Fall colors at Mt. JeffersonFall is hiking season in Central Oregon. Now that November is here, the window of opportunity for many of our best hikes is closing quickly, but if you can squeeze in one more hike before the snow flies, here are some of my favorites.
Get there any which way you can: Jeff Park
There are four ways to gain admission to the "Park," a gorgeous lake-studded meadow at the base of Mt. Jefferson. Every autumn, I try to find an Indian Summer weekend to backpack up there when the huckleberry bushes paint the fields burgundy. My usual way in is an easy six miles up the Whitewater Trail, off Highway 22. One time, we took a shuttle and came back out the Pacific Coast Trail and Woodpecker Ridge Trail, which is about the same length, but can involve a challenging crossing of the creek running down from Russell Glacier. You can also enter the park by taking the South Breitenbush Trail or the PCT from the North. Once you're there, it's an idyllic place to hang out or, if you're really gung-ho, you can attempt to climb 10,497-foot Mt. Jefferson. Whichever way you get there, you won't want to leave.
It seems like the Three Sisters get all of our attention, while the Ochocos are the poor, neglected stepchildren. But, if you head east on Highway 26 a little past Prineville, a pleasant surprise awaits. The 12-mile round-trip hike along Mill Creek up to the base of Twin Pillars, a pair of 200-foot lava tower bookends, is especially beautiful now that the trail is blanketed in golden larch needles. It's also a fun hike because of all the creek crossings.
The Classic: South Sister
"It doesn't have to be a perfect day to be wonderful." That's the message on a small memorial plaque embedded on a boulder halfway up South Sister. Like a lightening rod, South Sister attracts hikers from all over, making it a virtual highway on summer weekends. Five years ago, the Forest Service instituted a seasonal leash law on the trail, so I hadn't been back since then. The reason South Sister is such a great October hike, if you get lucky with the weather, is that both the crowds and the leash law are history. (By the way, the Forest Service is now considering instituting a permit and fee program for climbing South Sister.) My friend John and I hiked up with our dogs last Tuesday for lunch at the summit. The sun was shining, the views were endless, the company was good...and the pooches snoozed divinely on the way home. It was a perfectly wonderful day.
With snow in the forecast this week, it may be time to start thinking about putting away the hiking boots and dusting off those tele skis. A few weeks ago, I attended the Winter Recreation Advisory Group meeting led by Marv Lang of the Forest Service. Lang updated a group of about 10 people representing snowmobilers, Nordic skiers, dog owners and backcountry skiers.
Shelters were in the news. The Meissner shelter is completed, thanks to a successful collaboration with the Tumalo Langlauf Club. Trails specialist Chris Sabo thinks the trail improvements to Meissner will make it more attractive to beginner and intermediate skate skiers than the Nordic center at Mt Bachelor.
The shelter at the Wanoga snowplay area is now enclosed. Lang says he started working on the Wanoga project when he arrived 18 years ago. "It's a piece of our winter recreation program that really was missing. So it's pretty neat to see it done," says Lang.
The Forest Service also plans to rebuild the Kwohl shelter next year in a new location that will avoid the snow load that damaged the existing structure.
The update on the Kapka Butte Sno-Park plan stimulated the most debate. The snowmobiling contingent seemed perfectly happy, but the backcountry skiers were dismayed that the study won't address an overall strategy that includes closing Dutchman Sno-Park to snowmobile parking. One skier complained that they weren't being heard because they are unorganized individuals, while the snowmobilers are a very organized and powerful faction. My advice: "Backcountry skiers, unite!" Dog owners are also a traditionally unorganized, motley crew, but the newly formed DogPAC (www.dogpac.org), and its 1,000 members, is very impressive. As evidence, last year's experimental dog-friendly ski trail at Wanoga received permission from the Forest Service to be widened this year and is in the plan for Kapka, which should be completed in two years.