Sunday, July 31, 2016

ExplOregon, June 2016 edition, part three.

After three days in Steens Mountain and two days exploring five geologic wonders (among other things) in Lake County, Oregon, family duties called and it was time to meander back to Eugene.

We considered trying our luck at Paradise Campground again, but a quick check showed that almost all the sites were reserved that night so we opted for Coldwater Cove Campground instead. Sometimes no planning really does pay off...

campsite #1 for the win

Our site was surrounded by Douglas-fir pines and steep hills on either side. Hummingbirds buzzed around the flowers all afternoon; bats swooped around the trees all evening. A funny little chipmunk kept us entertained.


And? There was no generator running all night (we didn't even hear any of our neighbors)... Thank you, Universe.

There's a ~5-mile easy loop that circles Clear Lake. The trail goes from the campground through lava fields and pine forests, and offers stunning views of the lake.

 open to hikers and bikers - watch out!

about a mile of this, then forest the rest of the way

 the little boy caught his first fish!

 {hearting} Oregon right about now


 Washington lilies...

 ... and tiger lilies...

... and Alaskan bunchberry, oh my

 to the west
no filter...

... yes, the water really is that color

Many more photos start here. I cannot recommend this loop enough! If you're not up for the walk, you can rent kayaks and canoes from Clear Lake Resort. No engines are allowed on the lake so the walk/row is quite peaceful.

Leftover soup and salad after that five-mile walk didn't really cut it for dinner...

 bottom of the barrel... er, cooler

... so the next morning, we treated ourselves to a breakfast of champions at Clear Lake Resort. 

never. eating. again.

Coldwater Cove and Clear Lake were the perfect ending to our trip. Deserts and hot springs and arid flatlands with geologic wonders are fun and all, but walking (and sleeping) among those tall pines, with that crisp, cool air all around us and that glacial lake just a few hundred feet away, we felt like we were home again.

And now, if you'll excuse us...


ExplOregon, June 2016 edition, part two.

The first part of our FUNemployed vacation took us to Steens Mountain for a few days of gorgeous (and I do mean GORGE-ous) hikes. The second part took us to Thompson Reservoir, Hager Mountain, and five geologic wonders in Lake County, Oregon...

1. Christmas Valley Sand Dunes - the largest shifting sand dunes in Oregon. Formed from ash and pumice when Mount Mazama erupted 7,000 years ago, these dunes are popular with ATVers but we managed to find a few without too many tracks spoiling the view...

the clouds were amazing too

2. Crack In The Ground - as the name suggests, it's a crack. In the ground. A 2+ mile crack that's up to 70 feet deep in places, in fact. The crack was formed by a volcanic fissure just 1,000 years ago. The mosses and colors found on the rocks were quite beautiful and photos don't really do it justice...

not for the claustrophobic

3. Fort Rock - an old tuff ring that's nearly a full circle, where a sea used to live. OSP's web site claims that "sandals found in a nearby cave are the oldest ever discovered, dating back around 9,000-13,000 years." Pretty cool! A trail takes you around the ring if you're so inclined...

to the west

to the east

4. Derrick Cave - a 30' high lava tube that we didn't actually get to see, because the road from Fort Rock is now private for liability reasons and the alternate route would have cost us several hours. Patrick visited the cave years ago and he promises it's worth seeing!

5. Hole-In-The-Ground - again, as the name suggests, it's a hole. In the ground. A mile-wide, 300-foot-deep hole, in fact, that was formed by a volcanic eruption 13,000-100,000 years ago (depending on who you ask). We were short on time so we didn't venture down, but I've seen comments from others that walking the path is the best way to appreciate the vastness of the hole...

neither meteorite landing, nor hellmouth

Also, not a geologic wonder but a pretty special place: the Lost Forest near the Sand Dunes. Ancient ponderosa pine survive on half the water their forest counterparts require. The Lost Forest covers a remarkable 9,000 acres (~14 mi2 for those of you who don't speak acreage), and is isolated from the nearest ponderosa pine forest by 40 miles, meaning it keeps itself alive just fine, thank you very much...

it also makes a great Subaru commerical

The rest of our trip was "W"-themed. For example, watchtowers! We braved thousands of ticks and mosquitoes to visit Hager Mountain's watchtower (okay, "lookout" if you must) and catch some nice panoramic views. The watchtower is one of just a handful still staffed during summer months for fire observation, and available to rent in winter months - as long as you're willing to snowshoe three miles up a mountain to get there. (Honestly, we'd probably have taken the snow over the ticks and mossies this time.)

and the wind began to howl

Another "W" on this trip - wildflowers! Most were observed on the Hager Mountain hike where the hills were alive with paintbrush, Oregon sunshine, and balsamroot.

kind of making up for all the ticks and mossies...

