Thursday, August 11, 2022

If the Planets Align: The Obsidian/Scott Loop Hike

This unique hike offers an incredible variety of jaw-dropping views in under 20 miles, but it doesn't come easily. We wanted to do the loop for years, but could never get all of the pieces together. First, the Old McKenzie Pass (Highway 242) has to be open. On a good year, this is from the end of June until maybe October; it is a high, remote passage and subject to closure by snow. Second, you need a permit from the Forest Service, and if you have not gotten one in April you will need to try to grab one when they release the remainder a week prior to your entry date. Third, the trail tends to hold onto snow late into the season, especially the PCT section, and it would be very easy to get lost in this huge wilderness unless you are accustomed to snow hiking with a GPS. Fourth, if you want the views, the weather has to be clear, and mountain tops often hide their heads in the clouds. And fifth, if you are like us, you have to get the time off of work.

But it finally happened. The planets aligned for us and we drove out Highway 242 to the Obsidian Trailhead one fine morning and even located a parking place. There was a ranger waiting to check our permit; he was to reappear three more times over the course of our hike, so don't think it's something you can omit. 

At this point we should perhaps mention that you will also need your sturdiest boots, a walking stick or trekking poles, good maps, and the ability to carry plenty of water. Dogs should have boots to protect their paws in the obsidian and lava areas.

Begin hiking uphill (get used to it, there is a lot of uphill, more uphill than seems logical) through the forest. A trail to the right marked as "not maintained" is worth missing; it once went to Spring Lake at the foot of Sim's Butte, but a recent burn has made it fairly impassible. Continue through forest, a short burned area, more forest, and arrive at a wall of lava at the three-mile point. Follow the well-maintained trail through the lava field and continue to climb to a junction near White Branch Creek at around four miles. Now you have a decision to make: take the trail to the left and hike Scott Trail Glacier Way for less than a mile to camp at Sunshine Meadows, or take the trail to the right for around a mile and camp in the Obsidian area. If you choose the lush wildflower meadow at Sunshine, you will definitely want to head south on a side trip to see the Obsidian area, as well.

One square mile of obsidian. Shining, black glass lying over acre after acre. Huge boulders of black volcanic glass. And next to it, Sisters Spring bursts from the base of an enormous cliff and trickles across a mountainside meadow until it pours through a small slot into 20-foot Obsidian Falls. If this is not enough, you will begin to catch views of the surrounding Cascades and find many lovely campsites off of the trails and away from the water. 

This hike can be done as a lollipop loop of 11.5 miles, and it offers so much that is absolutely worth every step. But if, like us, you finally got your planets to align and you want to make the most of your visit, there is a bigger loop using the PCT and Scott trails to make a 17.5 mile loop. This offers even more variety and views, at the cost of a long, dusty hike out and a short trek along the road. 

To take the long loop, head north from Sunshine Meadows or Obsidian Falls on the PCT. Fill your water bottles first. This section looks deceptively short on the maps; don't believe it, allow plenty of time. 

Climb, first through the forest and then alongside the edge of another lava flow. Then begin hiking through the lava field and over Opie Dildock Pass. This is a wildly rugged landscape, dotted with the silver skeletons of trees that tried to make a go of it and failed. Climb until you find yourself in a sort of box canyon with a wall of crumbled lava at the end. This is your trail.

Switchback up the wall and pass along a lava fin. Continue until Collier Cone looms ahead (crumbly scramble trails allow for exploration for those bold enough). North Sister looms above the cone, with Middle Sister peeking coyly alongside.

Continue through the rugged landscape with more views of the Cascades; on a clear day one may spot Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Adams. At long last arrive at Minnie Scott Springs, a beautiful, fragile oasis and probably your last water source. Look in the trees on the ridges above to find camp sites.

Continue to climb on the PCT through sparse forest to a wide meadow filled with a variety of wildflowers in season. Look behind you for an up-close view of North Sister, Middle Sister, and Little Brother. Cross the meadow and watch for the Scott Trail on your left (continue briefly on the PCT if you wish to explore Yapoah Crater, a massive cone with scramble trails). 

Four-in-One Cone

This next section is a long, dusty pull of over five miles through lava and forest, but Four-in-One Cone provides a welcome side trip and a good, if unmaintained, trail to the top. After that, expect a descent through sparse woods and sections of lava; this part of the trail was originally a segment of Felix Scott's Trans-Cascade road, built in the mid-1800s. 

Emerge onto Highway 242. There used to be a tie trail to make this into a nice, neat loop, but it has been inexplicably closed, leaving hikers to walk about half a mile along a narrow pavement with no shoulders and somewhat limited traffic sight lines. Be cautious on this part of the journey until you meet back up with your car at the trailhead.

This is a rather unfortunate fizzle of an ending to a truly spectacular hike, but don't let it deter you from taking the longer loop. The views and wild landscape are well worth a bit of a trudge at the end. 

Regardless of whether you choose the long loop or the short loop, this is not an easy hike; it is a rugged, volcanic land. If you are up to the hike, though, and the planets align for you, don't hesitate to drive out the Old McKenzie Pass and explore this wild country for yourself. 

