Summer is coming... The mountains are calling. You can hear their siren cry…. But they are still covered in snow or droves of roving mosquitoes. I hate mosquitoes….. Anyway, you need somewhere to help you get that mountain fix while not quite being in the mountains. I understand. I have the answer. Here are eight classic Central Oregon hikes that will get you out but won’t require any post-holing along the way. There still may be some blood sucking, sons of …… well, you know, flying around though. Enjoy planning!
Iron Mountain and Cone Peak are two of more predominate peaks in Oregon’s Old Cascades, a much older mountain range than our current Cascades. The Forest Service has protected this area because of its vast botanical diversity, with over 300 species of flowering plants and 17 different species of trees, more than any other location in Oregon. The wildflowers typically reach their peak in July, but one species or another will likely be blooming throughout most of the summer.
The trail to Iron Mountain and Cone Peak can be found on Tombstone Pass east of Sweet Home. The loop also offers you the chance to gaze upon the Cascades from a viewing platform on top of Iron Mountain. This was the site of an old fire lookout that was destroyed in 2007.
Steins Pillar is a 350-foot-tall monolith of welded tuff that towers over Mill Creek valley in the Ochocos. This magnificent geological feature was believed to have been used as a sacred place by the Shoshone, but was named after Major Enoch Steen who visited the area around 1860. The pillar can be reached by hiking along a beautiful trail through old growth forest, flower filled meadows, and rocky ridges.
The snow has usually melted from this area by sometime in April and as you work into May and June, wildflowers will begin to bloom along the trail. And, because of its location in Ochocos, the trail will be much less crowded than some of its counterparts in the Cascades.
Marion Lake is the largest lake in Oregon located within a wilderness area. The 350-acre basin Marion Lake fills was scoured out by glaciers and reaches a maximum depth of 185 feet. The hike to the lake travels through a beautiful forest of huge Douglas Firs which helps make the trip as memorable as the destination. The lake is a beautiful spot to spend a day, having a picnic, fishing, and maybe even swimming (because the water is really warm) (That was sarcasm).
While you are there, you can make the side trip to Marion and Gatch Falls as well. These two falls are located right next to each other and both can be viewed at the same time. The trail is not official, and is a little steep and slippery, but the site is one of the coolest in Oregon.
Lookout Mountain is the highest point within the Ochocos and offers sweeping vistas in many different directions. While the summit elevation of the mountain is almost 7,000 feet, the Ochocos get much less snowfall than the Cascades and the trails melt out much sooner. In June and July, many of the meadow areas will be a rainbow of color as a wide variety of wildflowers bloom.
The trail up the mountain passes through a nice variety of dense forest stands and open, flower filled meadows. The summit of the Lookout Mountain is a wide open, rolling plateau of sagebrush with islands of trees. If you are into historical relics, the beginning of the trail is also near two old mercury mines, which can help complete the day with a little exploring.
Chush Falls is a beautiful, fanning waterfall along Whychus Creek above Sisters, and it isn’t the only falls viewable from this trail. Three waterfalls are found in close proximately near the end of this hike, culminating in the 200 foot plus monster that is Upper Whychus Falls. Chush Falls itself is one of the most photogenic waterfalls in Central Oregon, and the ability to hike down and stand near the base of this 60 foot tall, 80 foot wide gem is a cool experience.
The official trail ends at Chush Falls, but a user trail continues ¾ of a mile further up the canyon, granting you the ability to gaze upon two more waterfalls. The Cascades and especially upper Whychus Falls makes this unsanctioned extension of the hike worth every step.
The Twin Pillars are a set of 200 foot spires located within the heart of the Mill Creek Wilderness in the Ochocos. The pillars are the volcanic remnants of a 40-million-year-old caldera and continue to stand as weaker material has eroded away around them. The Hash Rock fire burned much of the area around the pillars in August of 2000 which have helped open up views of the pillars and have allowed for snowbrush, grasses, and flowers to dominate the hillsides.
The hike to the pillars can be an adventure in itself, with a total of seven creek crossings as you march up the Mill Creek Valley. And most of them will require you to get your feet wet. And then you have to cross back over them on the way out. It can help add a little spice to your walk through the woods.
Black Butte is a very symmetrical stratovolcano that is easily identifiable throughout much of Central Oregon as it rises over 3,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Climbing Black Butte is an early season, rite of passage for many Central Oregon hikers, gearing their legs up for more demanding trips into the Cascades.
The climb up Black Butte is fairly straight forward and not too difficult. Just prepare to steadily climb for a solid 2 miles, without any break. The views from the summit, though, are some of the most spectacular in Central Oregon. There is a fire lookout and an old grounding shack to hold your interest as well.
Round Mountain is one of the predominant peaks seen in the Ochoco skyline from Prineville. Located just to the north of Lookout Mountain, the highest peak in the Ochocos, this hike offers lush meadows of corn lily, red barked ponderosa pine, and green grasses while the Cascades are still trying to melt out. The views might not be as dramatic, but your much more likely to have them to yourself.
The hike to the summit of Round Mountain can be accomplished from two different trailheads. From the Round Mountain North trailhead, located near Walton Lake, the summit is four miles away and about 1400 feet above you. From the south trailhead, the hike requires 5 miles and about 1600 feet of climbing to reach the summit. The best method though, is to use a shuttle and hike the entire trail.