Washington has so many great hikes that we never did any hiking in Oregon until last summer. The Cascade and Olympic ranges in Washington are wonderlands of flower-filled meadows, glaciated peaks, and scrubbed granite lake basins. So why should we spoiled Washington hikers visit Oregon? Volcanoes!
Yes, Washington has a chain of snowy volcanoes from Baker to Adams. But they are mainly the domain of mountaineers. The volcanoes of the Three Sisters Wilderness near Bend in central Oregon are less glaciated and more accessible to regular hikers like us. With trailheads at around 5000 feet, you can get to higher elevations more easily than any volcano in Washington. Crater Lake National Park, south of the Three Sisters Wilderness, is a natural wonder with no peer in Washington: the country’s deepest lake filling the base of what was once a massive volcano.
I first found out about the volcanic wilderness of central Oregon on a flight from Seattle to Santa Barbara. I looked out the window and saw that the expanse of forest was broken up by a cluster of jagged cones with snowy slopes. The gnarly knot of peaks and ridges, punctuated by forest-ringed lakes, intrigued me. Later, I found the area on Google Maps and read about the Three Sisters Wilderness with its trails to volcanic summits and scenic lakes. It went straight onto my bucket list. We planned a trip to climb South Sister, one of the most popular volcano summits, and visit Crater Lake the summer before we left for our big trip. Due to work stresses that seem ridiculous in hindsight, we cancelled the trip. Every time I saw a photo of Crater Lake or South Sister, I regretted cancelling the trip.
Now, we were back in Seattle after our big trip and had signed a lease for an apartment with a move-in date of September 6. After our backpack trip to Tapto Lakes and Copper Ridge in the North Cascades, we had a week to spare. So, we filled up our rental car’s gas tank and drove all day to Bend, Oregon, the hip, outdoorsy city on the doorstep of Oregon’s volcano country. We picked up a map and trail guide, had dinner and beer at Deschutes Brewery, and rested up for a night in a motel that was to be our last soft bed and shower for the next few days.
Broken Top Crater
Our first destination was the nameless lake in the crater of Broken Top, an extinct volcano in the Three Sisters Wilderness. This is a “secret” destination with no officially maintained trail, but like most “secret” destinations, there is an established, easy-to-follow route. We followed the directions in this article, hiking the gentle 7 miles in from the Todd Lake trailhead. A word of warning: although the route is easy to follow, you will see a number of similar-looking paths before the correct turnoff. One of them fooled us into bushwhacking way off trail until a pair of hikers set us straight. Pay close attention to your map or download GPS tracks ahead of time.
We hiked through sparse, dry forest before breaking out into a stark, open landscape of clinging brush and rolling hills punctuated by sharp volcanic peaks. The trail to Broken Top’s crater lake winds up the slope and through a narrow gully before arriving at the lake basin at 8150 feet.
The lake is a stunning glacial blue backed by Broken Top’s aptly named summit. Although the lake area is enclosed by cliff walls, there are enough saddles and gaps open to harsh winds that no campsite is really sheltered. There were strong gusts as we set up our tent in what we judged to be the best place, a flat spot at the base of a small slope. Here we made our first mistake. We left the tent doors open and a gust of wind blew down the gully and into the tent, ripped out several pegs, and knocked the tent over. Once this was fixed, we (well, Paul) became nervous about the possibility of rock slides down the slope above us. He spent the next few hours building a rock wall encircling our tent. At least all this activity kept us warm! It was impossible to keep warm and out of the wind while cooking dinner, and sleep was almost impossible with the cold and wind.
Broken Top’s crater is doable as a day hike. So, why go through all of this trouble to camp here? The mountain light! Photographers, don’t do this as a day hike because the midday light is terrible. The lake is in the shadow of the summit for most of the day, so photography is tricky until sunset and sunrise. And then it gets really good. I am so grateful that Paul has come around to understand the necessity of camping out to get the best mountain light. He used to be grumpy about staying up for sunset and getting up for sunrise, but now he has gotten used to it!
At sunset and sunrise, we followed the faint trail around the lake to a saddle on the right side. Here, views of the entire Three Sisters Wilderness, from Mt. Bachelor to the Sisters, open up in all directions. Closer in, low beams of light illuminate the lake. This spot is special at sunset and even better at sunrise.
South Sister Summit
South Sister, Broken Top’s neighbor to the northwest, was our next target. At an elevation of 10,341 feet, South Sister is roughly the same height as icy Glacier Peak in Washington. The difference is that the route to South Sister’s summit is a straightforward uphill stroll, with no glacier travel or technical climbing. It’s not easy: the hike has an elevation gain of almost 5,000 feet. We found a car camping site at nearby Elk Lake and hit the trail first thing in the morning.
The trail to the summit is easy to follow. Gentle at first, it gets down to business on the slope of the cone. A small green tarn marks the spot at the base of the final section of the climb. The ground is fine red volcanic dust that your feet sink into with every step, making it just that much harder to make progress.
Finally, we popped over the lip of the crater, which was filled with snow. The summit proper is on the opposite side of the crater from where the trail comes, so we followed the path around the rim, admiring the bird’s-eye view of the blasted volcanic landscape. It was cold and windy, and clouds were starting to gather, so we didn’t linger at the summit.
