Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Obsidian Trail

Last July's brief visit to McKenzie Pass left me wanting more.  Chased off my mosquitoes during a short hike to Benson Lake, I vowed to return.  Mid-September, a weekend finally opened up.

Morning light illuminates the forest

Looking through Sullivan's "100 Hikes in the Central Oregon Cascades," I zeroed in on the Obsidian Trail.  One of my friends who'd recently hiked there gave it high marks.  In fact, I discovered this trail was so popular that the Forest Service had imposed daily limits on the number of hikers.  To visit the Obsidian Trail, one had to first obtain a permit.

Raindrop-studded lupine leaves

Thanks to an online reservation system, permit acquisition was easy.  The hard part?  Getting up super-early and driving 3 1/2 hours to the trailhead.  But I arrived at my destination just as the morning fog was burning off.  It was going to be a gorgeous late summer day. 

The first lava flow

The Obsidian Trail began in a dense forest of lodgepole pine.  Reputed to be dusty in late summer, I was thankful for the heavy dew keeping things in place.  Early morning light filtered through the trees, illuminating small slivers of vegetation.  Hundreds of dead beargrass stalks lined the first mile and a half.  In peak bloom, it must've been quite a sight!  I made a mental note to plan a return visit in July.

Trees growing up through the lava

After trudging through viewless woods for 3 1/2 miles, the forest suddenly cleared, and my trail abruptly climbed up a steep, rocky lava flow.  Reaching the top, I was treated to some marvelous views.  The entire forest spread out below me, with vistas extending across adjacent forested hills.  I even spotted Mts. Washington and Jefferson poking up from these green ridges.

Lovely creek (hidden in the bushes)

Then the path wound mostly downhill through a barren plain of blocky lava.  A most hostile environment, only a small number of scraggly trees managed to rise up from this rocky soil.  I crossed White Branch Creek, a lovely mountain stream below towering red cliffs.  In a charming mountain meadow, I reached the first trail junction.

A gorgeous meadow, anchored by Middle Sister

This intersection formed the beginning of a loop through the Obsidian Trail's famous alpine meadows.  Following the pointer towards Linnton Meadows, I again began to climb.  The trail alternated between dense woods and clearings.  Each clearing was more scenic than the last, until I reached an open meadow already beginning to display some fall colors.  Anchoring one end was a stupendous view of Middle Sister.

Dewdrop-spangled fall colors

Although the day was heating up, dewdrops still clung to low-growing vegetation.  Made for great photo ops!

Nice new trail sign!

Although my guidebook stated this section of trail was only 1.7 miles, it seemed to take a long time to cover.  Feeling my energy waning, I finally took a break beside a tiny mountain stream.  Food, water, and a short rest helped revive body and spirit.

Obsidian Falls

A short distance beyond my rest stop, I finally reached the intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  A quick jaunt northbound on the PCT got me to Obsidian Falls.  A pretty 20-foot gushing cascade, this waterfall was framed by a bit of bright fall color.  And it helped that I'd arrived when the day's light was perfect for photography.  A surprise bit of beauty!

Lovely alpine meadow

More wonderful sights awaited.  I crossed a burbling spring into a grand alpine meadow.  Although the grasses were turning gold, and dried up flowers lay wilted, I could tell this was an amazing place.  Tall black cliffs rose from one side, and Middle Sister peeped over the horizon.

Black, glassy obsidian rocks

Underneath grasses, the ground was littered with shiny, black obsidian rock.  Glittering in the sunlight, it looked like black glass.  As a matter of fact, this rock is rich in silica, a main ingredient in glass making.  The obsidian formed from volcanic activity.  Rhyolite lava oozed to the surface without contacting water, and cooled rapidly, forming a smooth surface.

Bright blue tarn

I continued on my trek, through more fantastic alpine meadows.  I saw remnants of many small ponds, now all dried up from summer's intense heat.  However, I did pass by one lovely blue tarn, still holding water.   In a field of gold grasses and red groundcover, it was absolutely stunning.

