This trail is currenlty closed. Jefferson Park and much of the trail area was burned during the Lionshead Fire in the summer of 2020. It may remain closed for some time.
Jefferson Park is a large, subalpine meadow located right at the foot of Mt Jefferson. The meadow is fed by streams originating from glaciers on Mt Jefferson’s rugged north slope and from Park Butte north of the meadows. Dozens of tiny ponds dot the area, along with five named lakes that make for excellent camping or swimming destinations. Jefferson Park is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful places in Oregon. And who am I to argue with many? They usually know their stuff.
The easiest and most direct route into Jefferson Park is along the Whitewater Trail. This area was devastated by the Whitewater Fire in 2017 and was closed for 2 years following. Much of the hike into Jefferson Park travels through this burn, but luckily, the destination itself was spared.
The trailhead is located at the end of Forest Road 2243, so you won’t have to worry about missing it. The road is in good shape and most passenger cars should be able to reach the trailhead fine. Finding a parking spot is a whole different story. This area is extremely popular and you may find yourself hiking some extra miles along the road just to reach the trailhead on a busy weekend. This is all likely to change in 2021 though when the Central Cascades Wilderness permits start being implemented.
The trail starts climbing right out of the trailhead. While it is a good steady climb, especially for the first 3 miles, it isn’t overly steep or difficult. You will gain 1,300 feet in those three miles as you climb the ridgeline and head towards Sentinel Hills. This section of trail can get very hot and dusty, now that there is little shade. But, wildflowers are starting to take advantage of the additional light, and beargrass, fireweed, and others are flourishing.
Mt Jefferson will first pop into view at about the 2-mile mark of the hike, and it is impressive. Glaciers have carved out deep valleys around it’s flanks and the second highest mountain in Oregon rises steeply in front of you. You will pass between two of the Sentinel Hills over the next mile before things start getting interesting, especially if you are not real fond of heights. The good news is the next mile or so ranges from flat to slightly downhill. The bad news is the hillside drops away from the edge of the trail, very steeply, all the way down to the valley, well over 1,000 feet below you. And, thanks to the fire, you can see most all the way down. The trail is in good condition and is easy to walk on, but if you have a thing with heights, it can play with your head a little.
Once you move off the steep hillside, you will soon find yourself at Whitewater Creek. Depending on the time of year, you may have to do a little fording or athletic rock hopping to get across. But, as you move form summer into fall, it becomes very easy to cross. Even if you have to wade, you should be able to find a spot that doesn’t get much more than ankle deep.
After crossing Whitewater Creek, continue climbing the hillside for about a quarter mile until you reach the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail intersects the PCT at a switchback, so it appears both options go the correct direction. You will want to take the left trail. You will know it because it is still going uphill. Yay.
There is only about 400 feet more of climbing between Whitewater Creek and Jefferson Park. Once on the PCT, the trail will travel through some cool, rocky areas, all under some deep, beautiful shade. Ahh shade, how we missed you. You will get to cross Whitewater Creek again, 0.4 miles after joining the PCT, but this time you have the benefit of a bridge. And then, about half a mile further, you will finally enter JEFFERSON PARK. (It’s capitalized because it is awesome.)
Jefferson Park opens up before you and there are trails going everywhere. You can see Scout Lake dead ahead, shimmering in the sunlight. Grassy meadows full of flowers extend everywhere. Mountain Helmock, dwarfed by the harsh conditions, cling to any high ground. It’s kind of like a playground. Explore!!
The trail shown here is a good loop that will tour you through most the meadows, making stops at all five major lakes. Continue along the PCT for about a mile as it passes by a few ponds and lots of meadow. You will then pop down to Russel Lake, with some amazing views of Jefferson behind it.
After Russel Lake, make your way back to the PCT and then head down the South Breitenbush Trail. It will carry you through some more meadows and down into a pretty little valley at the head of the South Fork Breitenbush canyon. After 0.4 miles on this trail, you will reach a T junction. Take the trail to the left and head up to Park Lake, quickly followed by Rock Lake. These are two of the smaller lakes, but are still pretty. Park Lake has some awesome views of Jefferson as well. You have to take some small side trails down to Rock Lake if you want to visit.
Next on the list is Scout Lake. The views looking across Scout Lake to Mt Jefferson are probably some of the best in Jefferson Park. Also, don’t forget to take a small detour to Bays Lake. It’s cliff lined shores and deep blue water are magical as well. If you are backpacking into the area, you are required to camp at one of the designated sites if you are within 250 feet of the lakes. Check out these Forest Service links to designated campsites at the western lakes and Russel Lake. If you choose to find your own campsite, be sure to find some bare ground to stake your tent up on. The growing season here is extremely short and damaged meadow vegetation can take years to heal.
The Whitewater Trailhead is located off of Highway 22, ten miles west of Detroit or 21 miles north of Santiam Junction. Take Whitewater Road 7.5 miles west to the end of the road. The road is gravel, but in good condition. Most passenger cars should be able to navigate it fine.
Passes: A Northwest Forest Pass is required at this trailhead. Beginning in 2021, a Central Cascades Wilderness Day-Use or overnight permit will be required to hike or camp from this trailhead between the Friday before Memorial Day and the final Friday of September. The permits will be available from recreation.gov and will go on sale in early April.
Dogs: Allowed and must be on leash or under voice command at all times.
Open Season: The trailhead usually becomes accessible in May, but Jefferson Park will remained snowed in into July.
Bugs: As the snow is melting and right afterward, mosquitos are horrible here. They usually start dying back though later into August.
Flowers: Beargrass will start blooming along the trail in June, and keep blooming later as you move up in elevation through the burn. The meadows usually start blooming in late July through August.