Land of Volcanoes
Geological history has always been a hard thing for me to really get a hold of. The time lines are so long, that I can’t really imagine the slow changes we see, as being something current, active and really happening now. The Cascade mountains are a very young and active mountain range and you really begin to get a sense of this when you visit the lava beds on the Old McKenzie Highway No. 242.
On Monday September 27th we had a day of late summer, with blue skies and temperatures in the mid 70’s. It had been a while since I’ve been up the Old McKenzie Highway as this year the Mt Scott fire devastated a few thousand acres of wilderness area and closed roads and trails a large section of it. The roads and trails still have not been restored and there are “no access” signs posted around the entire area. Fortunately, just to the east of there, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is still open and in good shape.
As usual, I arrived at the PCT trail head about 8:00 am as I wanted to get an early start because I needed to be back in Eugene by mid-afternoon. I had decided to go north along the PCT and visit Little Belknap Crater and Big Belknap Crater. That would take me through a section of the lava beds and give me a lot of good, wide open views of the Cascades.
The trail head is on one of the “islands” in the lava fields and has a good stand of lodge pole pine. I filled out my self-service day permit and headed up the trail looking for some great early morning views. The trail leaves the island by the road and crosses a short section of a lave flow, then runs around the edge of a second island. I appreciated the dirt trail again after only a short distance on the rough lava. From here you start getting some good views of both Belknap craters and to the south, North and Middle Sisters.
The PCT through the lava beds is very good but the lava is very loose, rough and highly abrasive. This isn’t a place you wouldn’t want to slip and fall as the sharp rough rock would just love to take a big bite out of a knee, a hand our anything else if you should fall. Even just brushing a rock would be like taking some sand paper to your skin and it’s very easy to end up with some scrapes and cuts.
After the second island, the trail climbs steadily for a mile or so. When you get near the high point there is another trail going off to the east that take you a quarter of a mile or so, over to Little Belknap Crater. This is pretty easy but you do get a little scrambling in right near the top.
The view from Little Belknap is wonderful. The closest cascade peak is Mt Washington. You can also see Three Fingered Jack, Mt Jefferson and to the south, North and Middle Sisters and Diamond Peak. It’s only about a mile to the toe of the north slope of Mt Washington. You can also see the evidence of a fire, from just a few years ago, that burned around the base of Mt Washington. This is not part of the Mt Scott Fire of this year but an older, yet recent fire. It may have been part of the Complex Burn that went all the way to the foot of Mt Jefferson. In any direction, you can see the rippling flow of the lava as it oozed out of the ground and flowed south and west towards Linton Meadows then west along Linton Creek.
I back tracked to the PCT and continued north for about another quarter mile. Just as you leave the lava flow there is a trail going off to the west that takes you over to Big Belknap Carter. The core of Big Belknap is solid lava but the outside is entirely covered by cinders. This is a loose sandy, gravely soil (scree) and much like a big sand dune. There are a couple well used trails up the steep slope but all require you climb the loose scree. I was lucky that it had recently rained and there was still just enough moisture to make the going much easier that if it had been dry. Once you get started up the hill, you really don’t want to stop as it’s likely you’ll just start sliding back down.
After about a half hour of treading scree I broke the rim. Inside there was a deep crater and I could see a ring of the lava under the thick layer of cinders. From the top there is another wonderful view. Now you are even closer to Mt Washington and it looks so very tempting.
I was running out of time so I made a loop off the north side of Big Belknap and went cross country back to the PCT. As it was mostly downhill from here the trip back to the car went fairly quickly. I did stop and check out a few small tree that have managed to take root in the middle of the vast expanse of lava. It’s pretty amazing that they can survive!
From the trail head I drove east about another mile to the scenic view area. The rock lookout structure is a landmark and well worth your time to visit. On the top of the building there is a brass disc with marking pointing at all the local mountain peaks. It was a prefect day and I think I could see just about all of them. Here are just a few shots of what you see.
Time was running out so I started back for Eugene. The Old McKenzie highway is just beautiful, and with last year’s road work, a very nice drive. The leaves are just beginning to turn colors and in a couple more weeks it will be really spectacular.
I had just enough time left to make a quick stop at Proxy falls and hike the one mile trail that take you to both falls. Here are a few shots of what I saw:
If you can find the time to make the drive over the Old McKenzie highway to Sisters, this is the time to do it. Take advantage of one of our sunny warm fall days and treat yourself to a bit of nature at its best.
Enjoy the beautiful fall and keep looking for the beauty around you!