nearer to the trail, and way above, were the cliffs and crags of the same rocky ridge we had walked on the day before, when hiking to Cowhorn Mountain.

Brunch, anyone

Right before arriving at the MWT Trailhead, a startled bird flew up from the base of a tree growing right next to the trail. The bird was not particularly noteworthy but what got my attention is that I had seen the same bird not only on yesterday's hike, but on the prior week's hike as well. Sure enough, a quick search of the area revealed two eggs unceremoniously laying on the ground. I took off my pack, fired up my stove, and enjoyed a tasty omelet of wild eggs. Kidding! What I actually did do was take a quick photograph of the gray speckled eggs with apologies directed to Mama Bird anxiously watching me from a nearby branch.

Carpenter ant on a hike of its own

When I finally made it back to the Windigo Pass Trailhead, gone were the thundering hordes of aromatic through-hikers, but there was That One Brunette (her trail name, actually) taking a breather among the cache of water jugs at the trailhead. At this point I was feeling like my trail name could have been Nipped And Tucked but on the plus side, it had been just under a twenty-mile weekend for me.

That way for a future hike

In retrospect, the hike was a bit short for three days. I'm already thinking about returning to do a loop hike in the area that would include Susan, Darlene, and the Windy Lakes with maybe a return via Summit Lake and the Pacific Crest Trail. That would bump up the mileage to a respectable 35 miles or so.

X marks the spot

On second thought, scratch that! Shortly after I completed this hike, a lightning-caused wildfire set up camp on Windigo Pass itself. Looking at the maps, the Windigo Fire came pretty close to the trailhead, as the fire burned on either side of Road 60. In response, the Forest Service closed the Pacific Crest trail from Crater Lake to Bend, along with half of the Diamond Peak Wilderness, and half of the Mount Thielsen Wilderness. Meanwhile, the mammoth Cedar Creek Fire has closed all of the Waldo Lake Wilderness. Looks like I'll be pretty much hiking in my living room these days.

Random skyline snippet along the trail

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

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Cowhorn Mountain

I've told this story before but I'm not above plagiarizing myself. Cowhorn Mountain got its name from a spire that used to be on the mountain and probably resembled a cow's horn. Unfortunately for us present-day hikers, the horn fell off in the early 1900s, knocked down in the middle of the night by a severe winter storm. It just goes to show that mountains, just like people, also become less horny as they get older. 

Move 'em out, head 'em up! Rawhide!

At least the modern-day trimmed-down version of Cowhorn Mountain is presumably easier to summit than it was in the early 1900s. And speaking of trimmed-down versions, Friends of the Umpqua was hosting a trek to the mountain's summit and we numbered a robust and eager eighteen hikers, but who's counting, besides the hike leader? As we laced up our boots, the Pacific Crest Trailhead at Windigo Pass was a busy place, not even counting our lively band of bovines.

The mountain is calling but do we really have to go?

From the Windigo Pass Trailhead, there is not a lot of water to be found along the trail until hikers reach Summit Lake about 13 miles away. However, a trail angel has adopted the Windigo Pass Trailhead and keeps it well stocked with jugs of water and accordingly, throngs of through-hikers were drinking at the trough, so to speak. The trailhead was quite the festive and high-spirited place that morning!

Gone was the snow around Windigo Lake

This hike took place only a week after my Nip and Tuck hike and I was somewhat disappointed to see the forest between the Pacific Crest Trail and Windigo Lakes to be snow free. It was like my rough bushwhack last week had never happened. What was happening now and not then, was that throngs of voracious mosquitoes were the travail du jour.

A forming thunderhead was cause for concern

The weather forecast called for possible thunder and because standing on top of a tall mountain is not a good idea in a thunderstorm, we kept a wary eye on the clouds forming over the crest we were hiking on. The clouds resembled baby thunderheads but never quite got to the point of hurling lightning bolts at stampeding hikers.

The PCT will be renamed "The Trail You Are Hiking On"

The Pacific Crest Trail heads uphill for about four miles at a steady grade. As we gained altitude, periodic openings in the forest allowed us to see distant Mounts Bailey and Thielsen to the south, and the Cappy Mountain complex east of the PCT and much closer to Windigo Pass. Below, in a forested basin, the twin jewels of Windigo Lakes reposed on a large blanket of forested terrain. And speaking of lakes, a stagnant pond that used to be an important water stop for through hikers before the advent of the Windigo Pass trail angel, had been signed by some wag as "That Lake Over There".

Snow was all over the higher reaches of this hike

As the trail sashayed to and fro and undulated and up and down the forested ridge leading to Cowhorn, openings in the forest provided occasional peeks at the day's object of our desire. Always craggy and udderly foreboding, Cowhorn Mountain looked to be so much higher and farther than our current vantage point. One should never look ahead, it's always so de(moo)ralizing.

Penny picks her way through the snow drifts

As we continued to gain altitude on the Pacific Crest Trail, snow became a thing and that's snow lie. The drifts were plentiful and deep enough to hide the trail from sight. Fortunately, this is through-hiker season and we just followed their hoof prints in the snow when uncertain. The melting snow was soft and we had to watch out for tree wells and hollow spaces to avoid sudden and unexpected posthole moments in the slushy snow

Clouds form and reform over the landscape

I was feeling so walky that I soon found myself in front of the herd, accompanied solely by Katelyn, who was our youngest hiker at age thirteen. I daresay that as fast as I hiked, she would have left me eating her snowflakes if she knew how to get to Cowhorn by herself, and that's no bull. But all that fast moo-ving along had a price for the diabetes impaired and I bonked right at the foot of the mountain. So, while most of my friends made hay and went up to the summit, some of us stayed behind to chew cud and admire the landscape and cloudscape surrounding the prominent peak of Cowhorn Mountain. And one of us ate the proper foods to reconstitute his low blood sugar, darn diabetes anyway.

Hikers carefully navigate their way down

It was all downhill naturally, once our thundering cattle herd disembarked from Cowhorn Mountain. There was some slipping and sliding on the snow drifts on the way down and I took the occasion to instruct the less experienced hikers how to safely kick-step through the snow. It was a perfunctory four-mile hike through thick forest, thick clouds of mosquitoes, and thick throngs of through-hikers before we arrived in good order at Windigo Pass, fully sated with the day's undertaking.

Rainbow in the sky

Well some of us were fully sated, while at least one of us apparently required some more adventure and exercise. Yup, I divested myself of my daypack and hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders, ready for a hike down into the Nip and Tuck Lakes area. Hay, I was back to feeling walky again and head me out and move me up. Rawhide!

Pasque flower adorned the rock gardens near the summit

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