Distance: 9.2 miles (with side trip to Indian Pits and a navigation error)
Duration: 3 hours 15 minutes (breaks not included)
Elevation gain: 2040 feet
References: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Portland by Paul Gerald; Oregon Hikers
After early season snow forced me and some friends to cancel our much anticipated ladies backpacking weekend, I was kind of at a loss about what to do instead. Mack had already planned an exploratory run with a friend, so adventuring together wasn’t an option. I actually considered trying my first solo backpacking trip with Cassie! Unfortunately, the routes I was considering were all under snow as well, and I wasn’t interested in lugging heavy snow gear around for an overnight trip. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little distraught over all my various plans falling through, especially since the weather forecast called for clear skies and sunshine! In the end, I settled on a familiar route up to Silver Star Mountain, which was still (mostly) free of snow and would offer an incredible view with a cloudless sky.
Cassie and I started from Grouse Vista Trailhead sometime mid-morning. There were a few groups heading up around the same time, but it wasn’t too crowded yet. After running/power-hiking the first mile on a steep and rocky forest road, we were rewarded with a little more solitude (and a more level trail) as we emerged from the forest and onto a meadow covered hillside. I’d previously done this route in the spring when wildflowers and green grass carpeted the area. I remember thinking that spring was definitely the best season to explore here. Returning in the fall changed my perspective immediately. We managed a decent pace along the ridge now that we weren’t climbing steeply. It felt good to stretch my legs after the calf burning first mile. After passing beneath Pyramid Rock and enjoying expansive views to the west and northwest, we reentered the forest and started climbing again. Somehow I’d completely forgotten about all the elevation gain on this route…
Thin patches of snow became more frequent as we continued to climb, practically covering the trail once we passed the junction with Indian Pits. Cassie bounded back and forth, excited to be running and rolling around in it. After one final steep (and slick because of the snowy conditions) push, we arrived at the saddle between the dual summits of Silver Star. We took the left spur, which leads to Silver Star’s true summit. For a short while, we had the summit to ourselves and enjoyed views of St. Helens, Rainier, Adams, Hood, Jefferson, Sturgeon Rock, and the incredible Bluff Mountain Trail. I attempted a few (okay, maybe 20+) selfies with Cassie since Mack wasn’t around to help with the picture taking, but she wasn’t having it.
My original plan for the day was to get in a few extra miles by running an out-and-back on Bluff Mountain Trail, tagging Bluff Mountain and Little Baldy along the way. However, by the time we made it down from the summit, it was already past noon and Cassie was moving a bit slower (and very unmotivated to move any faster). After a solid five to ten minutes of debating with myself, I decided to turn around and tack on the shorter side-trip to Indian Pits. It turned out to be a worthwhile alternate. Not only was it completely free of other hikers, but it had one of the most vibrant displays of fall foliage I’ve ever seen! Our run turned into more of a hike as I stopped to take pictures of the increasingly beautiful landscape and mountain views.
When we arrived at the pits, I was disappointed to find all of them filled in with rock. Fortunately, when we turned around to head back, the incredible view of Silver Star alongside the Washington volcanoes more than made up for it. I might even go so far as to say that the views surrounding Indian Pits Trail are possibly superior than those from the summit of Silver Star! If you have the time to make it out here during a jaunt up to Silver Star, I strongly recommend it.
Back on the main trail, we continued our descent until we reached an unmarked junction. Looking at the map, the trail appeared to be an alternate route that approaches Pyramid Rock along its eastern side before meeting back up with the main trail shortly after. I decided to give it a shot, but after a half mile or so in I didn’t feel so certain about it. Part of me knew I was probably on the correct route, but now that we’d nearly reached mid-afternoon, taking the familiar route felt like the safer, smarter decision. Cassie was not happy to be turning around since it meant going back uphill. I had to coax her with treats to get her to follow me again.
We picked up the pace again as we ran downhill following the failed alternate route. The afternoon sun greeted us as we exited the forest and stepped out onto the open hillside, illuminating all the reds, oranges, and yellows that had been cast in shadows earlier that morning. After passing beneath Pyramid Rock again, we turned onto a side trail leading to that same alternate route that wraps around the rock’s eastern side. My goal was to find a worn path leading to the rock’s base so we could scramble up. Since I’d already backed out of running to Bluff Mountain and Little Baldy, I at least wanted to do this!
After searching for a few minutes with no luck, I turned us around. Then, as we were walking back, I noticed Cassie sniffing out a section on the edge of the trail. I thought she was getting ready to chase a squirrel or something, so I walked up ready to put her leash back on. On the contrary, she had sniffed out the climber’s path! I could see a faint path through the grass and brush. It led right to the base of the rock. We ran up and began the short scramble to the top. Usually Cassie is pretty conservative when it comes to exposed routes, but she seemed to have a lot of fun mountain-goating up this one! Although relatively easy, it was her first scramble, so I stayed close by, ready to spot her or lift her up over obstacles if needed. In the end, she ended up not needing any help at all. We enjoyed the summit as long as we were able to tolerate the hundreds of gnats swarming around at the top (which obviously wasn’t very long). The views from the top weren’t anything special after looking at the volcanoes from Silver Star and Indian Pits. However, the process of getting to the top (and back down) was the real worthwhile aspect of this side trip.