It was worth the wait.

Obsidian Cliffs

North and Middle Sister

Sunshine Meadows

Little Brother

Little Brother and Middle Sister from Obsidian Trail

Arrowhead Lake

Sisters Spring

Obsidian Falls

That's not just wet. That's glass.

Obsidian and, for some reason, a perfectly round lake.

You thought we were kidding about the square mile of obsidian

Sawyer Bar

North Sister and Little Brother

At the top of Opie Dildock Pass
Unnamed rock. We like to think of it as the Eye of Sauron.

Inside Collier Cone

North and Middle Sisters, Little Brother just off frame to the right. A climb up the lower flank of the cone rewards you with this view of an unnamed lake.

Little Brother and part of Collier Cone

Here we go, left to right: Washington, Three-Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, and just barely visible, Adams. Collier Cone foreground.

Inside the cone

Cone overview

Cliff over Minnie Scott Springs

Minnie Scott

The bubbling headwaters of the spring

Minnie Scott Springs from camping area

Jefferson and Three-Fingered Jack at sunset

Meadow near Scott Trail

"Old Man of the Mountain"

Looking back from the Scott Trail

Four-in-One Cone

Crest of Four-in-One Cone

And on our way out. May the planets align for you!

Friday, October 1, 2021

Finding Oregon's Roots II: Willamette Mission Park

Before the long-lost community of Champoeg was born, when the only white people in the present-day Willamette Valley were a few former French-Canadian fur trappers, Jason Lee arrived in the Oregon Country. Responding to requests for a Christian mission in this new territory, Jason and his team began a settlement beside the Willamette River in 1834, opening a school for local youth and establishing a small town, including a hospital, blacksmith shop, and chapel. By 1841, flooding and mosquitoes inspired the group to move eight miles south to Chemeketa Plain, later the city of Salem. Here they established a new settlement, including a school that would be later become Willamette University. For a while, Willamette Mission's disused buildings were used for shelter by pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail; that came to an end when the remains of the settlement were swept away by the great flood of 1861, which also wiped out the village of Wheatland across the river as well as Champoeg, the birthplace of Oregon's government. None of these communities would be rebuilt, but their history remains beside their common lifeline: the Willamette River.

Today, a 1300-acre park commemorates the mission and welcomes visitors to this fertile plain beside the Willamette. It is easy to see why Lee and his associates chose the site, with its proximity to the river and rich soil. Here you will find meadows, wetlands, forest, and working farmland, all within the park's borders. There are five miles of bike paths as well as a seasonal hiker-biker camp; this park is a highlight of the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway. The equestrian camp is equipped with stalls and picnic tables, and there are six miles of horse trails within the park. There is a disc golf course within a filbert grove (not something you see every day), a group camp, covered picnic areas, an off-leash dog area, and a boat launch. Kayaks can be launched from a trail near the Filbert Day-use Area, accessing the Willamette Water Trail, 187 miles of paddling, complete with campsites along the way (permits required).

Take Wheatland road if you would like to ride the ferry into the park; at this writing, cars are $2, motorcycles are $1, and pedestrians ride for free. Every ferry used at this crossing has been named Daniel Matheny, the name of the man who originally began ferry operations here in the 1850s; the current craft is a substantial improvement on the original wooden raft which was poled across the Willamette using human muscle. 

Anglers can access the river near the ferry, where there is parking with a good view of the river. Then  check out Mission Lake, which has its own role in the park's history. This long, thin lake is actually an oxbow: it once was part of the Willamette. During the great flood of 1861 the river changed course, leaving this landlocked section behind. Now there is an ADA-accessible dock next to a boat launch, and the lake is often stocked with trout by ODFW.

Near the Mission Lake dock stands the nation's largest black cottonwood tree, noted by a wooden sign. This tree stood beside the Willamette long before the white men came, and it witnessed the great flood that changed the course of the river.  A nearby walnut orchard makes this park a popular fall destination, and filberts are easily found, as well.

Willamette Mission Park is just a few miles off of I-5 north of Salem. Take the Brooks exit #263 and follow the signs through wide open farm land (the many hop fields are not a new thing; our photographer's great grandmother often reminisced about picking hops here as a girl). Watch for a modest sign next to a filbert orchard; turn left into the orchard and drive through the park's fields. Mission Lake is to the right, or go left to find the Filbert Day Use Area near the river. To find the ferry, bypass the park's main entrance and turn left onto Matheny Road (Click here for a park brochure with information and a map). Be aware, however, that regardless of which entrance you use, there is a $5 parking fee at Willamette Mission.

This unique park in the heart of the Willamette valley offers something for everyone, any time of the year. Bring your bike, your binoculars, your dog, your fishing pole, or a frisbee; plan to take a short hike or spend the whole day. Next time you're driving up I-5, pause to find a piece of Oregon's history alongside a river that helped to build our beautiful state.

Map of the 18-"hole" disk-golf course

Equestrian camp

Walnut orchard

Nation's largest black cottonwood
Mission Lake

Filbert grove

Wheatland Ferry

Hiker/Biker camp

Enjoy the park! And the walnuts! And the filberts!