I was on the trail by 4:30 this morning; Swiss Army was still sleeping soundly and I tried not to disturb him as I packed my pack and tiptoed out of camp. It was only a few miles to the dominant feature of today’s hike – Three Fingered Jack, an ancient volcano that has been notably scarred by numerous glaciers attacking it from all sides. All that remained of the volcano were the basalt plugs that filled the throat of the volcano and then cooled. Glacial erosion had eventually stripped away the softer material of the mountain, leaving only the harder basalt plugs exposed, which were also being weathered away by storms and gravity.
Signs along the trail informed me that I had left the Mount Washington Wilderness and had entered the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. At certain vantage points along the trail, I have been able to catch views of Mount Jefferson, first sighted in 1806 by Lewis and Clark as they were exploring the lower Willamette River. They named it after their president, Thomas Jefferson.
After twenty-four miles of pleasant hiking, having passed Rockpile Mountain, South and North Cinder Peak, and Cathedral Rocks, I stopped for the night at Shale Lake, which had several nice camping sites; also, I needed to refill all of my water bottles.
As I’m preparing my campsite, another hiker came in, who went by the name of Boomer. I had seen him briefly at the Big Lake Youth Camp. He camped just above me on a higher ledge, and by the time he finished his dinner preparations, I was already in my sleeping bag. My dinner was quick and simple – dehydrated Idahoan Instant Potatoes, some cookies, and dried fruit. Just before dozing off, Swiss Army came into camp and settled next to me. Lt. Dan passed by in the dark and Cookie was camped a few miles away.
As long as I could walk twenty-plus miles a day, I could stay with the little bubble of hikers I was currently hiking with. Occasionally, really fast hikers would burst through the bubble and speed on, never to be seen again, but for the most part on a day-to-day basis, I recognized most of the hikers I met on the trail. We tended to leapfrog each other as we move forward.
Yesterday, just before starting the trail alongside Cathedral Rocks, an alternate trail – the Oregon Skyline Trail, veered off to the left and climbed a high ridge above Hunts Cove. This skyline trail paralleled the PCT for five and a half miles and eventually rejoined the PCT just before Milk Creek. Hikers who desired a less-traveled trail and wanted a different perspective on Mount Jefferson might consider hiking this alternate trail.
Ten miles after leaving my campsite at Shale Lake, the trail began a gradual descent towards Russell Creek. I could hear the roar of the water long before I broke out of the forest and began the descent.
The water cascading down the steep gorge was snowmelt from the glaciers high up on Mount Jefferson. Russell Creek can be crossed; everyone does it, but it's nerve-racking.
Because it’s glacial water, it looks like flowing milk obscuring the creek bed. It runs fast and deep and a slip on the rocks could mean a one-way ticket down the steep gorge. I walked up and down the dirt embankment looking for just the right set of rocks on which to cross over. I didn’t mind getting my feet wet, but I was concerned about stepping in a deep hole between rocks and chance losing my balance and falling into the swift-moving current that dropped precipitously down the gorge, just feet from where I was trying to cross.
For me, on this long journey, having hiked through the Sierras, with its jaw-dropping beauty, having hiked the circuitous route around Mount Shasta, Castle Crags, Crater Lake, and the Three Sisters - Mount Jefferson was the standout for beauty and ruggedness. The mountain is massive and at least five glaciers still cling to its slopes; at 10,497 feet it tends to generate its own weather. But it was not just the mountain itself that captivated me; it was also the parklands at the base of the mountain that are intriguing and inviting; they beckon to the stranger to come stay awhile, to relax and soak up the beauty, rather than hurrying on.
It was a shame to have to pass through this wilderness so speedily, as though miles were the only thing that counted. The mountain and the parklands seemed special and deserving of more than just a cursory visit.
Passing the Jefferson Park meadowlands, the trail pushed up to a saddle on Park Butte. As I approached the ridgeline, I encountered four day hikers who had been camping at one of the nearby lakes. I greeted them and then stopped long enough to use their cameras to take a group picture.
There was a snowfield on the other side of the ridge that obscured the trail. Once the snowfield petered out, the trail would be visible again, but for the moment, there was no clear path from the top to the bottom of the snowfield. As I looked at the tracks in the snow of hikers who had gone before, it looked like it was every man for himself. I started to follow a set of tracks, but ended up in a jumble of rocks and then had to bushwhack through the snow and broken rock to where I could connect with the trail.
Looking back up the snowfield, I could see the four day hikers starting their descent. As I watched, I could see they weren’t having any better luck than I had in sticking to the official trail, as they glissaded on their rear ends to the bottom of the snowfield.
A half hour later, I stopped for lunch on a grassy bench adjacent to the trail. I took my shoes and socks off to allow my feet to air out, then spread my lunch items on a white trash compactor bag that served as my tablecloth. Before long, the four hikers – two couples, passed by and stopped to visit. They said they were through with their hike and were heading for their vehicles parked at a trailhead next to Breitenbush Lake, just a short distance away. They offered me their leftover food, which I gladly accepted. I scored big on this one, for they gave me hard salami, Swiss cheese, Toblerone chocolate, and trail bars, all very desirable trail food.
Mount Jefferson, the jewel of Oregon's Peaks.
Mount Jefferson, the jewel of Oregon's Peaks.