Despite not getting in the miles and additional summits that I’d originally hoped for, I returned to the trailhead feeling invigorated and whole. We didn’t have an epic, type 2 adventure, but we played outside, took time to slow down and savor every beautiful moment, and still managed to fit in something new (Pyramid Rock). Coming down from the crazy summer high (which was pretty much all type 2 adventures) has been more difficult than I thought it would be. Spending the day running up Silver Star and exploring around it was a necessary reminder that getting outside with those I love is all that should matter. I should never refrain from doing something because it doesn’t seem “epic” enough. I’d probably miss out on some wonderful experiences (like this one) if I did.
Big Pine Creek Trailhead is located just over 750 miles (13-14 hour drive) away from our home. To say it’s an unlikely place to attempt a weekend adventure is probably an understatement. We did consider several other places (in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California), but many were still closed due to forest fires or they didn’t allow dogs. As I continued my search for an adventurous Fall running route (that allowed dogs, wasn’t covered in snow yet, and had mountain views, Fall foliage, and alpine lakes) I kept coming back to Big Pine Creek. I convinced myself it was a crazy idea, but I pitched it to Mack anyways. To my surprise, he was actually on board with the idea! Two days later we were on the road, heading towards a mountain range I’d only ever seen from a car window as a teenager.
Day 1: Big Pine Creek South Fork Trail (8.24 miles; 2 hours 41 minutes, breaks not included)
After nearly 14 hours on the road, we finally pulled up to the trailhead sometime after 3 pm. Although our initial plan was to only run Sunday (the following morning), it seemed ridiculous to let the rest of the afternoon go to waste, especially since our entire trip would be less than 24 hours. We threw on our running gear and started up the South Fork Trail around 4 pm. It was just what we (especially Cassie!) needed after being cooped up in the car all day. The first stretch of the route climbs through a U-shaped valley covered in high desert vegetation and clumps of cottonwood and aspen trees closer to the creek. The jagged peaks of the Palisades to the southwest beckoned us onward.
Following the crossing of South Fork Big Pine Creek, we arrived at the base of a steep, rocky slope. Our run turned into more of a power hike as we climbed the switchbacks, tiptoeing quickly, but carefully, over the technical terrain. Looking up at the pass, which always seemed close but continued to feel further away as the switchbacks continued, brought back memories of climbing Aasgard Pass up to the Core Zone of the Enchantments nearly a year ago. At least the climb we were doing now was a lot less steep.
Once we topped out, we finally got to gaze upon the granite peaks that had been mostly tucked away from our view down in the valley. If only we’d had more time to explore! From the pass, we began a gradual descent into a totally different environment. Gone were the desert plants. Now we were running through a marshy pine forest headed for Brainerd Lake, our goal for the afternoon. As the minutes passed though, we didn’t seem to be getting any closer and the sun was sinking lower. I was under the impression that Brainerd was only four miles from the trailhead! (I guess it’s actually somewhere between five and six miles away) Once Mack’s Garmin read over four miles, we decided to call it quits and get back down into the valley so we weren’t descending technical terrain in the dark. I was a little disappointed, but I knew I’d get my fill of gorgeous alpine lakes the following day. At least I got a small taste of the surrounding peaks on this run!
We made it back down into the valley with some remaining daylight. It looked so different! The red, yellow, and orange hues of the foliage shone deep and rich now that the sun had dipped below the horizon. We were able to cross the creek again before getting overcome by darkness. I pulled out my headlamp and led the way through the pitch black landscape for the final mile and a half or so. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of racing the setting sun and ending up in darkness at the end of a run but it was kind of exhilarating this time around for some reason. Our car was the only one remaining in the day use parking area when we returned. Such an odd sight after driving into a completely packed lot just a few hours earlier. We drove back a short ways down the road to the North Fork Trailhead where you’re allowed to park overnight. After a long day on the road and running at altitude immediately following our crazy commute, we had no trouble falling into a deep sleep.
Day 2: Big Pine Creek North Fork Trailhead to Fifth Lake (13.2 miles; 3 hours 41 minutes, breaks not included)
We awoke to the sound of Cassie barking at a hiker with a headlamp. It was still pitch black outside, but my watch indicated that early morning was upon us and we’d need to start getting ready within the hour. After a few more minutes of shut-eye, we forced ourselves up. Sunrise wasn’t scheduled until after 7 am, but the sky was light enough to run by 6:45. We took off as other hikers (who’d slept in their car the night before too) were waking up.
The trail starts out climbing gradually along an open hillside that looks down into a valley containing the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. There’s no shade through this section, so I was happy we started as early as we did to beat the inevitable heat. The trail eventually switchbacks up and after around two miles we were running alongside the creek through a forest of pine, aspen, and cottonwood trees. The seasonal change of green to gold on the aspen trees is one of the main perks of visiting this area in the Fall.
