Thursday, September 7, 2017

Mt. Jefferson Without the Crowds

Marion Lake. Hunt's Cove. Pamelia Lake. Jefferson Park. The Jefferson Wilderness is justly famous for its beautiful hikes and amazing scenery, and its proximity to Highway 22 brings crowds of hikers jostling for camping space; in fact, hiking to Pamelia Lake now requires a permit, and camping at Jefferson Park is restricted to specific sites which are designated with wooden posts.

Several years ago, we were foolish enough to venture into this area in search of a quiet place to camp. We asked for advice at the Detroit Ranger Station. After puzzling a bit, the ranger pointed to a spot on the map. "Go here," he said, and we did. We found our own unnamed lake, one that doesn't even appear on many maps. We saw no one the entire time. It was quiet, the kind of quiet that presses on your eardrums. At one point, we heard a great ruckus and hurried to see what the noise was about, only to find that it was a medium-sized frog climbing onto a rock. All of this with a moderate hike from a well-marked trailhead at the end of a paved road. Sound too good to be true? Welcome to Pine Ridge Trail.

This unassuming little trail may not be as well-known as some in the area, but it offers several options for a variety of hikes. Take your kids on their first backpacking trip and camp at peaceful Temple Lake. Climb Marion Mountain and savor the panoramic views. Use the trail as an alternate route to Marion Lake, or continue into the Eight Lakes Basin for a longer trip. Just be aware that parts of the trail are typical lushly wooded Cascades forest, while other parts fell prey to the B and B Complex Fires of 2003. The burned areas are healing and worth hiking through, but warm days make for hot, dusty hiking, so bring plenty of water. As always, bring a map and compass and know how to use them. One snow-bent evergreen looks very much like all the others, so it's important to keep track of your location.

To find the trailhead, take Highway 22 (the North Santiam Pass) 26 miles past Detroit and turn left onto Forest Road 2261 (Twin Meadows Road), which leads to Camp Pioneer. Coming out Highway 20 (the South Santiam), take Highway 22 toward Detroit; FR 2261 is past the Big Meadows Horse Camp turnoff, but before Marion Forks.

The forest road climbs for five narrow, winding, but paved miles to the Boy Scout camp. Just past the camp, the road turns to gravel and becomes a small parking lot. Sometimes the cars are packed into every corner here, other times yours will be the only vehicle.

Temple Lake
The trail passes noisy Camp Pioneer and leads one quarter mile to the wilderness boundary, where the path splits. The trail to the right is part of the Turpentine Loop; our route is to the left. This section is well-maintained and very pretty, winding through the shady woods. Watch alongside the trail for wildflowers and huckleberries; both abound in this fertile soil. About two miles in look for a side trail downhill to Temple Lake, perfect for a picnic or a family overnighter. The tranquil lake lies in a forested basin with the tip of Mt. Jefferson peeking over the trees to the north. If you do camp here, or anywhere else in this area, do hang your food and take the usual bear precautions.

Summit of Marion Mountain with Marion Lake behind
Three-Fingered Jack
After the junction with Temple Lake Trail, the path gradually becomes less maintained. This is where you have your first taste of the B and B fire, passing in and out of untouched forest and burned areas. As always in a burn, expect some downed trees across the trail from time to time. This trail is just popular enough, though, that efforts are made to keep it clear, so it's usually easy to get around any logs. Listen for the squeak-toy cry of pikas as you walk near rock piles. About three miles in, watch on your right for the trail up Marion Mountain, not to be confused with nearby rugged Marion Peak; the latter has no hiking trails and is best left to climbers. The Marion Mountain trail climbs steadily for 0.8 mile to a rocky summit. The footing is loose and dusty at times, but this detour is well worth the effort. When the trail unravels at a campsite, take a small path to the left to find the viewpoint; here you will see Mt. Jefferson to the north, the summit of Black Butte to the east, and Three Fingered Jack and the Three Sisters to the southeast. Lakes are scattered over the landscape below, including Marion Lake to the north. There are several places to set up a small tent here, and this would be a perfect spot to watch a sunrise; there are no water sources this high up, though, so be sure to bring enough with you.

Unnamed lake with Marion Mountain behind
Return to Pine Ridge Trail where you can go back the way you came, continue to Marion Lake, or head into the Eight Lakes Basin. The path now becomes a bit rougher, with more rocks and downed trees, but it never becomes difficult for hikers, and seasoned trail horses will be able to make their way. When the trail splits, the left-hand path leads downhill to the western shore of beautiful Marion Lake. The right-hand trail leads into the Eight Lakes Basin. This is the Blue Lake Trail, and if you take this route you will soon see a small, unnamed lake on your right. This basin was, in fact, rather inaccurately named; it is generously dotted with many small lakes of varying sizes. Some are trailside, but others require a concerted effort to access. Use caution when trying to reach the latter; you are now in the depths of the B and B burn, with uncertain footing and unstable trees. Most of the trailside lakes have campable spots. While this once-popular area bears the scars of its fiery history, hikers and equestrians are returning as flowers, bushes, and saplings soften the harsh landscape.

As for our tiny, unnamed lake, its rather informal trail has grown faint over the years and it's now much harder to find. Still, sharp eyes may spot an old path on the right, beside a creek crossing before the Temple Lake junction. The trail plays hide-and-seek through downed timber and patchy brush, but the quiet pond waits for those who discover it. Lakes abound in this wilderness, some of them insignificant enough to be ignored by the makers of maps. Bring a compass and your best topo; perhaps you will find a place to call your own.

Temple Lake with Mt. Jefferson

Tarn beside the trail to Marion Mountain

Fireweed in the B&B Burn

Wild Huckleberry
A final view from Marion Mountain