A father-son hike to a magical meadow in the Cascades
SISTERS, Ore. (AP) My experience as a father is that young kids are often capable of much more than we might expect.
So I should not have been surprised when what was supposed to be one night of relatively easy camping at Suttle Lake with my 5-year-old son turned into two nights of rather rugged camping on the Metolius River.
And what was supposed to be a moderate 4 1/2-mile loop with 400 feet of elevation gain to the lower meadow below the east face of Three Fingered Jack turned into a difficult 7-mile loop with 1,200 feet of elevation gain.
The whining (my son's) did not start until the last half-mile back to Jack Lake Trailhead, and even that bit of discontent was quashed with the always effective granola-bar bribe.
Sure, Mason was ready to break camp and head back to Bend by our third day in the woods, but that was nearly 24 hours after our memorable hike to Canyon Creek Meadows.
Mason has always had a thing for mountains, and he can name just about every peak of the Cascade Range in Central Oregon.
But before this turns into a gag-me Facebook-post-like bragging session about my kid, back to the hike.
I wanted to find a route that would take us face to face with a peak but a route that we could complete together. This left South Sister, Broken Top and other more challenging areas out of the question. (If I get any emails saying how "My 5-year-old reached the summit of South Sister," I'm going to roll my eyes and mutter to myself, "Only in Bend.")
A quick online search led me to a post on Oregon.com by renowned Oregon hiking author William Sullivan. He wrote that the hike to Canyon Creek Meadows is "one of the easiest routes to the High Cascades' wildflower meadows, a loop leading to the craggy east face of Three Fingered Jack."
Perfect. Not only because it seemed doable, but because Three Fingered Jack had always remained somewhat of a mystery to us, a reclusive peak not easily visible from highways tucked away somewhere between Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson.
Now, to figure out the campsite. Located just a mile from the turn off state Highway 20 to the Mount Jefferson Wilderness trailheads, Suttle Lake was the obvious choice.
But as I would discover in great frustration, showing up at noon on a Friday to find a campsite at Suttle, where more than half the sites require a reservation, was a bit like hoping for Three Fingered Jack the eroded core of an extinct volcano to erupt again.
So, cursing myself, we headed back southeast on Highway 20 and made the turn north toward Camp Sherman along the Metolius River. The first campground we reached, aptly named Riverside, offered walk-in tent camping. So we walked in a few hundred feet and found a site not 100 yards from the river a spot well worth hauling all of our equipment to from the car.
Mason approved, and following an afternoon of biking the dirt trails and wading in the chilly water of the stunning Metolius, we chatted by the fire before heading to the tent to get some sleep before the big hike the next morning.
We awoke early and made the 20-minute drive to Jack Lake Trailhead, a trip that took us 6 miles over a rough dirt-and-gravel road.
We arrived at 8:30 a.m. and I was expecting to be back at the trailhead sometime before noon. But the sheer beauty of the meadows, wildflowers and Three Fingered Jack kept us going farther than planned. Every time I asked Mason if he wanted to keep going, he said yes.
The trail starts out at Jack Lake and climbs gradually into the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. A bonus of this loop hike is that the U.S. Forest Service asks hikers to walk the loop clockwise, thereby limiting the number of trail users encountered. Indeed, we hardly saw anybody until we reached the out-and-back trail through the upper meadow.
The early part of the hike climbs through a section of wilderness still recovering from the 2003 B&B Complex Fires, then descends through deep woods to the lower meadow. It seemed odd to be descending during the middle parts of the hike, but we soon arrived at the green meadow dotted with gold, red and violet wildflowers. The spired cliffs of Three Fingered Jack's east face dominated the horizon, and Canyon Creek gurgled through the colorful meadow.
The trail blazed a ribbon of singletrack up through the greenery toward the peak. There the climbing became much steeper, and we encountered a group of women who had decided not to continue. But they mentioned to me that a blue-green cirque lake at the bottom of the mountain's glacier was visible just over the next crest.
Climbing up there along a precipitous, rocky trail proved arduous, but we made it, as I stayed behind Mason in case he slipped. At the top of the ridge, the small lake glimmered about 100 feet below, right at the base of the craggy peak. The drop was nearly straight down, and I made sure Mason knew to stay back.
From there, we could have continued on just a little farther to the viewpoint saddle where one can see from Mount Jefferson to the Three Sisters but I deemed the path just too steep and exposed for a 5-year-old.
We settled for the view of the remote glacier and lake, and we enjoyed being face to face with the elusive Jack.
The hike back along the loop included intricate beaver dams along Canyon Creek and a picturesque waterfall, before the trail descended back through the burned snags to the trailhead.
Back at Jack Lake, five hours after we started, Mason and I exchanged a high-five and immediately began hatching plans for our next big Cascade hike.
But the Metolius River campsite was calling, and Mason was fixated on something else that awaited us that evening, a welcome treat after a hard hike:
S'mores, of course.
The original story can be found on The Bulletin's website.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.