Running through forests is pretty typical for us as frequent visitors of Forest Park in Portland, as well as a few nearby National Forests. However, we’re far more used to seeing fir, spruce, hemlock, cedar, and maple trees in Northwest Oregon. It was quite a treat to be exploring an entirely different type of forest that is, in my opinion, equally magical.
About three miles into the route, we spotted Lon Chaney’s mountain cabin (now a wilderness ranger camp closed to the public) tucked away within a grove of pine trees and situated a few yards away from the creek. It’s beautifully constructed and appears to be holding up well despite it’s age (it was built in 1929). Aside from being too close to a popular hiking trail, it’s definitely in one of the most idyllic settings imaginable, too. Back on the main trail, Mack and I talked about how cool it would be to have our own mountain cabin somewhere (like Mount Hood or the Wallowas) with just enough property to build our own little trail system. A girl can dream…
The trail leaves the forest for the most part shortly after the cabin. As we ran through a meadow section, we got our first clear view of Temple Crag, the most iconic peak on this route. It signaled that we were now very close to the lakes basin we’d driven all the way out here to see.
From the meadow, the trail gradually climbs up to the rocky basin containing the first three lakes. After passing the side trail that leads down to the shore of First Lake and rock hopping over the granite terrain, we finally stood above First Lake. The sun’s location made it difficult to look right at it and get a decent photo, but it was nonetheless an incredible sight, one that already made the long drive worth it. The first three lakes are all very close to each other. We came upon Second Lake within a couple of minutes. This one is by far the most stunning of the lakes in my opinion. It’s bright turquoise color and proximity to Temple Crag is unmatched by any of the other lakes. We enjoyed lounging on the granite cliffs above for a few minutes before continuing on.
Although only a short ways away, Third Lake is an entirely different color compared to First and Second Lake! It’s got more of a milky green hue to it. It was very refreshing to see so much variety between the lakes. The picture of Mack and Cassie at the beginning of this post was taken at Third Lake. It’s one of my favorites of the entire trip. Fourth and Fifth Lakes were another mile/mile and a half away and situated higher up. We power hiked up the switchbacks, stopping for a snack break near the top and admiring the view of Third Lake down below.
Fourth and Fifth Lakes weren’t quite as magnificent as the first three lakes, but they did offer more solitude since most visitors were down by the other lakes. Between the two, Fifth Lake was the more picturesque. We’d set a goal of getting back to the car between 12 and 1 pm so we’d make it home in time to catch a few hours of sleep before work. I think it was already past 10 am at Fourth Lake, so we decided to turn around rather than head toward Sixth and Seventh Lake. Additionally, we decided to go back the way we came rather than do the loop that goes along Black Lake. I wanted one more look at those first three lakes before we left.
The way back was of course much faster now that we were going downhill. We could finally stretch our legs and run! We got in a few more pictures as we stopped by the lakes again. I was able to get a much better shot of First Lake now that the sun had moved. I was amazed at its tropical looking waters! Although Second Lake was still my favorite of the bunch, I think First Lake might have it beat in the color department.
As we descended out of the lakes basin, the temps became warmer. Mack had already shed his long sleeve layer by this point. I was too lazy and just kept everything on. Before leaving Portland, the forecast for this area called for temps to be in the low 40s, with a high of about 50. Maybe it actually was that cool, but the combination of running and being in the sun cancelled it out. Despite being warmer than I wanted due to sun exposure, the increased sunlight made the golden leaves of the aspens even more dazzling than when we’d passed by them a few hours earlier!
The run back out was going by even faster than I’d anticipated. The run-hike up to the lakes must’ve been ridiculously slow then. Once the forest opened up and we reentered the valley, we knew our mini run-cation was almost over. Within 10-15 minutes we were back at the car and getting packed up for another 14 hour commute.
It was strange going back to California for an entirely different reason than to visit family and friends. I don’t think I ever got the opportunity to truly appreciate all that California has to offer while I lived there. My family didn’t make it a priority to get out there and visit the numerous natural wonders and wild spaces. Now that the outdoors has become such an important part of my adult life, I look forward to returning to this state I once resented to see everything in a different light and make new memories filled with exploration and adventure.
Since Mack and I began backpacking together over two years ago, it’s always been just the two of us. Hell, even a majority of our day trips (hiking and trail running) are done alone without the company of other friends. At the end of last summer, we and a couple of friends, Kaylyn and Evan, threw around the idea of doing a trip together in the future. By January of this year, we’d figured out dates, picked a location, and solidified the route!
Two weeks before our adventure was to begin, we found out that Gothic Basin (near the North Cascades), our intended destination, was still under quite a bit of snow. Neither of us wanted to haul snow gear up to camp nor deal with sketchy trail conditions/navigation for this particular trip, so I frantically searched for another option. Just like two years ago when Mack and I were turned down for the Wonderland Trail and looking for another option, Douglas Lorain’s Backpacking Oregon saved the day. The Elkhorn Crest Trail, a point-to-point route along the Elkhorn Mountains (a subrange of the Blue Mountains) in Eastern Oregon, presented itself as the perfect alternative.
