Surf & Volcanic Turf Trip
Oregon, California, and Nevada - September, 2015
This is a 10-day trip that focuses mostly on the interior of Oregon, but also includes some time in northern California, and a drive up the Oregon Pacific Coast on Highway US 101. It includes visits to beautiful Bend, Oregon as well as the Oregon Outback -- the desert portion of the state in its southeast corner. I also spent a couple of days at Crater Lake National Park, before heading south into northern California for a visit to Lassen National Volcanic Park. The trip ends with two days of driving up the Pacific Coast on US 101.
Portland to Bend, Oregon
I arrived in Portland, Oregon after dark on Day Zero, which allowed me to make Day One a full day of visiting Oregon. I started the day by tracking down some of the filming locations of one of my favorite television shows, Grimm. If you've ever watched the show, you know that it is set in Portland, and local landmarks pop up constantly -- from Multnomah Falls to the bridges that cross the Willamette River. I drove around town and checked out locations like Nick and Juliette's House and Monroe's House, before hitting the road.
My destination for the night was Bend, and I knew I had a few beautiful options for getting there. Unfortunately, the skies were cloudy, and eventually turned rainy--a problem I'd be experiencing throughout this vacation. I decided to drive south on Interstate 5 to the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, then turn east on Oregon 22, which heads into the Cascade Mountain Range.
The drive through the Cascades would have been much more spectacular, if I wasn't driving through the pouring rain, most of the time. The hiking would have been nicer, too, without getting soaked by a steady downpour and countless puddles. Despite the weather, I took a look at Detroit Lake and Dam, the waterfalls along the McKenzine Highway (Oregon 126, 242), and the volcanic wasteland of McKenzie Pass.
Around Bend, Oregon
The day was supposed to begin with one of the highlights of my trip -- a drive on the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. I set out from rainy Bend, hoping that the weather would break, once I got into the mountains. Of course, that rarely happens. So, I did the drive out to Mount Bachelor (hidden by clouds) and then south past numerous lakes, all of which looked choppy and grey. I eventually gave up, bailed out, and returned back to US 97.
I don't think the weather ever improved in the mountains, but there were some blue skies over the Newberry National Volcanic Monument -- a beautiful but rugged area that received most of my attention for the rest of the day. Volcanic lands dominate the area around Bend, Oregon, and much of the rocky terrain lies within Newberry. Behind the Visitor Center, a few miles south of Bend, I drove up to the top of Lava Butte on a road that spirals to the top of the cone. Once at the top, I hiked around the crater, where a fire tower is perched at the top of the rim. Benham Falls is located just a few miles away from the Visitor Center, so I drove, then hiked, out to it, too.
To see all of Newberry National Volcanic Monument requires a good deal of driving. The Caldera area, which includes Paulina and East Lakes, Paulina Peak and Paulina Falls, is located a few miles south, then a few more miles east of US 97. In this area, I drove to the top of Paulina Peak, which is just shy of 8,000 feet above sea level (2,434 meters), and checked out the quite pretty Paulina Falls.
Before returning to Bend for the evening, I drove out to another attraction in Newberry -- the Lava Cast Forest. It turned out to be less thrilling than the other stops I had made, but it was still interesting in a middle-school-field-trip kind of way. As you walk along a paved trail through a lava field, you get to see the holes left behind by ancient trees, which were 'cast' by flowing lava that swept over the area.
I finished the day with a visit to Tumalo Falls. It's one of Bend's most recognizable landmarks. This picture-perfect waterfall tumbles over a cliff, just a few miles away from downtown Bend. I lingered there until it was getting dark (and once again, rainy), then drove back to Bend for my second night there.
Bend to Burns, then a loop to the south
I started this day with a drive up to the top of yet another volcanic cone. Pilot Butte is located in the middle of Bend. US 20 actually has to curve around it. While many people decide to hike to the top, I took the car. On a sunny day, you'd have a spectacular view of the Cascade Mountains. On this day, however, I saw more clouds.
It hadn't started raining just yet, but I knew it was coming, so I decided it would be best to go underground, into one attraction at Newberry National Volcanic Monument that I had bypassed the previous day. I drove south to the Lava River Caves, only to discover that they were closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I should have visited on the previous day, a Monday, when the parking lot was packed. Instead, I found myself in a pouring rain, staring at a closed gate.
