So far this summer we’ve been managing quite nicely with our no reservation policy. The plethora of national forest campgrounds with first come, first serve sites combined with our habit of arriving on a Sunday has worked in our favor. However, the expectation of big crowds for the holiday week caused us to plan ahead and reserve a site for the week of the 4th of July. Our chosen spot was a tiny, 20 site campground in the forest only a few miles from the town of Sisters.
When I reserved about a month ago there was only one site left that was available for the whole week so we expected it to be busy. It was not. In fact, the campground was nearly half empty for most of the week and only filled up on Friday and Saturday. I suspect the fact that the holiday fell in the middle of the week put a damper on camping plans for many.
Cold Springs is a basic national forest campground tucked among a stand of pine trees with a small stream running through the middle. While not exactly private, the sites are well spaced and the small number of them meant it was fairly quiet even on the few nights when it was full. Despite some campground wide concern about a recent cougar sighting, we enjoyed walking the network of old logging roads that crisscrossed around the forest. Bear spray was carried just in case…but no cougars were spotted.
While the campground itself doesn’t have a huge draw with no lake for paddling or distant views to take in, the location was fantastic. Only a few miles from the town of Sisters meant we had easy access to stores, restaurants, and even a fun in-town bike trail. Downtown Sisters has a western theme going with on which is something I associate more with Wyoming than Oregon. But whatever, it seems to work for them. We spent one evening walking up and down the main street peeking in the windows of the closed storefronts. With lots of restaurants to choose from, we sadly ended up eating some truly terrible pizza at the Hop & Brew. At this point, I don’t know why we even try to eat pizza out anymore. If you can’t bother to make your own dough and instead decided to serve a flat, stale tasting cracker-like crust that obviously came from the freezer, you probably should re-think your pizza exclusive menu. The place was really busy though with other people happily eating their pies, so maybe we are the odd ones out.
Enough about all that though, because the real draw of this area is the hiking trails. Located directly north of the Cascade Lakes area, the mountainous region around Sisters contains some of the most magnificent peaks in the Cascade Range. Mountains like Washington, Jefferson, and Three Fingered Jack.
Middle and North Sisters Mountains are also accessed from this area, and although we didn’t climb either of them we did get some good views while hiking the Mattheiu Lakes trail.
We busted out the scenic 7-mile Matthieu Lakes Loop one day after work. You can hike in either direction and we chose to go clockwise which took us on the Pacific Crest Trail for a few miles. This area burned late last summer in the 24,000 acre Milli fire. Despite the devastation, the trail was in good shape with all the downed trees cleared, leaving behind an eerily beautiful landscape.
At the top of the loop, we found North Matthieu Lake and then as we rounded the corner to head back to the trailhead we stumbled upon the bigger, South Matthieu Lake. There are a number of designated campsites around both lakes. Aside from the ridiculous amount of mosquitos, it looked like a great place to spend a night or two.
It was at this trailhead that I noticed a sign about permits for the Obsidian Limited Entry area. Out of curiosity, I looked it up and discovered the Obsidian Trail. This 9 mile-loop travels through an area filled with amazing natural features such as lava fields, obsidian cliffs, and wildflower-filled meadows. In an effort to preserve this popular area, the trail is restricted to 30 day and 40 overnight hikers and requires a $10 permit that you can purchase online through the forest service. Intrigued by the idea of seeing the such a highly sought out area in person, I clicked on the permit link to discover that permits for nearly every weekend throughout the summer were already taken. A trail in this much demand had to be good right? With only a handful of permits left for Friday, we made some quick calculations and decided that we could probably manage to hike the whole loop after work before it got dark.
The day of our permit arrived and Tim was able to finagle his way out of work a little early. We arrived at the trailhead around 3:00 and were on the trail 10 minutes later. We figured it would take us five hours to complete the loop which would bring us back to the truck around 8 pm leaving about an hour before total darkness. The instructions said to print the permit and carry it with you but we don’t have a printer and I forgot to go to the library. So I took a screenshot and saved it on my phone. In any case, we didn’t see a ranger. In fact, we didn’t see many people at all.
After several miles of hiking through the forest, we came to an area where lava once flowed many, many years ago.
This is where the trail was supposed to open up with great views of the Sisters Mountains, but just as we crested the hill a giant bank of clouds rolled over the mountain tops.
We left the lava field behind and hiked through several flower-filled meadows and past mountains streams. It was here that we started to spot pieces of obsidian glinting in the sun. We never did find the obsidian cliffs that I read about in the trail guide.
After another ascent through the forest, we came to the junction of the PCT and the Obsidian Trail. You can hike this trail in several different ways with options for longer or shorter loops. If we had a second car, we could have taken the PCT all the way back to the Matthieu Lakes trailhead where hiked a few days prior. Instead, we followed a lollipop loop that went Obsidian to the PCT, to Glacier Way, and then back to Obsidian. Clocking in at 9-miles it was about our limit for an after-work hike.