Day 1: Marble Pass Trailhead to Twin Lakes (4.8 miles, plus additional 3-4 miles hiking up to the trailhead; 4 hours 18 minutes, breaks included)
On Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours since returning from Glacier Peak, Mack, Cassie, and I made the long drive out to Anthony Lake. Our trip didn’t officially start until the following morning, but getting a few hours of sleep in the car sounded far more appealing than driving out at 2 or 3 am in order to make an 8 am shuttle pick-up. Kaylyn and Evan opted to do the early morning drive and at 8 am we all piled into the shuttle that would take us to Marble Pass.
It probably sounds a little ridiculous that we decided to hire a shuttle, especially since we had two cars to work with. However, the forest road leading up to the trailhead is notoriously rough and steep. Neither of our cars seemed suitable and we didn’t want to take the chance of bottoming out on the way up or back down this road. Ironically enough, our shuttle ended up breaking down just as we were starting up this section! We ended up with a few extra miles tacked onto our low mileage day, so it wasn’t too bad for us. Unfortunately, our poor driver (with no food or water, low battery on his phone, and no other coworkers to come get him) had to hike back down in search of a ride to get back to work! (We found out after the trip that he didn’t have to hike too long before getting a ride)
After just over an hour and a half of hiking, we finally reached Marble Pass TH around 11 am and took shelter from the sun below some trees to enjoy a short lunch. Less than five miles until our destination for the day!
Although walking along this completely open ridgeline meant full exposure to the hot sun, it also meant stellar views as we hiked. Since the trail stays primarily on the west side of the Elkhorn Crest, the most prominent views for the day were of the Sumpter Valley and Phillips Lake to the southwest. We continued at a leisurely pace, watching our footing on the loose volcanic rock comprising much of the trail surface. A few patches of snow served as a small reminder of the long, harsh winter that had hit this area earlier in the year. Cassie, being the snow-loving dog that she is, seized every opportunity to roll around in them to cool herself off.
The four-ish miles to the junction with Twin Lakes Trail went by fairly quickly (most likely due to the lack of elevation change). The cool, sparkling waters of the lakes in the basin below beckoned to us after hours in the sun. At the junction, we also got our first taste of the high mountain goat population in the area! Just as we were approaching the junction, Evan spotted one a few yards in front of us. Fortunately, these goats appear to be less habituated to people (unlike those in the Enchantments) and it quickly scampered off when it saw us. We made our way down the switchbacks of Twin Lakes Trail, eager to make camp and check out the lakes.
It was just before 1:45 pm when we finally made it down and finished our hiking for the day. We set up our camp within a small grove of trees then walked down to Lower Twin Lake, the larger and more accessible of the two lakes. We saw at least three mountain goats on the opposite side of the lake. One stood/sat perched on a rocky overlook as if to oversee the goings-on of the lake below. Another two or three walked along the edge of the lake, grazing here and there along the way. I don’t recall ever seeing this much wildlife on any of our trips so it was pretty exciting to experience!
After getting some relaxation time down at the lake, we returned to camp for dinner. Mack and I went about our semi-lazy routine of heating water in the Jetboil to throw on our instant mashed potatoes. Kaylyn and Evan actually made an effort and brought along a delicious mixed vegetable chili that they cooked/reheated in a pot! They were kind enough to share some of the chili with us. It tasted fantastic mixed in with our mashed potatoes. As much as I hate cooking (both in the outdoors and in everyday life), that chili had me reconsidering my “cooking takes too much effort” stance.
Mack, Cassie, and I decided to go for an evening stroll around the lakes area. Although we hadn’t seen too many goats since being down at Lower Twin Lake earlier, we did see the same goat several times throughout the afternoon wandering through the campsite areas. This time, it was grazing along the shore as we walked. Surprisingly, Cassie did not seem too bothered. After reaching the far end of Lower Twin, we decided to walk back up and see the more hidden Upper Twin Lake. The rocky cliffs above Upper Twin blocked out the sun, making the area more cool, shaded, and moodier compared to Lower Twin. All the visitors to the basin stayed down near Lower Twin, so Upper Twin remained calm and quiet, completely void of people with the exception of me and Mack.
Back at camp, our curious goat friend returned again and again, sometimes sneaking up on us while we were lost in conversation. Despite its persistence, it always ran away when we shouted at it or tossed some stones in its general direction. I did take advantage of the fact that it kept returning and snapped a few photos (from a good distance away I should add, zooming in with my camera). Not sure when I’ll get to see these magnificent creatures up close again! We turned in for the night and kept our fingers crossed that our food bags would still be in tact when we woke up.
