Unknowingly, we had chosen an oasis in the wilderness for our last stopover in the Cascade Mountains. It was truly a haven hacked out of the forest. A remote location, there were no towns of any size within an easy driving distance. The terrain was all forest, rivers and lakes. Belknap Hot Springs Resort took us by complete surprise.
Usage of the word “resort” can be misleading in the Oregon backcountry, we had come to discover. Until now, finding ‘resort’ tacked to the end of a place seemed to imply a rustic retreat where fishermen and those seeking a true back-to-nature experience chose to find lodging. The cabins were primitive, usually log constructed, the campground was basic, the ‘store’ was generally little more than a bait shop with boat rentals, and the atmosphere was laid back. This was the picture we had in mind as we pulled off the highway, taking the short road leading to “Belknap Hot Springs Resort and Gardens.” (The word Gardens should have given us a big clue).
Touted as a mineral spa in the late 19th century, the resort began attracting visitors from its inception. Located right on the banks of the McKenzie River, the setting was scenic and the activities were geared for the water, both in the river and the hot springs. Families flocked in, seeking a vacation of swimming, fishing, soaking, and communing with nature. While the initial draw was for the hot pools and family-friendly ambiance, today there is another element to this resort getting attention. The present owner is a garden hobbyist and he has created beautiful formal gardens on the opposite side of the river. Part of the public grounds, various pathways meander through gardens well-tended by the staff. The piece de resistance is the “Secret Garden,” a beautiful circular enclave terraced with cement, sculpted into Greek-style symmetry and channeled with waterways cascading from small waterfalls.
Today, the resort can be considered for a wedding destination when a formal outdoor setting in a remote location is desired. The lodge has gone through many renovations and is comfortable by any standards. The campground is adjacent to the lodge and expands up the hill from there into the denser woods, where our site was located. There are two swimming pools fed by the hot springs for all the guests to enjoy . . . kept at temperatures between 85 and 95 degrees. Yes, I think we would like it here.
While taking a rafting excursion down the McKenzie is another big draw here, our choice of activities led in other directions. While checking out the river’s flow, Chris found a quiet spot that seemed to look promising for trout. Being known as a premier trout stream, he was anxious to try his hand. Meanwhile, Melinda took her camera and headed down the flower-lined pathways. In the end, one of us had been fortunate with their quest, while the other didn’t really want to talk about his “catch.”
A primary reason that Belknap Springs Resort had been chosen as our base camp was due to its location. Just off the highway that was part of the McKenzie–Santiam Passes Scenic Byway, it made our plans to resume touring that byway very convenient. Situated on the western terminus of the McKenzie Pass Road, we left the campground in the early morning. We were headed for the high elevations of the Cascades.
Arguably, one of the most scenic drives in the Pacific Northwest is the Old McKenzie Pass Highway, now designated as a National Scenic Byway. It is located in the heart of the High Cascades, and from its summit many of the highest Cascade peaks can be seen. It had its origins as a wagon toll road in 1872 that connected the Willamette Valley and Central Oregon. Until the 1860s, the pass was an Indian trail that was later used for driving cattle over the Cascades. Few immigrants crossed the pass, but some still tried and then bitterly regretted it. The large lava flows and steep terrain made wagon travel almost impossible. The few white settlers who did attempt to cross the flows usually had to abandon their wagons and complete their journey on foot. It became a forest road in 1919, then relocated and widened in 1920, graded between 1920 and 1924. It wasn’t paved until the mid-1900s, and it remains closed from mid-November through mid-June due to the deep snowfall the area receives.
It starts out benign enough . . . a well-paved surface where tall firs hem in the road. Tightly hemming in, I might add. Crowding the roadside might be a more accurate picture. Then soon, the curves begin and the road becomes less wide. A warning sign comes into view . . . “NO vehicles over 35 feet permitted beyond this point” is read. Flashing red lights seem to emphasize the restriction. Well, I guess we won’t be taking the trailer over this road when we leave, although the mileage is much shorter than the alternative. It is 36 miles to the town of Sisters, the eastern terminus. The literature says to allow about 2 hours to drive, if no stops are taken.