The views of the raw landscape were truly impressive, with volcanoes in every direction. I noticed a few flat spaces just big enough to pitch a tent around the crater rim. I haven’t told Paul yet, but if we come back, my intention is to camp at one of these spots to see the sunset and sunrise. I’m sure that the photographic payoff would be worth the cold and wind!
Crater Lake: One Year Later, Across the Ring of Fire
Crater Lake is an example of how you don’t have to travel to far-flung lands to see beautiful places and have experiences equal to anything you’d see halfway around the world. On September 8, 2015, we hiked to the crater rim of the volcano Gunung Rinjani on the Indonesian island of Lombok. As we stood at the rim and looked down into the crater lake, we remarked on how similar it looked to photos of Crater Lake in Oregon. Rinjani has a wide crater lake with a miniature volcanic island, just like Crater Lake. Almost exactly one year later, on Labor Day weekend in 2016, we were at Crater Lake and confirmed that there is a distinct correspondence between these two volcanic craters on opposite sides of the Ring of Fire.
The takeaway to our friends in the Pacific Northwest is this: if you want to experience raw volcanic beauty but a trip to Indonesia isn’t in the cards this year, go to Crater Lake!
Hikes and Lookouts at Crater Lake
Crater Lake is a great destination for non-hikers. You almost don’t have to get out of your car to get stunning views. The entire crater is encircled by the paved Rim Drive, with plenty of pullouts and scenic viewpoints along the way. At one of these overlooks, I was reading an interesting and informative signboard about the Klamath people’s creation myth about the lake. One of their stories tells that the lake was created during a battle between the god of the earth and the god of the underworld. Next to me, a woman skimmed the story, said “How did those Indians think up all that stuff?” and ambled back to her car. I should have said that I often wonder the same about the ancient Hebrews!
Photography is challenging at Crater Lake. Wide and flat, its beauty eludes capture in a single frame. It is one of those rare places that is more beautiful than the photos make it look. The extreme clarity of the water imparts an intense blue that made me think of the tropical waters of the Banda Sea.
There are a number of short half-day hikes to elevated lookout points around the rim. We did two: Garfield Peak and Mt. Scott. Although worthwhile, they’re not necessary to enjoy a visit to Crater Lake. At the old fire lookout at 8832 feet on Mt. Scott, we got talking to an older couple from Washington state. It turned out that the wife was 68, her husband was 84, and they were going to run a 10K the next day. They were living proof that there is no age limit to doing the things you love! I hope that we are doing the same at their age!
If you only do one hike at Crater Lake, make it the Watchman lookout tower for sunset. A mile of trail takes you up to a former fire lookout at 8013 feet. It’s a magical spot for sunset… but cold. Really cold. On our first night, we hiked up with insufficient clothes. We turned around and headed downhill because it was just too cold. The next night, we came prepared in woolen long underwear and staked out positions with a prime view of Wizard Island. As the sun set, a sliver of gold, then pink light illuminated the crater rim. On the other side of us, the setting sun pierced a layer of cloud, sending pink beams to the earth. Back at the crater, the light was turning pink, purple, and then blue. A cold fog whipped in, partially obscuring the crater and island. I was chilled to the bone but it was worth it to witness this sunset.
We drove back down the hill to our campground in the twilight with Coil’s mystical masterpiece, Astral Disaster, in the CD player. Never has the lyric, “Here, nature is naked” been so apt for the surroundings.
The next morning, we sadly left Crater Lake, promising to come back in winter to see the crater under snow. We had a stopover in Portland to visit our friend David who used to live in Seattle, then to stay with my Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary. Rejuvenated by our adventures and visiting friends and family, we rolled back in to Seattle, up the stairs to our new apartment, and on to the next step of our journey: back to life in Seattle.
Keep Traveling, Even at Home
Ever since we got home, our friends and colleagues keep telling us that we are “lucky” to have gone on a year-long trip to all kinds of amazing destinations. We think that our trip was largely a matter of choices, not luck (and we’ll blog about that later). But we also want to tell our friends and readers that you don’t have to quit your job and travel thousands of miles around the world to experience a sense of wonder at your surroundings. These experiences are available to almost anyone, close to home. Granted, we in the Pacific Northwest are spoiled for beauty spots, but even if you are reading this from Sioux City, Iowa, you should be able to find a spot within reach for a day or a weekend.
In fact, it is vital that you do. One of the great problems with our society is how much time we spend indoors, locked in our routines, unaware of the wider world. We as a country suffer from disease and malaise that could be ameliorated by the simple act of going outside. The physical health benefits of spending time outdoors have been documented. On a psychological level, the outdoors has a wonderful power to recalibrate our sense of scale. When you are out in nature, you realize just how small our lives are on earth’s timeline, and how insignificant are the differences between humans. I strongly suspect that if more Americans gave themselves the time to visit new places and experience the power of the outdoors, fewer of us would have voted for Trump and our country would be on course for a better future.
For this reason, we challenge you to make time to get out and go somewhere new this year. We’re already planning our hikes and getaways for 2017. What about you? It could be as close as that trail in the next town over that you keep meaning to try, or a disconnected weekend in a lake or forest cabin. Your job and household chores can wait. They’re not as important as getting out and experiencing the wonderful things that the world has to offer.