Day 2: Twin Lakes to Summit Lake (12.8 miles; 7 hours 15 minutes, breaks included)
Despite knowing that our second day would be our longest, we decided to take our time in the morning. Why rush? We had all day to get to camp afterall. We didn’t start the hike out of the basin until 9:15 am. Just like the day before, the sun was shining and the sky was clear. Another fortunate bluebird day on the trail!
Prior to the trip, we’d discussed the idea of scrambling up Rock Creek Butte (the highest point in the Elkhorn Range at 9,106 feet), but with the late start we decided against it. It was difficult to pass it by and not give it a go though. Maybe next time! A little over five miles into our hike we arrived at the junction with the Pole Creek Ridge Trail. It was 11:45 am and this junction would be the only one until the junction with Summit Lake Trail (still another 6.6 miles away). We settled down here for a few minutes to eat some lunch and take in the view of the Blue Mountains stretched out before us.
After our lunch break, Mack and I noticed Cassie becoming more and more lethargic. We’d been giving her water and snacks regularly, but Cassie is picky sometimes. She really only likes to drink water from streams, creeks, puddles, and ponds,–basically anything that’s not her water bowl–so sometimes when we tried to give her water, she refused to drink. Her energy level continued to drop dramatically and she was breathing heavily. Any time we walked through an ounce of shade, she would plop down, sprawl herself out on the ground, and refuse to budge. Concerned that these were the first signs of doggy heat stroke, we removed her pack, allowed her several minutes of rest each time we reached a shady spot, doused her in water to cool her down, and even carried her in our arms when she didn’t want to walk. Although Cassie has dealt with heat before and completed far more strenuous hikes, climbs, and trail runs, this was the first route we’d done with her that lacked water sources. Thankfully, after we’d made it through (very slowly I might add) a majority of the 6.6-mile stretch, we came across an ice cold spring. Cassie immediately sat down in the water, drank to her heart’s content, and stayed there the entire time we filled up our water bladders and bottles.
The next section of the trail was one of my favorites. Although volcanic rock still made an occasional appearance, granite was now far more prevalent. We were also walking beneath more trees, and through more grasslands and sections bursting with wildflowers. It also felt like we had traveled deeper into the mountains. The valley and farmland below that we were able to see earlier was no longer in sight. Now it was just green, forested mountains. Cassie’s spirits seemed to be lifted after that dunk in the spring, so we were able to move at a quicker pace then we had been. Before we knew it, we’d reached the junction with the Summit Lake Trail.
We walked beneath granite cliffs, then descended into the cool shade of the forest. I’m quite certain this was the first time we’d entered a legitimate forest since beginning the trip! In addition to the relief it provided from the sun, we were also rewarded with a couple more water sources. We exited the forest shortly after and looked down below on Little Summit Lake, initially thinking it was Summit Lake (which would’ve been disappointing considering this lake looked more like a bog). A quick map check reassured us that Summit Lake would be on the other side of the trail and above us (not below us). As if by the power of our collective wishful thinking, we found ourselves gazing out over the true Summit Lake just a minute or two after the map check.
Not only was the lake itself enchanting, but the basin that holds it, surrounded by unnamed, 8,000+ feet granite peaks, stopped me in my tracks multiple times while we sought out a campsite. As soon as we found a site large enough to accommodate both of our tents, we dropped our packs and walked out to the water via a rocky peninsula jutting out from the camp area. The granite peaks at the southern end of the lake were perfectly reflected in the calm, still water. It was 4:30 already, so enjoying a swim in the lake now made more sense than setting up right away. Cassie, on the other hand, had no interest in getting in the water. She stayed nearby and curled up beneath a tree, falling fast asleep within seconds.
The rest of the evening passed quickly since we arrived later in the day. We spent much of it around the fire ring talking, eating, chasing away pesky ground squirrels. I hadn’t experienced such a socially involved backcountry trip since my NOLS course two years ago, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it until now. Before this trip, Mack, Kaylyn, Evan, and I hadn’t spent much time together outside of infrequent social gatherings, and yet here we were getting to know one another in a far more vulnerable setting. I was actually pretty amazed at how well it was all going!
We continued to enjoy solitude as the afternoon melded into the evening. Although I did see one or two other people at the southern end of the lake, not a single person came out to the northern tip where we were camped. We had the place entirely to ourselves on a beautiful summer night. A perfect ending to our final full day in the Elkhorns.
Day 3: Summit Lake to Elkhorn Crest Trailhead at Anthony Lake (10 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)
In an effort to make it out by noon and avoid hiking in the heat of the day, we departed Summit Lake at 7 am, stocking up on water at the creeks we’d passed in the forest the afternoon prior. Despite experiencing slight confusion at a four-way junction near Columbia Hill (after getting back on the Elkhorn Crest Trail), the rest of the way was straightforward and easy to navigate. We skirted the west side of Mount Ruth, another stunning, pyramid-shaped granite peak, and dropped down to Lost Lake Saddle, where we enjoyed mountains views, as well as a view of Lost Lake down below. We ended up seeing quite a few lakes on our final day!