Of course we stopped, but not until we had cleared the forest and left the switchbacking curves behind. The road levels out, and the landscape is barren. All around us are the dark volcanic rocks left behind by lava flows.
Indeed, 50 square miles of lava covered the area we were looking out on. Rising above this sea of rocks was Belknap Crater, another shield volcano, just like Newberry. Unlike an explosive volcano, such as Mount St. Helen’s, this type is categorized by their large size and low profile, resembling a warrior’s shield. Formed by the highly fluid lava they erupt, its lava travels farther than lava which erupts from the explosive types. Two other such craters were nearby, all three having erupted within a 300-year span, about 2,700 years ago. Even today, the flows look fresh.
We drove on, passing many cyclists as we did. Eventually we noticed some biker shirts incorporated a McKenzie Pass logo in their design. Evidently, biking this road must be some sort of rite of passage. We were impressed. The summit of the pass was just up ahead. There were volcanic peaks in view from every angle.
The Cascade Range is part of a chain of mountain ranges called the Ring of Fire here in the Northwest. The Three Sisters are the most predominant of the nearby volcanoes. Though these three mountains and others nearby lie mostly dormant or asleep, they may be showing signs of life. In 2001, satellite photos showed an area just south of the Sisters was experiencing what is referred to as an uplift. The magma that lies deep below the earth’s surface has been pushing towards the surface and causing swarms of minor earthquakes in the area. Recently the uplift has slowed, but there is still thought that the area is slowly coming back to life.
Seen as a landmark and perhaps named by the early Oregon settlers, the Three Sisters were originally called Faith, Hope and Charity. Each exceeding 10,000 feet in elevation, they are the third, fourth and fifth highest peaks in Oregon. They have 15 named glaciers among them, nearly half of all the named glaciers in Oregon. Both North and Middle Sisters are considered extinct volcanoes, but South Sister would be the volcano to watch. In 2001 there was concern that the mountain was awakening, and in 2004 a number of small earthquakes continued over several days. By 2007 the uplift had slowed and concern has diminished, though the area was still considered potentially active.
The Dee Wright Observatory fascinated us. Standing at the pass, it is a lava rock structure constructed by the CCC stationed at Camp Belknap in 1935. Named for their foreman, it has window portals placed cleverly inside the small enclosed room. Each of the portals perfectly frames one of the volcanic peaks standing within eyesight. Some, like Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood, are very small and far away; while others, like The Sisters and Mount Washington, are quite large. Each one is easily viewed when standing directly behind the window opening.
The hiking possibilities up here are limited, unless you don’t mind clambering over rocks and loose debris. So, after taking in the views and interpretative trail, we continued down the eastern side of the pass. Winding through much drier conditions, it was more sparsely forested with ponderosa pines. Many more bikers were passed, all on their way to the pass. Soon we pulled into the town of Sisters, a small community that makes the most of a western theme. Appropriately, the Three Sisters were its backdrop.
After a leisurely afternoon touring the town and taking in its sights, we headed back the way we had come. This time we made only one short stop, as we arrived at a pullout called Windy Point. Mount Washington is easily seen, behind a stark landscape of lava flows. This was its ‘backside’ from the view we had over at Big Lake with the sunset picture. Then we drove on, having our last look at the Cascade’s lava flows.
On the way back down that narrow, sharply curving road we took time for one last stop, even though it was already early evening. A mile-long trail led through the forest to Proxy Falls. It had been a couple of days since Melinda had a waterfall encounter, and Chris seemed to like the idea of a hike. We headed out.
Fed by springs on the shoulder of North Sister, Proxy Creek breaks over a wall of moss-covered columnar basalt. It makes more than a 200-foot drop. It can be viewed straight on from an easily accessed vantage point, or one can decide to go for the close-up view, making a creative descent while climbing over boulders and fallen trees. It was to be our final Oregon waterfall, so the effort had to be made.
Tomorrow we break camp and begin the first segment of the long trip home. Heading east, we have at least half the width of the state to cover, so we think we’ll hang on to Oregon for one more day. We’ve decided to take the more scenic route, albeit a few more miles long. Perhaps there will be a few more photos of this beautiful state and one last report to write.
Celebrating the Fourth in the deep Cascade forest,
Chris and Melinda