Friday, September 25, 2015

Jefferson Park After Fall Equinox

The first finger of sun found our little tent and I crawled out to greet the morning. The icy-stern northwest face of Mt. Jefferson towered before me. The fall air was sharp with the cool turpentine smell of a Cascade morning. Below me shone an intensely turquoise lake, deep and ice-cold, as we had discovered during yesterday's attempt at swimming. To the east spread a wide meadow of reddening foliage. We were in Jefferson Park, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life.

This wide, lake-spangled meadow on the shoulder of Mt. Jefferson is justly popular with hikers and heavily visited. It is downright crowded during summer weekends, and a new reservation system was implemented in the spring of 2016 in an attempt to alleviate crowded camping near the lakes. That being said, Jefferson Park is always more than worth the five-to-seven-mile hike it takes to get there. We recommend visiting in the fall; not only is it less crowded, the turning leaves and soft autumn light make for stunning photos. Even better, go midweek if you can, as use is always heavier on the weekends. Just be sure to check the weather forecasts before starting out; at a 5900-foot elevation, Jefferson Park is susceptible to early snow. Regardless of what the weatherman says, take extra clothing and be prepared for a sudden change.

There are three routes to Jefferson Park: the Pacific Crest Trail (6.5 miles one way and very scenic), the South Breitenbush Trail (about 6.5 miles), and the Whitewater Trail (a little over 5 miles). This article will focus on the Whitewater Trail, which gains about 1700 feet through forests and along stony cliffsides.

To find the trailhead, drive 10 miles east of Detroit on OR 22, or 21 miles north from the junction of 20 and 22 in the Santiam pass. Turn east on Whitewater Road, a modest but decent mountain road. Follow this for 7.5 miles to the parking area. You will need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here, and you should fill out a free wilderness permit at the trailhead. Look at the sign board for a map of the lake area showing designated camping spots. If someone has not taken it, snap a quick picture of it to help you find the spots; some of them are tough to locate.

View from Park Butte
Climb slowly and steadily through the trees, following occasional switchbacks. At about 1.5 miles, you will see a trail to the  left which leads to Triangulation Peak. Stay on the main trail, turning northward at about 2 miles in. Follow along a slope, ford Whitewater Creek, and climb to the junction with the PCT. Soon you will begin passing through areas with small meadows, hints that you are almost to Jefferson Park. Then it spreads out on all sides, a great sweep of alpine meadow between Mt. Jefferson's peak and Park Butte. Grass and low shrubs carpet the open field, punctuated here and there by evergreen trees. Paths wander freely throughout the area, connecting lakes and small tarns. Scout Lake is the first lake, to the left. Follow a thin trail along its northern edge (there is an excellent campsite here) and you will find Rock Lake and Bays Lake. Stay on the main trail to find Russell Lake and the rest of the park, or continue on up Park Butte for                                                                                     amazing views.

Many people visit Jefferson Park as a long day hike. This is certainly a good option, but to watch the fading evening light touch Mt. Jefferson's stony face, or the dawn illuminate Park Butte, you have to spend the night. Camping near the lakes is limited to designated sites, each marked with a post. Alternatively, you can camp in any suitable spot if you are willing to pitch your tent at least 250 feet from the lakes. This option will still be available after the reservation system is implemented; only the sites near the lakes are affected. One advantage of finding your own site is greater privacy, as photo-seeking hikers will not be passing through your campground. There is beauty everywhere here; it isn't necessary to be right next to a lake.

Jefferson Park is famous for its mosquito population. If you go shortly after snow melt, bring plenty of repellent or you may be eaten alive. The numbers drop as the short summer passes, though, and by fall they aren't much of a problem.

It could be argued that Jefferson Park is overused and should be avoided. I disagree; in fact, I highly recommend the hike. We just need to use this beautiful place wisely. Try to hike during less-busy times, don't build a campfire, pack out everything you bring in, and leave absolutely no trace. This is a place I hope to share with my grandkids someday.

Please stay tuned for information regarding a full photo gallery of this area. Big things coming soon.


  1. Please note that the Whitewater Fire has closed Jefferson Park for this year (2017). We hope that this beautiful area will not suffer too much damage, and that trails can be cleared quickly in coming years so that we can return to the Park. -the authors

  2. 2018 update: Jefferson Park can now be reached, but not by the Whitewater Trail, which is currently closed.