Following the junction with Lost Lake Trail we continued along the west side of the crest, still gaining elevation and wondering when we’d finally get to the downhill section. After Cunningham Saddle, the terrain to the west of us transformed from mountains to spacious meadow. It looked so clean cut I thought we’d stumbled upon a golf course in the middle of Wilderness. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t think to take a picture here.
At Dutch Flat Saddle/Dutch Flat Lake Trail junction, with only 3.5 miles remaining, we took a break in the shade to load up on whatever snacks we had left. As soon as we started walking again, we ran into several people and three or four dogs coming down from the saddle near Angell Peak (our final climb of the day we found out!). It was the most people we’d seen since hiking to Twin Lakes two days earlier and reminded us that we were basically back in the frontcountry. Solitude was officially over. Thankfully, the final trek down from the saddle was one of the most beautiful sections of the entire hike that day. Fields of granite boulders, forested mountain slopes, and the prominent Van Patten Butte rising high above the slightly hidden Black Lake comprised the picturesque landscape before us. After reentering the forest area adjacent to Black and Anthony Lakes, we were back at the car in 20 minutes or less. It was exactly 12 pm when we stepped into the parking area.
We treated ourselves to pizza and beer at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort (which is where we ran into our shuttle driver from Friday) before making the drive back to Portland. Although we didn’t discuss it, I can definitely see all of us plotting out more backcountry adventures together in the future. As much as Mack and I love adventuring alone, going with friends brought even more joy to the experience than I thought it would. A pleasant surprise that I hope we can make happen again.
With Spring in full swing, Mack and I are excited to start ticking off some trails we’ve been dying to hit since we started trading hikes for adventure trail runs. We decided to be bold this past weekend and shoot for one of the longest ones on our list: the McKenzie River Trail. In retrospect (since we didn’t realize these coincidences beforehand), it was actually quite a fitting adventure to have in celebration of Mack’s 27th birthday. The trail is just under 27 miles long, and then there’s the name itself, M[a]cKenzie. It was meant to be!
If I’m being completely honest though, I was actually hoping Mack would want to back out and save this run for another day for a few different reasons: 1) it would be our third ultramarathon distance run in the last five weeks, 2) it would be Cassie’s first ultramarathon distance (with her previous longest run being 16-18 miles), and 3) the earliest shuttle pick-up through McKenzie River Mountain Resort is 9:30 am (meaning we wouldn’t be able to start our run until at least 10 am)! The “no earlier than 10 am” factor is what really made me nervous. If we were just running the trail like a race (with no plans to stop), I wouldn’t have been worried, but on our adventure runs, I like to fit in longer breaks, take pictures, and explore side trip opportunities, which tends to add on quite a bit more time. Would we really be able to do that on this run with such a late start? Mack the birthday boy decided it was what he wanted to do though, so I did my best to set aside my worries.
We set off early Saturday morning in order to make our 9:30 am shuttle (which, by the way, is $30 per person and allows dogs). We were the only people hitching a ride that morning, so the 20 minute drive to the upper trailhead was pretty quiet, with the exception of the driver sharing a few tour guide-esque tidbits about the area and checking to see if we had a map. As soon as we were dropped off and got our packs situated, we crossed the footbridge at the trailhead, headed into the forest, and began the long trek back to the car.
Less than a mile in we came to the Clear Lake Trail junction, opting to stay on the MRT rather than taking the slightly shorter Clear Lake Trail (which does hook back up with the MRT at the south end of the lake) just to say we ran the trail in its entirety. According to our shuttle driver, there are numerous preserved trees standing underwater in Clear Lake due to the cold temperature of the water. The lake was created about 3,000 years ago when lava flow created a dam at the south end, allowing water to fill the area. Of course you can’t see these trees despite the clarity of the lake, but it’s an interesting anecdote about the area. We also got a small taste of the vibrant topaz colored water (which Tamolitch Blue Pool is known for) when we passed Great Spring on the eastern side of the lake.
The MRT is known for sections of volcanic rock, and the eastern side of Clear Lake is one of those sections. Although it wasn’t very difficult for Mack and I to run on, I was a little nervous for Cassie since the rock is sharper. We didn’t bring any sort of paw protection for her, but she seemed to do fine and never showed any indication that she was bothered by the rough terrain. It was around this time that we started getting pelted with sleet, too. Less than three miles in and we were already soaked! Re-entering the forest near the southern end of the lake provided some shelter and relief.
There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground before and after Clear Lake. I knew it would clear up eventually based on recent trip reports, but it did result in some pretty slow miles and even a little navigating to find the trail. It was hard to believe it was actually mid-May as we sunk into these ankle deep mounds of snow! Once we reached the junction with the Waterfalls Loop Trail and crossed the footbridge to stay on the MRT, the trail was clear. Now that we were running alongside the McKenzie again, we could admire the fiercely aqua blue tint of the water as it raged and tumbled downstream.