I drove back to Bend and did some more exploring. I checked out the town's trendy shopping area, known as the Old Mill District. The centerpiece is, no surprise, an old mill, complete with three towering smokestacks. The Old Mill's new tenant is an REI store, which allows you to go inside and see some of the rusty 'guts' of the old building, which have been left in place.
I had hoped to do some more hiking around Bend, before heading east, but the weather was discouraging me. So, I headed from Bend to Burns, via US 20. It's a long, lonely drive across the Oregon desert, with just a few tiny communities like Brothers along the way. The rain poured on me, for the entire drive. In my rear-view mirror, I could see breaks of blue sky. The clouds were literally following me.
I arrived in Burns far too early in the day, and checked into my motel. Burns is not the kind of place that's overflowing with things to see and do. It's a nice little town, but the emphasis is on the word 'little'. Miles and miles of empty land stretch out in every direction.
Almost miraculously, as I emerged from my motel room after checking in, I was greeted by sunshine. It was, by no means, a perfect day, but the weather was improving, and I quickly formulated a plan. I'd head south on Oregon 205, the same road I planned to drive the next day. Instead of going all the way down to Frenchglen (the one notable community between Burns and the Nevada line), I'd only go about halfway, see whatever I could see, then return. It ended up being a fairly nice drive through the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the community of Diamond, plus the famous Pete French Round Barn -- the closest thing to a tourist attraction you'll find in these parts.
I finished up with a sunset along a dirt road in the refuge, and a conversation with a slightly inebriated local rancher who couldn't, for the life of him, understand why someone would travel from Florida to Harney County, Oregon, just to take a picture of the sun setting behind some telephone poles. He almost had me wondering if it made any sense.
Burns to Lakeview via the Oregon Outback, Steens Mountain area
Continuing the trend of this trip, Day Four was partly miserable (thanks to the weather), but had some redeeming moments, too. For the second time, I set out on Oregon 205, driving south. This time, I drove all the way to Frenchglen, but this time, it rained on me the entire way. I had hoped to drive to the top of Steens Mountain (just east of Frenchglen) -- and since I had a 4-wheel-drive, high-clearance rental SUV, I figured some muddy roads would be no problem. Just a few miles up the road, all that rain turned into a pretty impressive downpour of snow, and a few inches had already accumulated on the muddy, rutted dirt road. Of course, I bailed out, made a scary u-turn in the slush, and then headed back to the pavement.
The rain continued to pour, at least until the Nevada line. There were no casinos there to greet me, just a few houses and, a few miles later, a gas station at the junction of what had been Oregon 205 and Nevada 140. From there, I took 140 west, across the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, and experienced a few pleasant breaks of blue sky and wiper-free driving.
The best part of Day Four came at the end, after I filled up with gas in the remote community of Adel, Oregon. If I hadn't found that gas station, I would have had to have pressed on to Lakeview, Oregon, driving on fumes. Instead, the expensive fill-up allowed me to drive north to the town of Plush, Oregon, and beyond -- into the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge. A paved road eventually turns to dirt, and climbs up Hart Mountain. Eventually, the road leads back to Frenchglen. Earlier in the day, I had considered driving this road instead of 140 to cut across the Oregon Outback. That snowy encounter on the way to Steens Mountain changed my mind, though. I decided it would be risky to set off on a dirt road, not knowing how high it goes, or how messy it would get, only to have to turn around, backtrack, and take the long way around.
I didn't see any antelope in the refuge, but I did enjoy some beautiful scenery of the valley below -- and a very brief glimmer of sunlight around sunset.
Lakeview to a snowy Crater Lake
The day began in Lakeview, Oregon. I had just one goal for the day: get to Crater Lake, the centerpiece of my vacation plan. It was still a couple of hours away, so I made the drive as quickly as I could, stopping just briefly in towns like Bly and Chiloquin, Oregon. My accommodation for the next three nights was just outside the park at Wilson's Cottages, near Fort Klamath, so I checked in as I drove by.
I knew I was visiting Crater Lake (one of the snowiest places in the U.S.) rather late in the season. Crater Lake's Rim Drive doesn't usually open for the year until June, and it closes whenever the snow starts coming down faster than the trucks can plow it. Since I was visiting in late September, I knew I was gambling on the weather, but I thought I'd get lucky. I didn't.
