Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Climbing Black Crater

I avoided this hike for years. Driving the Old McKenzie Pass (Highway 242), I eyed the looming mound with its misshapen summit and thought, "Three miles? To climb THAT? I'm no mountaineer, sorry."

Finally, in a fit of optimism (or maybe it was something I ate), I laced into my sturdiest boots and drove toward the lava-cloaked summit of Highway 242 (open mid-June into October). The trailhead for Black Crater is just on the east side, between Lava Camp Lake (coming from Eugene) and Windy Point (coming from Sisters). There is a small parking lot on the south side of the highway.

As it turns out, this is no mountaineering trail. It is well-worn, clear, and consistently maintained. Any blow-down is gone by midseason. Of course, some areas are rock-dotted and root-crossed, but overall it's no different from the very steepest part of any hiker's weeknight out-and-back. It's just that it stays that steep. For over three miles.

A few words if you decide to climb the Crater: wear sturdy shoes; this is volcano country. Carry water; there is no chance of finding any along the trail. Bring a warm jacket, even on the hottest day; the wind near the top can be surprisingly cold. Finally, the summit is 7257'. If the highway has recently opened and there is the remotest chance that you will encounter lingering snow on the trail, bring a GPS. Trees have been blazed along the trail, but as you will see while you hike, trees blow down. A lot of trees blow down. Be prepared to find your own way through a snow field.

Once you have parked and geared up, fill out a free wilderness permit and immediately begin to climb. Pace yourself; you will be doing this for a while. Watch for Mt. Washington on your left. Normally we see him far-off and aloof; here he seems much closer, like an acquaintance glancing at us across his lava fields. Three-Fingered Jack and Jefferson loiter in the background, to be joined later in the hike by Hood. The large, brown dome to the left of Mt. Washington is Belknap Crater.

Continue to climb. through woods both thick and sparse, along rock falls and slopes, ever higher. Almost one hour in (more or less), a dismal sight appears: an enormous hill, rising ahead in the hazy distance. Yes, dear reader, this is the destination. Keep climbing.

Presently, the high desert of Central Oregon can be glimpsed through the trees. Black Butte dominates, and Newberry Crater rises outside of Bend. The trees gradually thin, giving way to an alpine rock garden. The trail becomes a bit "pummy" but footing remains good. Higher up, red and grey boulders accent the garden. Keep climbing and emerge onto a small cinder plain, where the Sisters suddenly appear on your left. Cross the cinders, which love to roll underfoot, and gain the craggy summit. The wind hurries over this high peak; you may want to put on that jacket as you revel in 360 degrees of Oregon scenery. A good map will help you identify the features visible from your lofty perch. Many people bring their lunch and picnic here, which also makes for a good excuse to sit and rest after the climb.

Take your time descending; the views are just as good on the way down, and you no longer have the trail rising in front of your face. Don't be tempted to run down, as I saw one man doing. I also saw him trip over a large rock. It's a long way to limp out.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Stop on the Way Up the Mountain: Castle Canyon

Rhododendron is one of those blink-and-you-miss-it little towns. If it weren't for the reduced speed limit, most summer motorists wouldn't even slow down for this small collection of businesses tucked against the forest beside the Mount Hood Highway (Hwy. 26). Few know that these thick woods hide a short, steep hiking trail that is snow-free for much of the year. If you're up for a challenge, pull over in Rhododendron and check out this quick climb to a series of unusual rock formations.

It took us a while to find the trailhead; we had gotten some rather imaginative directions from an outdated source. Once you know the way, though, it's easy to find. Coming from Portland, watch on your left for East Littlebrook Lane, which immediately turns left and becomes East Arlie Mitchell Road. Before long the road curves to the right; instead of following the curve, continue onto unpaved Henry Creek Road (FR 1819).
It's worth noting that this potholed, single-lane residential road follows the old Barlow Road route, once part of the Oregon Trail. This peaceful, shaded, nearly-level section must have been a wonderful respite after the perils the pioneers faced when descending infamous Laurel Hill. Nowadays, quaint vacation cabins nestle in the quiet, dim woods, disturbed only rarely by a passing car. NOTE: in 2016, we noticed signs warning of a closure on this route. Don't worry, the slide is beyond our trailhead.

Continue on the Barlow Road for nearly half a mile, watching for a small trailhead sign for Castle Canyon. Park in one of the wide spots alongside the road, being careful not to block anyone's driveway. Don sturdy boots, and take trekking poles or a walking stick if you have them. Note that there is no water along the trail. Even though the hike is less than a mile each way, leash your dog and be prepared for a climb.

You will need to fill out a free wilderness permit near the trailhead. The trail here wanders peacefully through lush forest. Watch for wildflowers alongside the path and listen for songbirds as you gradually leave the highway sounds behind. Ignoring small side trails, continue at a gentle pace for half a mile or so. Tall evergreens shade the path, vine maples form a leafy canopy, and you will begin to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then the trail steepens.

The first formation is a relatively small one on your left. Then more appear as the trail continues to ascend. There really is no canyon here; in fact, you are climbing an eroded volcanic ridge. The official trail ends on a rock outcropping that makes a perfect picnic spot, with treetop views over the hills. It is not easily reached by the average daytripper; be prepared to clamber briefly up a sheer rock face where a fallen tree has peeled away the trail. Scramble trails lead to other, similar rock formations nearby; use caution if you decide to explore these, as they are very steep and footing is unstable.

When the time comes to descend, the advantage of a walking stick will be fully appreciated. The path here tends to be very slick during wet weather and loose and crumbly when it's dry. Step carefully during the steep sections, then enjoy the woodland stroll back to your car.

At less than two miles round-trip, Castle Canyon may not seem to be much of a hike, but it's well worth a stop along your way. Escape the frenetic traffic headed up Mt. Hood, get a little cardio in, and explore this ridge of craggy pinnacles.

Picnic area at the trail's summit