This next section between Clear Lake and Tamolitch Blue Pool encompasses the heart of the MRT. It’s also the most popular. Thankfully, due to the less-than-ideal weather and lack of sunshine, there were hardly any people on the trail (or maybe they were on the Waterfalls Trail on the opposite side of the river). Our first stop, and my absolute favorite part of the entire run, was Sahalie Falls. We scrambled down a short, steep side trail, traversing slick, rocky terrain and ducking under downed trees to reach the base of the 100-foot raging falls. We admired Sahalie for only a brief couple of minutes. The heavy mist blowing off the waterfall had us shivering almost instantly. Cassie didn’t seem to enjoy this part either.
Back on the trail, we came upon Koosah Falls soon after. We thought about finding a way to get down to the base like we had for Sahalie, but we still had many miles to run and it was already noon or so. We opted to admire the falls from a ledge above instead, then continued on to the next destination: Blue Pool.
Now that we weren’t running on snow or volcanic rock, the next few miles passed quickly. We finally ran into some mountain bikers (just two) as well. Since the MRT is a well known MTB trail, we were worried that we’d spend most of our day dodging cyclists, but these two were the first we’d seen since we’d started! Maybe the weather kept many of them away? Whatever the reason, we were happy for the solitude. Of course, once the trail opens out above Blue Pool, that solitude immediately disappears.
Thankfully, the crowd wasn’t too ridiculous when we arrived. I imagine it’s an absolute nightmare in the summer or on any bluebird weekend. On this semi-gloomy day though, we managed to snag a rocky ledge overlooking the pool and enjoy the spot for a short time while we snacked and took pictures. The next mile or so took us over more volcanic rock. It was slow going again, and we were running into more people now because of our close proximity to the trailhead for Tamolitch Pool.
Eventually, the rock gave way to cushiony singletrack as we descended to the level of the river. Now that we had passed the main highlights of the trail (Clear Lake, Sahalie and Koosah Falls, and Tamolitch Pool), we quickened our pace and made fewer stops. For the remainder of the trail, we got to soak in the beauty of the Willamette National Forest, with its lush old growth areas and a forest floor blanketed in green.
After passing the trailhead for Tamolitch Pool and another trailhead at Trail Bridge Reservoir, we hit our longest stretch (somewhere between 7.5-8 miles I believe). I think there were even a couple of uphill sections through this stretch. Nothing that strenuous though. The sun had come out by this point, so we enjoyed being shaded by the trees while still absorbing the warmth of the sun.
Once we made it to the Frissell Crossing Campground (with about six miles left to the car!), we took a slightly longer break (like 10-15 minutes) to eat some snacks, feed Cassie (who just wanted Goldfish as opposed to her own treats), and stretch out our legs before the final section. After that long of a pause, getting up to run again was difficult. It’s only when you stop that you start to notice the stiffness and soreness.
The snack break definitely gave us the boost we needed to push the last few miles. Crossing the river at Frissell put us on the same side as the highway, so peace and quiet weren’t as plentiful during this stretch. Our excitement grew though whenever we passed a landmark that we recognized on the map (Belknap Hot Springs first, then Paradise Campground). Once the guardrail (indicating the parking lot turnout) came into view through the trees, I knew we were done and our marathon day was complete. It had started to pour in the final half mile, so we’d made it back just in time to avoid getting completely soaked again. Cassie, needless to say, was exhausted and willingly hopped into her backseat hammock as soon as I opened the door. We quickly changed into some dry socks, shoes, and shirts and hit the road for the long drive home, stopping for some well deserved ice cream and candy at the nearest gas station. Maybe next year we’ll have to find 28 miles to run somewhere for Mack’s birthday?
Since Havasupai, all of our weekends have been spent in the Tillamook State Forest training for our upcoming 50K. This past weekend, we wanted a change of pace. Our original plan had been to take Cassie on her first Cascade volcano climb on Mt St Helens, but that fell through the night before due to increasingly terrible weather conditions. We threw around the idea of running the 22-mile Wilson River Trail before falling asleep Saturday night, but then we didn’t wake up until after 8 am the next morning. Too late to start Wilson River, especially since we’d have to do a car shuttle. We sat in bed for awhile trying to think of a shorter, less strenuous route that would only involve taking one car. My anxiety worsened as the minutes passed and we didn’t have a plan in place. I experience a sort of writer’s block when it comes to thinking up last minute trips where the details aren’t hammered out the night before. Mack, ever the optimist, reassured me that we’d figure something out soon enough.
I remembered reading in some recent trip reports that the Coyote Wall/Catherine Creek area in the gorge was now snow-free and had wildflowers popping up, so I got out the map and quickly traced out a route that would take us through the Labyrinth, Catherine Creek, and Coyote Wall. Finally a semblance of a plan! We packed up our running gear, slathered some tick prevention oil on Cassie (the area is notorious for them), and hit the road just before 10 am, arriving at the trailhead shortly after 11:15. As expected, the parking area was packed, but we managed to snag a spot near the highway. The trails here are a popular mountain biking destination. As we started down the paved road leading to the trails, we noticed tons of bikers, but only a handful of hikers. No runners.