All of that rain that I had been driving in, during the past few days, was pouring down as snow at Crater Lake. Enough had fallen to shut down all of the park's roads -- the entire loop. The only road still open was the one from Fort Klamath (Route 62, the southern entrance). At least 8 inches of snow was on the ground at Crater Lake Lodge. The lodge and surrounding viewpoint was the only area open. My hopes of spending three days driving and hiking around the lake were in jeopardy.
At the lodge, one trail is accessible (even in wintry weather, albeit a snowy hike). The trail up Garfield Peak was trampled enough to hike without too much difficulty. I made my way through a snow-glazed wonderland, slipping between trees that appeared to have been plastered by a brutal blizzard, on my way to the top of the hill, which makes up part of the south rim. At the top, the view of Crater Lake and the surrounding land was extraordinary.
Satisfied that I had accomplished something, I headed back to my cabin for the night, with hopes that the Rim Drive would re-open by the following morning.
A day at Crater Lake National Park
I got up early on this day, which wasn't very difficult, since my rustic cabin wasn't all that comfortable (and the huge spider on the ceiling above my bed helped jolt some energy into me). I made it up to the rim before sunrise, and was pleasantly surprised to see clear skies. I took a few pictures as the sun broke over the horizon, casting light on the western rim and eventually, the deep blue water below. The western side of the Rim Drive was still closed, but I suspected it would open soon, so I took a nap in my car, and waited.
The park did, eventually, open the gate, and I was able to drive a few miles of the Rim Road, up to the northern entrance to Crater Lake. This part of the road also gave me access to the Watchman Trail, a .7 mile (one way) hike up to a fire tower. This hike wasn't quite as easy as the previous day's walk in the snow, since fewer crazy people had gone ahead of me. Still, I managed to reach the top, and enjoy another fine view of the lake.
Since most of the Rim Road was still closed (seemingly with no hope of re-opening any time soon), I didn't have access to many of the other hiking trails at Crater Lake. So, I drove down from the rim, and spent some time hiking the Annie Creek Canyon Trail. It's a loop trail that's tucked behind the campgrounds, near the southern entrance station. The trail was muddy, and there wasn't anything particularly great about it.
By the afternoon, clouds, rain, and maybe even some flurries had returned. I wandered around the rim, trying to figure out what to do next. One of those showers did provide a rainbow, which made for some good pictures, but then, I sat and waited. The wind howled, and a cold rain slapped the windows of my car. Eventually I gave up on the sunset, and headed back to my base.
I was starting to dread spending a third day and night here. I decided to try to get out of the third day of my reservation, and 'wing it' on Day Seven. Fortunately, the cabin owners granted me an early check-out.
From Crater Lake south into California
I thought briefly about driving up to the lake, one more time, to see if the rim road had re-opened or if the sun was shining. I was pretty sure, however, that both were quite unlikely. It was cloudy at the cabins, which meant it was most likely rainy or snowy, all night long, up at the lake. There was almost no chance that the rest of the road had been plowed overnight.
So, I headed south, destination sort-of unknown. I had a few ideas. I thought about hiking near Mount Shasta, but once I got to the area, it was cloudy and windy -- still better than what I faced at Crater Lake, but not good enough to spend any extended amount of time outside. So I chose another destination: Lassen Volcanic National Park. I had only been there once before, in April of 2007, only to find that most of the park was closed by snow. This time, it was open, and the weather was fairly nice.
The drive to Lassen took me down US 97, past Mount Shasta, and through the town of Weed (where souvenirs are a must!). Lassen is a long way down California Route 89, and there isn't much to see along the way. Once you arrive, however, there are several great hikes, including the most popular: the trail to Bumpass Hell, the park's center of volcanic activity. It's filled with geysers, fumaroles, and sulfur-stained land. Think of it as a miniature Yellowstone.
There are very few places to spend the night near Lassen, so I drove on over to Redding, California for the night.
Through the land of Bigfoot to the California Coast
This day was, by far, the messiest day of the trip. I needed to get over to the Pacific Coast, and the road that went there should have been pleasingly scenic. Instead, it was foggy and rainy, and when I reached the coast, an unusually strong storm battered the town of Crescent City and my motel, the Curly Redwood Lodge (built out of just one redwood tree).