... kind of

Most interesting on this hike was the rare green-tinged paintbrush, native to Southern Oregon. According to a plaque at the top of the trail, 95 percent of this plant's population is found only in the Fremont National Forest! Very cool.

in bloom

And the final "W" was for wildlife. We passed through Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, which gave us some up-close and personal views of some truly stunning animals...

seldom is heard a discouraging word

and the skies are not cloudy all day

(Originally established in 1936 to protect pronghorn antelopes, the refuge now hosts over 300 species of wildlife and - this is rare - no domesticated livestock. There are also hot springs in the refuge, available free to the public, so in between being in awe of amazing creatures, we partook in a quick soak in a different kind of hole in the ground.)

Anyway, back to wildlife... We were definitely still in ranchland, and cows count as wildlife to some people...

(and some cows, says Clarence)

And a very tenacious chipmunk spent the morning with us at Thompson Reservoir.


Not "W" related, here's a little on Thompson Reservoir's campground and camping in general... We drove through Thompson because it was close to things we wanted to explore. Reservoirs are not our favorite places to camp - only because they tend to attract boaters, and we don't like hearing boat engines all day/night - but we had a really good experience in Colorado last summer, and Thompson seemed like a quiet enough place so we thought we'd give it a shot.

Our first night, we had two neighbors who had settled on the other side of the spacious campground. We heard nothing but frogs, ducks, little brown birds, and water lapping at the shore all evening. The sunset over the reservoir was lovely and the stars came out in full force.


Our second night, an elderly couple parked their ginormous RV right next to our tent site (despite the fact that there were 16 other available sites in a 19-site campground). They took a while settling in, and then the dreaded generator started. The friendly gentleman wandered over and asked if the noise would bother us. Patrick asked how long it would be running. "Oh, all night long," the friendly gentleman replied, and then proceeded to chat Patrick up for ten more minutes while I got in the tent and banged my head on the thermarest. (Seriously.)

Look. I am sorry that his wife was on an oxygen tank and needed the generator to run all night. I am glad they were still able to enjoy the great outdoors and the world-famous all-you-can-eat soup/salad and 30 oz steak dinner just up the road from the reservoir (Friday through Sunday, $30 cash only, reservations recommended, no alcohol served... no, we didn't do it, despite the friendly gentleman's rave reviews). I appreciate him asking if the noise was going to bother us. But at that point, what could we say? "Yes, thanks for asking - could you please move immediately?"

In hindsight we should've just moved. But we are stubborn folk, and instead, we endured the hum of the generator All. Night. Long.

this was our view! would YOU have moved?

Fellow campers - especially you National Park campers! but also you local campers - please be polite and think about others. That's all I ask.

Anyway. The food was simple again this time...

remembering Vietnam with an egg noodle breakfast

the old breakfast standby, oatmeal with all the fixin's
(pretty view optional but recommended)

organic tomato soup from a box, 
fire-roasted cheese quesadillas,
and a side of cheese and crackers for good measure

Insensitive camp neighbors aside, it was very fun to check out this part of Oregon. Everything was entirely new to me and Patrick hadn't been to some of these places in 20 years. With so much variety from west to east and north to south, it really astounds me that more Oregonians don't venture out and explore...

Friday, July 29, 2016

ExplOregon, June 2016 edition, part one.

So yeah, that farm internship? It didn't work out.

Luckily for us, Patrick's family offered us a roof while we worked on Plan B.

Also luckily for us, after 3+ years on the road we were in a pretty good position to deal with just about anything thrown our way. (Dear 2016, not to complain, but would you please stop throwing things at us? Or at least wait for our bruises to heal? XO, J&P.)

Most luckily for us, with unexpected FUNemployment comes unlimited opportunity... such as finally crossing Steens Mountain off our list!

Steens Mountain in Oregon's high desert is known as some of the "wildest and most remote land left in Oregon." The area features four massive glacial gorges formed during the Ice Age; wildlife and wildflowers galore; and the highest road in Oregon.