After passing the Coyote Wall Trail (our return route), we took the next left, heading uphill on the Labyrinth Trail. Mack and I have not spent much time in this part of the gorge, so the landscape was so foreign to us. We’re used to hiking through dense forests on the western side, so running up rocky mountain bike trails and scrambling over basalt protrusions with completely uninhibited views of the Columbia River behind us was a new experience! A short ways up, Labyrinth Creek came into view and Cassie dragged me down to take a dip. The creek tumbles down multi-tiered Labyrinth Falls further upstream (which I neglected to photograph because Cassie kept trying to pull me into the water again). After a brief side trip to see the falls, we continued up the winding trail, passing through grassy meadows as we climbed. I was grateful for the overcast skies. Complete exposure to the sun would’ve made the elevation gain feel a lot worse.
If I’m being completely honest, I was finding it difficult to enjoy our run. We were experiencing perfect weather, running through gorgeous scenery, and getting outside as a family. What’s not to enjoy? As it often does, my mind drifted into more negative thinking: Why am I so weak and sluggish on these hills? If I can barely make it up these, how am I going to survive the numerous hills on the Tillamook Burn course next weekend? At the rate we’re going, are we going to be able to complete this 13-15 mile route? I can’t believe we started so late! Ugh, there are so many user paths in this section! Are we even on the correct one? God, I hope we’re not lost… (The list goes on)
This area is stunning though. It definitely softened the blow of some of my pessimistic thoughts. Some of our favorite aspects of the Labyrinth were the groves of oak trees we passed through. Their mostly bare, scrawny limbs and often crooked, angular trunks added a striking contrast to the blossoming meadow landscape. Eerie, but equally beautiful. The diversity was a pleasant, unexpected surprise!
We continued on what appeared to be the main trail, running up and across more expansive fields dotted with trees every so often. We climbed up hills, plateaued in spots, stepped off the trail when bikers came roaring down the steeper inclines, and always had a view of the river stretched out before us. The crisscrossing user paths continued to confuse us though. Most of them lacked signs, which led me to believe that a lot of them were probably social, unofficial trails. With numerous signs asking visitors to stay on the ‘trail’ to avoid harming fragile vegetation, Mack and I avoided these paths. However, after one final climb, we came to a signed junction indicating we had reached Atwood Road Trail. Damn.
Our goal had been to run to the Catherine Creek TH so we could get in some longer miles, explore the Catherine Creek area, and THEN meet up with Atwood Road Trail to continue to Coyote Wall. Somehow we’d missed a junction (with the Rowland Basin Trail I think?) and gone up the Upper Labyrinth Trail. Needless to say, I was annoyed. I knew Atwood Road Trail could still take us to Catherine Creek and we could just run the section in reverse, but it was clear to me that neither of us knew the area all that well. Since we’d started late, we decided it would be better to just continue to Coyote Wall from the junction and explore Catherine Creek another day. Sadly, this cut our mileage nearly in half. Better safe than sorry though.
*In retrospect, the reason (I think) we missed the junction is because we didn’t know that the Rowland Basin Trail was the name of the trail that would eventually take us to the Catherine Creek TH. Both of us thought the Labyrinth Trail continued to Catherine Creek. There’s a good chance we probably reached a signed junction but disregarded it because Rowland Basin Trail wasn’t even on our radar. Sigh.
I was pretty reluctant about having to do a shorter run, so I wasn’t in the best mood as we completed our short stretch on Atwood Road Trail. When we arrived at the junction with Old Ranch Road Trail (sometimes referred to as “Old Jeep Road” in various hike descriptions), we turned left onto this track and descended a grassy hillside. After all the climbing we’d started with, running downhill felt so good. Balsam root was more common in this section, too. The bright, yellow blooms were an instant remedy for my current sulky disposition.
We ran all the way down to the junction with the Coyote Wall Trail and turned right to head back uphill. There are a few different paths that head up and crisscross in this area. We stayed on the one(s) closest to the edge of the basalt cliffs to take in the view of their mighty presence as we ran.
Our turnaround was going to be the upper viewpoint (which, after re-reading the hike description, is marked by a large ponderosa pine). I’m not entirely sure we made it there, but we did get pretty far up. We turned around after seeing a boundary sign. Perfect timing actually. The clouds rolled in and it started to rain. At that point, I didn’t feel bad that we’d decided to ixnay the Catherine Creek portion of our route. We began the descent back to the main road.
The rain let up for a little while as we descended the Coyote Wall Trail, so we decided to make a few stops to take in the view and photograph the balsam root and desert parsley, which were incredibly abundant along the trail. Of course the rain didn’t cease for very long. After reaching the junction with the Old Ranch Road Trail, we continued our descent through a maze of trails (though I’m pretty sure we were basically on the Little Moab Trail) that eventually spit us out onto the paved road leading to the parking lot. The rain was falling harder and harder, so I guess we finished at just the right time. Not everything went according to plan (I mean, even this plan wasn’t according to the original plan), but we rolled with the punches and ended up having a fantastic day in a new area of the gorge.