We couldn’t leave Oregon without going to its mountains. Having spent so many summers in the Rockies, we were ready to get a taste of these Cascades. Realizing that this range originated in a much different way than the uplift of the Rockies, we knew that these mountains would be an entirely different experience. Still, mountains are the high country, no matter how they are formed. There would be contrasts, but surely also similarities. From Crater Lake, we circled back through the town of Bend, and then on to the quirky town of Sisters, just a few miles north. That is where we had our first glimpse of the snow-covered summits of Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters. Truly like a mirage, they towered over the surrounding flatlands. We pulled off the road awhile . . . we needed time to absorb what we were seeing.
Once back on the road, we turned more towards the west. The road began to climb.
The volcanic spine of the Cascades rose when the oceanic plate dove beneath the North American continental plate. Friction generated heat and lava poured forth. Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, the Three Sisters, Broken Top, Mount Bachelor, Mount Thielson, Mount Mazama (now Crater Lake), and Mount McLoughlin are the volcanic High Cascade peaks. They are ages younger than the lower Western Cascades, which are worn-down piles of ash and lava. They run parallel to and just west of the High Cascades. Stretching north to south, the range creates two very distinctive climate and topographical zones. The western side is wetter, with dense green forests of cedar, fir and hemlock. The east side is much drier, a high desert environment. Ponderosa Pines and shorter brush make up the predominant landscape. The Cascades themselves are a diverse terrain, including 500 miles of fast-flowing rivers, 150 clear mountain lakes, and about 300 days of sunshine a year. Thick green forests abruptly meet with sun-scorched lava flows. Spectacular vistas lead to snow-capped peaks. This was the setting that was waiting for us to explore.
We went over Santiam Pass, once an old Indian trail that became a wagon road, and crossed the Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada. We drove through miles of burnt forests, devastated by pine beetles and finished off by fire. We passed through an ancient lava flow, where only a very few trees were attempting to set roots. By the time we arrived at the forest service Coldwater Cove Campground, we were once more in a thick conifer forest. While most of the campsites were tucked tightly within the trees, ours backed up to a view of the lake below.
About 1,000 B.C. a nearby mountain erupted. Lava flowed out toward a river close by, burning the forest as it moved. When the lava reached that river, it struck the cold water and stopped. A dam built of that volcanic rock soon formed, which backed up the river and formed the lake we saw today. It is a deep and very cold lake . . . nearly 200 feet at its deepest and a near constant 38 degrees. Its most outstanding feature is its clarity, which enabled us to see into its depths. Appropriately named Clear Lake, it is a big draw for scuba divers, whom we saw both days we were there. The remnants of the burned forest are preserved in the depths of the near-freezing lake–another aspect that probably attracts those divers. We weren’t planning a dive, or even a short swim, but we wasted little time hitting the water. On a hot afternoon, rowing a boat was a very pleasant activity. At least, for one of us.
Known to be good trout waters, Chris tried his hand with a rod. Unfortunately, the fish must have been down a little too deep for his flies to reach.
With its headwaters at Clear lake, the McKenzie River is popular with both fishermen and rafters. After dropping several hundred feet in a short distance, the river is really rolling. An established trail follows its route, making for easy access where the river creates two dramatic waterfalls. Melinda wasted .little time checking them out. Koosah Falls was seen the afternoon of our arrival . . .
The following morning we both hiked in to find Sahalie Falls.
We had learned that another nearby Cascade Lake, simply known as Big Lake, was a popular destination. Much larger than Clear Lake, it attracted boaters, campers and many more fishermen. Melinda had read that its waters often held a reflection of Mount Washington, looming behind, when the evening light came on. We decided to head over and scout out the entire setting. We found an unexpected surprise waiting for us when we discovered the entire area was filled with stands of Beargrass! Not a wildflower we’ve encountered except at Glacier national Park, we were overwhelmed with its abundance.
Melinda had her work cut out for her.
In the springtime, bears consume the softer, fleshy leaf bases; from which the flower gets its common name.
Mount Washington was indeed the backdrop to Big Lake. Regrettably, the evening breezes didn’t calm, so no reflection could be captured on the lake. Nevertheless, the setting sun brought color to the volcanic rock and surrounding forest. The picture was complete with beargrass framing the entire scene. So ended our first full day.
A hike into the higher elevations was first on our list the next day. Cone Peak Trail wasn’t far from our campground. During her research Melinda had learned that this trail was one of the premier wildflower spots in Oregon. That was enough to justify this hike. By mid morning we were at the trailhead.
A mile-long segment at the start goes through a forested area, opening up to a meadow where Indians once picked blackberries every summer. The entire path along this mile was lined with a variety of wildflowers. The enticement was too great . . . it was slow going for awhile.
Once through the meadow, the trail began to climb, switchbacking up the mountainside. We were in a dense forest of firs and cedars, the fallen needles made for a soft pathway and it was a very pleasant walk. After another mile or so, the wildflowers returned and our pace once more was slower. These were different varieties, and photos must be taken.
We were ready for the views to open up . . . our reward for climbing so long. Finally, it came . . . we rounded a turn on the trail and had our first view through the trees. A field full of purple larkspur was just a prelude of what was to come.
For a short time, the trail once more led back into the thick forest. But we figured the reward was surely just up ahead. Our anticipation was building . . . as well as some trepidation as to what would actually be there. Our anxiety was soon put to rest. The flowers were there . . . abundantly so, and better yet, we had it all to ourselves.
Not as enthralled as she was, Chris proceeded on. Like any good explorer, he was no doubt eager to see what lay on the other side of the ridge. Waiting for her to catch up made for another excellent shot.
Flowers can hold his attention for only so long. Chris was soon ready to proceed up the trail. The summit of Iron Mountain was calling.
Lupines, paintbrush, penstemon, stonecrop, larkspur, and mariposa lilies were all there . . . a tapestry of colors. This was her element and it wasn’t as easy for her to leave.
The hike was surely the highlight of our time here at Coldwater Cove. Later that evening we walked part of the McKenzie River Trail. Originating at the river’s headwaters in an underground spring near Clear Lake, the entire trail goes for 26.5 miles, with several river access points along the way. It has been laid out very neatly, with log bridges crossing over several tributaries of the McKenzie. The upper sections pass by the lava flows and both waterfalls, while the lower sections pass through 600-year-old Douglas fir forests. Usually within sight of the cascading, turquoise waters of the river, it is simply a pleasure to walk along.
The sun had dropped below the mountain peaks by the time we returned to camp. Chris built a small campfire to keep back the encroaching darkness. Tomorrow would find us packing up, but not moving too far away. The Cascades had more to offer and we hadn’t yet had our fill.
From the serenity of a clear mountain lake,
in the morning mist . . .
. . . and at the end of day.
Chris and Melinda