One of the things I like about hiking these small sections of the PCT are the interesting people you meet along the way. On the Matthieu Lakes trail, we met a father/son duo who were 18 days into hiking the Oregon section of the trail. They were only a few miles from the trailhead where they planned to catch a ride into Sisters for their first night in a hotel since they started hiking.
This time, we came upon a group of college-age guys who were on weekend hiking trip. After the normal greetings, the first thing they asked was if we had bug spray. Of course, we have bug spray! Tim is a total mosquito magnet and he always has some in his backpack. They made the mistake of only bringing along the natural stuff which in our experience is a complete joke to most mosquitos. As we shared around our DEET and chatted about hiking I noticed that one of them with particularly fair skin was absolutely covered in angry looking bites. Despite the short reprieve from new bites after his dose of bug spray, I suspect he was in for a very long, very itchy night.
At this point, we were surrounded by clouds and all signs of the mountains looming overhead had disappeared. I was kind of disappointed as I knew this section was supposed to have great views of Middle Sister, North Sister, and Little Brother. Oh well, at least this wasn’t our only opportunity to see these mountains.
After successfully finding the junction for the Glacier Way trail the hike back was easy and fast. We arrived at the truck almost exactly five hours after we started. Maybe it was the clouds that marred our mountain views, or maybe I am just totally spoiled when it comes to amazing hiking trails, but this one probably won’t even make my top list for Oregon. Of course, I am still glad we hiked it and it was five hours well spent.
Our final big hike in the area was climbing Three Fingered Jack. After determining that both Washington and Jefferson were above our abilities due to the technical climbs at the top, we decided Three Fingered Jack was more our speed. Considered a moderate hike with the only difficult section at the end, we figured this trail would make a great adventure on the 4th of July. This is the second year in a row that we skipped all traditional holiday celebrations in favor of spending time in nature. Parades and fireworks are fun and all, but nothing beats a day hiking in the mountains.
Once again, the first section of this trail travels through remnants of a forest fire. This time it was the B&B complex fire back in 2003 that devastated a large area in the Mount Jefferson wilderness. It was really interesting to observe the forest regeneration in action and compare 15 years of growth to what we saw a few days prior near the Matthieu Lakes.
We left the forest fire scares behind and trudged through a dense forest that soon opened up to offer our first glimpse of Three Fingered Jack. I did some research into the origins of this ancient volcano’s name, but could not find a definitive answer. The most common theory is that it was named after a California gold miner of the same name.
The views from this part of the trail were spectacular and we decided to break for lunch while gazing out over the Oregon landscape. It took about three seconds for the mosquitos to find us. Swarms and swarms of mosquitos. At one point I looked down and my arm was a mass of tiny black dots. No amount of bug spray deterred these ferocious creatures so we ended up standing on the edge of a cliff with the wind whipping all around us while we scarfed down our PB&Js. It was the only way to avoid being eaten alive.
The funny thing is that up until the point we had encountered zero bugs. It wasn’t until we left the burned area behind that they found us. The same thing happened on the way back down. Bugs, bugs, bugs, and then as soon as we entered the burned area they disappeared. I’ve encountered plenty of mosquitos in non-wooded areas so I am not sure what that was all about.
We must have picked up the pace after lunch (trying to outrun the mosquitos) because it didn’t take long before we were turning off the PCT to follow the path up the mountain.
I came across one account that described this section as a “goat path”. That was spot on. There are several options for reaching the ridgeline to the right of the summit, but all are nothing more than a very narrow, very dusty dirt track that climbed straight up a crazy steep grade. Since our end destination was the ridge and not the summit we took the “easier” path on the right.
The last few hundred feet were tough going. Once again, we discovered that the loose volcanic dirt does not mix well with steep grades! We made it though, and after a short detour through a snowfield (pro tip: if you stand in the middle of a pile of snow the mosquitos magically disappear) we were on the ridge.
Every guide you read about this hike gives grave warnings about the final section. The multiple mentions of ropes and necessary climbing experience led us to decide from the beginning that we would not attempt to reach the summit. Of course, when we got to the ridge and I zoomed in on some hikers with the camera and it looked totally do-able. But it was still going to take some effort to get up there, and frankly, neither of us were feeling it. You know that saying “It’s about the journey, not the destination?” That applies perfectly to this trail. While the views from the top were marvelous, so was the entire trial and missing out on climbing up the final few hundred feet was not going to diminish from our experience.
And with that, we wrap up our time in the Cascades. We did spend a few more days at a lake-side national forest campground in the area (blog post coming soon), but with no more volcano hikes, I can officially say that our exploration of the mountains was over. For now… I think it’s safe to declare that we totally fell in love with these mountains and their surrounding landscape. It helped that by dumb luck we ended up here during a perfect stretch of weather that allowed us to get out and explore nearly every day. There are already discussions about coming back next year as we still have so many more volcanos left to explore!