I only managed to see a couple of things along the way to the coast. The ghost town of Shasta, California is located just west of Redding, along Route 299 -- the scenic highway to the Pacific. I wandered around those well-preserved ruins for a while, then continued west. There are few excuses to stop along 299, but I found one, in the town of Willow Creek. This area is a hotbed of Bigfoot sightings, and the local museum has even dedicated a room to their favorite local biped.
By the time I left Willow Creek, the rain was pouring, and it didn't stop -- not when I got to US 101, not when I drove down to Eureka, and not when I drove from Eureka to Crescent City. By the time I checked into my motel, it was obvious that I was stuck in the middle of a Pacific storm so intense, it was almost comical. I had dinner at a nearby restaurant, then watched the weather out my window. The rain was nearly sideways, and a flag in the parking lot whipped at what must have been tropical storm speeds throughout the night.
Up the Pacific coast into Oregon
I needed to make it from Crescent City, California to Lincoln City, Oregon on this day. It would be a long drive, made even longer by the endless scenic stops along the way. It also didn't help that I started out, in the wrong direction, driving south for just a few minutes to get a better look at the redwoods. US 101 passes right through some impressive groves, just south of Crescent City, so I didn't need to drive far. All the rain from overnight had given way to a dream-like foggy mist, highlighting the first beams of pure sunshine that I had seen in days. I lingered along the road for just a few minutes, taking a few pictures of the majestic forest.
Then, I headed north, crossing back into the Beaver state. Some roadside turn-offs tempted me with access to the ocean. Oregon has no shortage of them, and almost all of them charge no admission or parking fee. I found one that required a hike down a steep hill, but at the bottom, I had the rugged beach to myself. Further up the road, I detoured to Cape Blanco, the westernmost point in Oregon, for a tour of the lighthouse. Later in the day, I stopped at the Oregon Dunes, south of Florence, and a handful of other roadside turnouts along the central Oregon coast.
The day finished with one, final, spectacular encounter with foul weather. I resolved to end the day with a sunset at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. I recalled from my previous trip to this area, back in 2007, that it was indeed "outstanding". I drove out to the lighthouse, grabbed my camera gear, and headed down to the beach. Once I had hiked a fair distance out on the rounded, slippery rocks, a rainstorm that had, moments earlier, appeared harmless offshore, slammed into the coast. I removed my jacket to cover my camera and tripod, but kept trying to take pictures. The rain intensified. I gave up on photos, and ran for the car. It came down in buckets. I made it to the car, opened it up, and started throwing things inside. Not my camera itself -- it was standing on the tripod, still covered with my jacket. A gust came. My camera fell, slamming into the ground. I picked it up and tossed it into the car, along with my jacket, then shut the rear door. It wasn't until I tried to open the driver's door that I discovered that the car was locked. In the rush to get out of the rain and rescue my precious camera, I had set the keys on the seat. I don't know how the doors re-locked themselves. It didn't matter. It was probably 45 degrees, pouring the rain, the wind howling, and I was locked out.
The folks in a nearby car gave me shelter. I had my phone, so I was able to call for help in unlocking the car. The rain passed, the sun set, and I waited, fearing my out-of-reach camera had shattered in the chaos. Once back in my car, I didn't even dare check it. I drove on to Lincoln City and checked in, before I got up the courage to attempt a test photo.
It turned out, the camera had not broken, and aside from a cold, wet hour at Yaquina Head, my day wasn't ruined. But, I was very glad that Day Nine had come to an end.
Some time on the Oregon Coast, then back to Portland
My final day of exploring began with rain and discouragement. I decided to take a drive inland and south, then back to the coast, and re-cover the ground I didn't get to see after dark. It poured on me, as I drove down the Siletz Highway, but by the time I made it back to 101, the sun was out. To my amazement, the weather held up nicely for most of the day, giving me the most pleasant conditions of the entire trip.
I drove up 101 again, with detours to Devil's Punch Bowl and Otter Crest. I stopped briefly in Depoe Bay and Lincoln City, and then in Pacific City at Cape Kiwanda. I took the Three Capes drive from there, passing the Three Arch Rocks area at Oceanside, and ending at Cape Meares Lighthouse.
I could have driven to Tillamook and then on back to Portland, but I decided I wasn't quite ready to return to the city and end the trip, so I pushed further north on 101, with one farewell visit to one of my favorite beaches, Hug Point. US 26 took me back to Portland, arriving at my final hotel just before dark. I flew out early the next morning.