It's a pretty far drive no matter where you live, and it seems that few Oregonians actually find the time to visit. Unexpected FUNemployment for the win!

About that far drive... Eugene to Frenchglen, the nearest town to Steens, is about 300 miles. The drive gets pretty boring once you get past Bend so we'd encourage anyone making the trek to load up on coffee, Mad Libs, podcasts - whatever gets you through.

We'd also encourage anyone making the trek to take their first stretch break at Koosah Falls and Sahalie Falls off Highway 126.

exhibit A

exhibit B

(Seriously, people. They're right off the road. Just stop the next time you're eastern-bound.)

From Bend, the road mostly wove through flat ranchland. The area's major town, Burns (population: ~3000), offered basic services and, according to TripAdvisor, something called the "Harney Valley Big Ol' Flat" (we didn't ask). The only things we saw from there were cows and an almost plague-worthy swarm of grasshoppers - it was truly impressive.

scenic byway #7

cow conference
(insect-splattered windshield optional)

As we got closer to Steens the scenery improved dramatically. Before hitting Frenchglen (population: 12) for supplies, we considered stopping by Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just to reverse all the recent negativity, but the clock won so we picked up ice and headed up to Fish Lake Campground in Steens Mountain. (We'll see you someday, Malheur NWR.)

home for two nights

Fish Lake

moonrise over the mountain

As usual, we did no planning and our timing was a bit off - it was mid-June and the Tour Route doesn't open until July 1. But as usual, we didn't let that stop us! Monday morning we drove to the gate near Jackman Park Campground and hiked seven miles to our first destination, Kiger Gorge. Yep, seven miles of gently sloped, exposed road in glaring sun and constant wind.

so worth it

This U-shaped glacial gorge was formed nearly a million years ago when snow compressed into ice a thousand feet thick. It was - wait for it - GORGE-ous.

From Kiger Gorge we walked another two miles along the road, stopping here and there for photo ops.

Little Blitzen Gorge and Little Jen

obligatory feet shot

Our second destination that day was the Alvord Desert overlook - definitely worth the extra two miles! The mountain still had snow, but the spring wildflowers were in bloom and the view of the desert and beyond was pretty amazing. Rumor has it that on a clear day you can see Idaho, Nevada and California. (And Russia too! Just kidding.)

"the driest place in Oregon"

spring in the snow

The historic Alvord Ranch and several hot springs can be found a mile below. We didn't have time to take those in... We also didn't have time to hike all the way up to the Steens Mountain summit. (Okay, we did have time but after nine miles we didn't have interest.) Next time!

About two miles into our return hike, we ran into a BLM employee doing some road maintenance, and he kindly offered us a ride back to our car. We'd been mentally prepared for the full nine-mile walk but I can't say that we were sad about getting a ride instead...Thanks, karma. We owe you one.

The next day we moved to South Steens campground and spent our saved energy from the day before on an easy 8-mile return walk in Big Indian Gorge. A flat, shaded trail and three bitterly cold barefoot stream crossings led us to a stunning view of "the wall." The day before, we'd seen this bright green foliage from above at Kiger Gorge. Being up close with the trees and brush in Big Indian Gorge put a whole new perspective on things.

hello, headwall

hello, new friend

hello, wildflowers

Enthusiastic (read: crazy) hikers can follow the trail four more miles and actually climb the wall.

we opted to do this instead

For us, three days on the mountain was the perfect amount of time but avid hikers, backpackers, and fishers should probably plan a week. Of the two campgrounds, we preferred Fish Lake for its peacefulness, tucked-in campsites, and lake views - South Steens was much more crowded and open, which meant that we heard our Trump-fanatic neighbors All. Night. Long.

And since everyone seems to enjoy hearing about what we eat for dinner when we camp, I'll just say that this time we had limited cooler space and even more limited ice rations so I kept it simple.

Sunday night: salad with a view

Monday night: simple tofu stir fry

Tuesday night: perhaps a little TOO simple

More pictures start here... Until recently, I hadn't even heard of Steens Mountain. If you fall into that category too, please put it on your list. I know I keep saying that it's a long, mostly boring drive from wherever you live, but the payoff is well worth the pain of getting there!

Coming up in part two: antelopes, hot springs, Hager Mountain, and some truly crazy Oregonian geology!