Monday, September 5, 2022

Red Cone Spring

Crater Lake is Oregon's one and only National Park. The lake is awesome and visitors flock by the thousands to see the amazing sapphire color of the lake. But, to procure a viewing spot from the many crowded overlooks of the iconic landmark, you have to brandish pointed elbows and wield a sharp tongue. However, in the park's backcountry, you are not liable to see anyone and can best put your elbows, salty language, and dirty looks to better use.

A forest mix of live and dead trees

I am particularly fond of the section of the Pacific Crest Trail that bends north and east through the northwest corner of the park. Here, the terrain is harsh because the soil is comprised of nutrient-poor pumice and volcanic ash. Water doesn't collect above ground, seeping instead into the dusty soil so the whole feel of the terrain is dry, dusty, and arid. Lodgepole pine thrives in poor soils but here, the trees are stressed by a lodgepole beetle infestation, and plenty of dead trees abounded near the trailhead.

All the burnt wood you could ever want to photograph

As we (Cleve and I) commenced hiking, Red Cone rose up in front of us like a volcanic angry red zit. Our route would basically buttonhook around to the other side of the notable cinder cone, where we'd then turn back at Red Cone Spring. The area had been burned in 2017 by either the National Creek Fire or Spruce Lake Fire, which were each part and parcel of the High Cascades Complex Fires. The name of the exact culprit doesn't matter, but what does matter is that most of the hike would be in the burn zone of whichever fire it was.

We enjoyed hiking though a a brief
patch of forest untouched by fire

There is one section of trail that goes through a green forest untouched by either fire or beetle, providing a poignant look at what a healthy lodgepole forest could look like. The shade felt nice too, particularly as the forecast called for a fairly warm day. As an added bonus, the trail angled gently downhill through the shady forest, although we'd experience the opposite effect on the return leg.

The ancestors kept watch over us

The fire boundary is quite abrupt, for one second we were in dark and shady forest, and the next instance we were blinking myopically in the bright sunlight like a pair of exposed cave crickets. Virtually no trees had survived the conflagration here, and miles and miles of ghostly white snags stood watch in cadaver-like testament to the fire's ferocity.

Late summer is pussypaw season, apparently

However, life finds a way and the terrain was carpeted by a thin green layer of sedge grass forming new meadows amongst the dead trees. Rabbitbrush, pussypaws, aster, and fireweed were still blooming away in late summer and bees and butterflies were buzzing or flitting from flower to flower. Small birds twittered and flittered and woodpeckers could be heard hammering tree trunks in search of insects and grubs to eat. There were plenty of scuff marks on the ground from the hooves of either deer or elk and we came across one dubious wet spot on the trail, left not too long before our arrival, courtesy of some mammal of the non-hiker variety that had a full bladder.

We hike through beautifully stark scenery

There were signs along the trail stating dispersed camping for backpackers was allowed, "dispersed" meaning there are no established campsites so you just camp wherever you can. However, camping was prohibited in the Red Cone Spring area because of the danger of falling trees. That made little sense to me because the whole trail was surrounded by dead trees but apparently it's ok if one falls on you as long as it's not at Red Cone Spring. Maybe they don't want your rotting carcass to foul up the spring water.

A small slice of the ample meadows
surrounding Red Cone Spring

Despite the closure, Cleve and I hiked to the spring and ate lunch there. The spring isn't all that much to look at but water is life and this was the only water source around for many a mile. The spring is surrounded by a large expanse of meadows (which you could safely camp in, just sayin') and the usual stands of dead trees. Small birds gathered en masse and the collective chirping was nigh cacophonous. However, the avian merriment soon changed to screams of alarm when a small peregrine falcon came swooping in, attempting to snag just one small bird for lunch. It failed to do so and in short order, it was just me, Cleve, and one hungry falcon at the suddenly quiet spring.

Woodpeckers and termites think
this is the best forest ever!

So, back we went on the Pacific Crest Trail, as the day warmed up considerably. The good news was that for the most part, the trail was level so the hiking was not overly laborious. However, the trail did incline uphill over the last several miles at a gentle grade, the degree of difficulty being the soft pumice soil. Think hiking in sand and you get the idea. The hike may not have left a mark but we felt it.

The Pacific Crest Trail heads north to Canada

This is one of my favorite hikes. Like me, the terrain is harsh yet beautiful. But mostly, it's quite different from the other regular normal hikes we do and its very uniqueness is the main attraction, in my view. Both Cleve and I were happy with the day's venture, especially after replenishing electrolytes with Gatorade (drink of the gods!) afterward.

A hole-some dead tree

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

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