McKenzie Pass / Hwy 242 to Elk Lake (31.2 PCT miles)
Millie picked us up at Dee Wright Observatory and shared her wealth of knowledge about the area on our way into town. She treated us to a late lunch at a cute little bakery/cafe in Sisters, then drove all through Bend to show us the sights and so we could pick up some supplies at REI. Finally, we headed to Sunriver and of course got caught in Friday afternoon construction traffic - oops. She had been tickled by our story about the lack of ice cream at Ollalie Store, and made sure to stop in at Goody's, a well-known ice cream shop in Sunriver, for us to get our fix (Huckleberry had mint chip & Oreo and I had mint chip & mint Oreo, if you are keeping track of this at home). We stopped in at the market for some extra snacks, so we wouldn't eat her out of house & home with our hiker hunger, and a few things for the trail. We also splurged on a single but giant avocado (you don't want to know what we paid, but it was so worth it) and a small boule of sourdough bread from SF, to make avocado toast with brekkie in the morning. Once we arrived at her home, we set about the usual town day affairs including laundry, showers, blog posting, etc. As she pointed out it was already cocktail hour, so we enjoyed Deschutes Black Butte Porter (we have to say it tastes better after actually seeing the name sake Black Butte) and snacks on her beautiful deck once we were clean. She graciously didn't bat an eye at our hiker apparel of rain jacket + a towel (everything else was in the wash), and made a delicious dinner of veggie lasagna, caprese salad, and spinach salad with fresh berries accompanied by potato rosemary bread. When we are on the trail, we crave fresh fruits and veggies the most and this meal really hit the spot. Thanks Millie, for spending so much of your Friday driving us around and for being the perfect host.
Day 39 started with Millie taking us back up to the Dee Wright Observatory, where we arrived around 10:30AM. It's always harder than you might expect to leave a cozy town stop for the trail, so a mid-morning start seems to be the best we can do. Thankfully, the temperature was milder than it had been the previous day. We entered the Three Sisters Wilderness expecting to be in more lava like we had crossed yesterday to reach the highway. Instead we were pleasantly surprised to find a short walk across solid lava brought us to a gentle forested slope adjacent to the lava flow. We appreciated gaining some miles on the butter-soft trail through air cooled by the canopy of mixed firs, spruce, and hemlocks. The higher we climbed the closer we got to the Yapoah flow lava and also gained views of North and Middle Sisters towering beyond Yapoah Crater.
On one of these ridgelines, we had a vista that made me realize that the surrounding topography can serve as a timeline for our hike. We looked north to see several mountains rising above the horizon. Each peak corresponded to a different day, when we walked past it. Closest was Mt Washington (yesterday), then Three Fingered Jack (the day before), then Mt. Jefferson (three days prior), and finally Mt. Hood (a week ago) while in front of us were the Three Sisters (later today). It struck me how amazing it is to have the opportunity to see distance we've traveled on foot displayed in this way.
When we first saw the lava flow, it looked like a desolate, barren, black moonscape. From afar it appears to be piles upon piles of monochrome black rock with irregular, jagged shapes. However, approaching closer we found that while otherworldly, it is filled with color. The dark lava ranges from light grey to graphite to jet black, with veins that are burgundy to maroon in color. There are also lichens, wildflowers, and grasses that bring startling splashes of greens, and even a few conifers that have contorted themselves to contend with this harsh environment. The source of this lava held a similar surprise. As we approached Yapoah crater it looked like a bland charcoal gray cone, featureless aside from the trail emblazed across its shoulder. As we approached the base, we could see that huge beige boulders and a small stand of trees near the summit. From even closer, we saw that the dark sandy slope is actually home to hundreds of small plants that are green, red, and yellow making the cone come alive with their vibrant colors. Around the corner we found ancient and beautifully contorted lodgepole pine trees making their home on the leeward side of the crater. Adding to the beauty were the incredible skies, streaked with constantly changing cirrus clouds that provided a fitting background for the natural drama of the area.
And just like that, we were hiking through another island of intact forest between sections section of lava flow. As we climbed the final forested switchback, an approaching NOBO with the chill laid-back vibe of a veteran surfer said hello, then told us sagely, "I hope you brought your space helmets, because you're about to walk across the moon." The next section was simply breathtaking. We had started the morning on the north side of the Three Sisters and now we were on their western flank where we could see the bright blacks and reds of their peaks in between their glaciers and snow fields. Directly in front of us was a massive wall of black lava. In a ravine near the trail was a large patch of snow, which Huckleberry harvested for her hat to help keep cool in the warm sun. We followed the trail up the edge of the lava to enter a stunning extraterrestrial landscape, and meandered slowly along, taking many pictures as the trail twisted and turned around dramatic features in the lava. At Opie Dilldock Pass we started down a steep and squiggly set of switchbacks next to a sheer wall of lava, so polished from eons of ice scraping across it that its red surface looked like polished copper. Along an upper slope were dead snags bleached bone white by time and the elements, and the top it was crowned with live trees. That NOBO had been spot on, we definitely felt like we'd walked across the moon.
