Tuesday, September 1, 2020

On the Shoulders of Three Fingered Jack

Three Fingered Jack over Canyon Creek Meadows
The jagged peak known as Three Fingered Jack resides between smooth, cool Mt. Jefferson and sheer, dramatic Mt. Washington. Its volcanic ridge rises above the remains of the massive B and B Complex Fire of 2003. Years later, wildflowers and huckleberries thrive in the burned-off areas as new young trees shoulder their way toward the sky. The silvered remains of the burned trees are more than made up for by the astounding views that have opened up.
Perhaps the best part of this hike is its flexibility. One can wander the PCT for about a mile to a lovely, small pond, or turn it into a loop of over 20 miles; for more mileage, take in spectacular Canyon Creek Meadows, as well. Square Lake makes a great first backpacking destination, and even the shortest hike on these trails yields amazing photographs. One caveat: at this writing, there are plans to require permits to enter this area beginning in 2021, so check news for the Jefferson Wilderness before heading out post-2020.

Mt. Washington and the Three Sisters 
Our hike begins at the Pacific Crest Trail access parking lot at Santiam Pass. Drive up the short, paved road and hope to find a parking place. The views already open up to the south: Mt. Washington, the Three Sisters, and Hayrick and Hoodoo Buttes. Find the PCT at the east side of the parking lot and begin your hike. After a bit, a right turn takes you onto Old Summit Trail. Walk along with the mountains keeping you company on your right. This trail can be rather dusty and brushy, but it is nevertheless easy to follow. The unmistakable Black Butte appears off to the east. After about two miles, Square Lake makes a great rest stop, and there are a few camp sites tucked into the brushy areas close to the lake. I have seen people fly fishing for trout here, although I have never seen any caught. As you pass the lake, you will see a trail on your right to Round Lake and Long Lake (these authors suspect that whoever named these lakes must have been pretty tired of walking when they found them). Keep left on the summit trail and climb through more brush and over occasional deadfall for a couple more miles to Booth Lake. This smaller lake was not as spared in the burn, but some hikers camp here for the night, and the trout just might be worth trying for.

Black Butte and Green Ridge
Now you have a decision to make, because the next real camping area is six miles away at Jack Lake. Stay the night at Booth, make the dusty hike to Jack, or continue for a bit while watching for a possible flat area among the downed timber; the choice is yours.

Continue uphill (it seems like most of the loop is uphill, despite the fact that it starts and ends at the same place. This makes no sense to me). You will notice that the higher elevations are further behind on their recovery from the burn; while the new young trees are taller than you are further down, they are few and stunted up here. Black Butte now dominates the eastern horizon, with Green Ridge stretching to the north. A lovely, mostly-treed valley lies below them, and on a clear day you can glimpse the central Oregon high desert beyond. Just when the trail couldn't get any hotter or dustier, the sound of rushing water leads toward First Creek. Be sure to stop and treat some water where this little stream crosses the trail, as it may well be the First and ONLY creek you encounter for several miles!

Jack Lake
From here, the trail continues through the burn. Eventually the trees get thicker, and coming around a bend you will suddenly see...a parking lot. This is the Jack Lake trailhead, at the end of a famously rough road out of Bend. Jack Lake is a sweet mountain pool and actually a lovely place to camp, as most of the hikers who brave the road are after one thing: Canyon Creek Meadows. For a peaceful night, look for a spot away from the trail, as people walk this path at literally all hours.

Mariposa Lily
Heading uphill from Jack Lake, two trails on the left lead to Canyon Creek Meadows. While popular and crowded, this series of mountain meadows is definitely worth a side trip. The trail is meant to be a loop, but once in the meadows it becomes a bit of a maze. Take time to explore and to photograph the abundant wildflowers which bring so many hikers to this area. Its other claim to fame is the amazing view of Three Fingered Jack as it looms over the meadows.

Wasco Lake
Back on the main trail, walk to where a small creek crosses the path. The signs are sometimes missing, but your route is over the large stones in the creek. Continue the climb toward Minto Pass and beautiful Wasco Lake, which lies about three miles past Jack Lake. This is a popular backpacking stop, and there are numerous places to camp as well as numerous campers. The lake is deep enough to swim in, and hopeful anglers ply the waters with their fishing lines. Black Butte is visible in the distance and a fringe of trees offers some shade. This is a good spot to refill your water, then scramble up the steep Minto Pass Tie Trail to find the Pacific Crest Trail and the final ten miles of the loop.

Hiking along the west face of Three Fingered Jack
Turn left on the PCT and walk along a ridge with stunning views. This part of the trail has a scattering of small pools which may give a false sense of what the rest of the trail will be like. If you are thinking of camping any time soon, stop here; otherwise, be prepared to walk for a while. The PCT follows this ridge and continues to climb to a view over Canyon Creek Meadows to Three Fingered Jack. Here the trail switchbacks up a steep, pumice-strewn slope. Walk along the west side of the ridge through rocky, bare areas, forests, and burns. At this elevation, snow may be found at any time of the year; use caution walking on mushy snowfields. During snowmelt, expect to cross some steep streams on the west face. Look for a spot in the thick trees if you would like to spend a night on this stretch, as sites in the burns are few and far between. Eventually you will come to a lovely little trailside pond in a lightly-treed meadow; this is only about a mile from the trailhead. Stop here for a while to watch the birds and postpone the inevitable re-entry into humanity.

Time will tell what becomes of this loop trail once the permit system is in. The Old Summit Trail, prone to bushes and deadfall, may become difficult to follow, but hopefully maintenance will continue despite lighter use. This hike offers an outstanding overview of the south part of the Jefferson Wilderness, as well as an up-close look at nature's recovery from a devastating conflagration. Birds sing, flowers bloom, and huckleberries flourish beneath the sturdy evergreen saplings who are steadily becoming tomorrow's forest.

Black Butte
Approaching Square Lake

Looking back over Square Lake towards Mt. Washington and the Three Sisters

First Creek

Black Butte and a glimpse of the central Oregon high desert


Wild delphinium
Pink mimulus (monkeyflower)
Creek running through Canyon Creek Meadows

Canyon Creek Meadows

Wasco Lake

Finally at the top of the Minto Pass Tie Trail
Wasco Lake from the PCT
Mt. Jefferson from the PCT
Three Fingered Jack and the PCT
Looking over Canyon Creek Meadows

Western pasqueflower seed pods (old man of the mountains)

Small trailside pond, almost back to the parking lot