No sooner had we left that magical region than we entered forested hills again. We traversed along and came to a sign reading "Obsidian Limited Entry Area." Huckleberry and I had seen this on our maps and figured it would be another lava flow but with rock polished to the sheen of obsidian, so we were a little perplexed to find the sign deep in a forested region. We looked up and saw that the cliffs were shiny, then started to notice unusual boulders along the trail with streaky veins of shiny black obsidian. As we walked further we found shards of obsidian along the trail and in the dirt to either side, and noticed that the talus at the bottom of the cliff was also streaked with obsidian. We passed a few wildflower-strewn alpine meadows with views of Middle Sister to reach a region simply filled with piles and outcroppings of obsidian. The slopes along the trail glittered and even the hills across the meadow glinted in the sunlight. It was magically unreal. Everywhere we looked there were shards of obsidian, amongst the rocks in the forest, strewn in the rocky meadows with the wildflowers, simply everywhere. It was astounding. We went around a bend in the trail and it was all gone. We passed the sign marking the southern boundary of the area and just like that we were back in regular, obsidian-free, mountainous meadows and forest.
We had spent so much time enjoying this spectacular day that by late afternoon we realized we were not going to make our original mileage goal. We decided to re-assess our location at 7pm and decide on a location we could reach before dark. Our gradual western traverse of the Sisters had brought us to South Sister. The Three Sisters are a trio of gorgeously different mountains. North is the tallest with the most crags, Middle has a rounded top but massive glaciers and snow fields, and South boasts bold swaths of maroon mixed with black and punctuated by snow fields. For those familiar with the Sierra Nevada, South Sister's colors and shape are somewhat reminiscent of the Painted Lady in Rae Lakes Basin. Just around 7pm, we happened upon a creek running adjacent to the trail in an open, sandy meadow. Opposite the trail was a flat-topped rocky knoll with sparse hemlock trees. We found a sweet flat spot to camp on this knoll with an excellent view of Middle and South Sisters to the east across the meadow and with Broken Top poking up over the trees to the west. We made dinner and were eating in our tent because of the mosquitos, when we were treated to the most spectacular sunset of our entire trip. I put on my wind jacket and rain pants and braved the blood thisty insects to take some photos. I made it back to the tent alive and Huckleberry and I reflected on the serendipity of this site, a perfect end to a magical day.
Along with the area's natural beauty, it was also filled with good people energy. It all started with Millie's generosity. Then just a few miles into our hike this morning we ran across a woman backpacking in an impossibly huge sunhat and matching sundress, who asked if we were thru-hiking then gave us a pair of KIND bars because we were. We chatted with a day-hiking couple at South Mathieu Lake who had just moved back to the Pacific Northwest from a few years in Chicago. They were intrigued by our wilderness sabbatical and we joked with these Seattle-ites about life in the upper Midwest (I grew up in MN, and Huckleberry & I lived in Minneapolis together for a few years). They thought the weather in Chicago was atrocious, yet their Chicago friends would ask how they could live in Seattle with "all of the rain." For the record, I'd take Seattle weather over Chicago, period. Then there was our zen surfer dude NOBO reminding us to use our space helmets. Finally, there was our chance encounter with Megan. We knew that a girl with mutual running friends who lives near us at home (but we had never met) was hiking NOBO this year. We had followed her blog before we started hiking, but hadn't had a chance to keep up with it on-trail. At Millie's place, Huckleberry checked, saw her last post was from Crater Lake, and commented online that we'd probably be crossing paths soon. So here we are in the late afternoon, taking a snack break at Obsidian Creek. We'd seen about a million hikers today, including plenty of thru-hikers. About 15 feet downstream from us was a girl filtering water. After we'd been sitting there for about 5 minutes she looked up and yelled out,"Hey, are you Dan's friends?" Sure enough, we had crossed paths with Megan! We chatted for a while and enjoyed the common bond of the trail and mutual friends. Day 39 was a stunner and one of our all time favorite days on the trail.
We awoke the next morning, and headed south towards Elk Lake and points beyond. From our conversation with Megan, we knew that the last of the lava fields were behind us. We did catch a few bits of obsidian glimmering on the face of Rock Mesa as we headed out over a vast plain following the trail as it wound over gentle rolling terrain towards the horizon. Beyond this high plateau we would find more forested slopes and a return to the emerald tunnel. Our friend Happy Feet was right, the section between Ollalie and Elk Lakes was incredible in its diversity and our favorite stretch of Oregon so far.