Obsidian covered the ground

Underneath the meadow's vegetation was a layer of shimmering black obsidian.  It sparkled in the sunlight - quite a sight to behold.  I tried my best to capture this glittering black rock, but photographs just didn't do it justice.

Red, rocky cliffs anchor the meadow

This portion of the PCT north from Obsidian Falls was nothing short of amazing.  Rounding a corner, I could see North and Middle Sister rising up from the nearby ridge.

Amazing view of North and Middle Sister

Then I came upon the top of a high cliff.  Below was another lovely meadow, bisected by a glacial stream.  And rising above were jaw-dropping views of North and Middle Sister.  A panorama like this called for a break.  Taking a seat on a nearby rock, I spent several minutes enjoying this spectacular scenery.

More fantastic mountain views (Mts. Washington, Three Finger Jack, and Jefferson)

Many minutes, and lots of photographs later, I shouldered my backpack, and began the long downhill trek to a meadow known as "Sunshine," and my next trail junction.  Before descending back into the forest, I was treated to another wonderful mountain view.  This time, Mtns Washington, Three Finger Jack, and Jefferson lined the horizon.

I explored another stretch of the PCT

A couple of friends told me that the meadows at Sunshine were the best of them all.  One, who'd used this route to climb Middle Sister many times, told of a lovely side trail following Glacier Creek through the meadow, that was supposed to be absolutely gorgeous.  All day I'd been looking forward to seeing this special place.

Gorgeous meadow at Sunshine

But.....when I finally reached Sunshine, the recommended side trail had been closed for restoration.  The meadow was still a brilliant shade of green, and I had some great views of Middle Sister.  However, I could tell that the time to visit was when the wildflowers were in bloom.  Again, I made a mental note to try for a mid-July permit next year.

Back through the lava

Near Sunshine, my final trail junction awaited.  Leaving the PCT, I turned down the Glacier Creek Trail for 0.7 miles.  Following a lovely, crystal-clear brook, this path took me back to the beginning of the loop.

Parting view of the Sisters

Then it was a long trek, retracing this morning's steps, back through the lava field.  Now well into afternoon, the sun's heat reflected off the dark rocks.  Hot and tired, the thought of a cool drink and salty potato chips waiting in my car kept me going.

Once past the lava field, diving into the dense woods brought cool relief.  But after seeing such wonderful sights, 3 1/2 miles through dull, endless forest seemed to take forever.  My feet began to hurt.  The parking lot couldn't come fast enough!

Trail winds through the lava field

But all good hikes eventually come to an end, and so did this one.  After taking of my boots and enjoying some hard-earned goodies I'd stashed in my car, it was time to head over McKenzie Pass bound for my brother's house in Bend.  More weekend fun awaited - which I'll tell you about in my next couple posts! 

Stats for the day:  12 miles, 1800' elevation gain


  1. Hi Linda, I'm edging back into the blogging world after all the disruption of our independence referendum - thankfully the vote was 'No'.
    I can see I have a lot to catch up with on your blog. What a stunning day's hiking you had. I was struck by all the snow patches - is there more or less residual snow than normal, do you think?

  2. Looks like more awesome country! So glad you post all the photos so those of us who can't be there can enjoy it.

  3. These Photos Are Truly Outstanding!! Thank You So Much For Sharing!! Have A Wonderful Weekend & Keep That Lens Near By. Cheers

  4. What a lovely place to walk and explore! Beautiful photos.

  5. Wow, another gorgeous hike.. The scenery and the falls are beautiful. I love the views of the mountains..Wonderful series of photos..

  6. 12 miles!!! Linda, I am more in awe with you especially since we did our hike at Devils Head a couple weeks ago. Our hikes don't even compare to yours. I'll definitely have to step up my game before I ever get out by you for a hike.

  7. I really like obsidian. Some people think it brings good luck. I carried a piece around for years.

  8. you HAVE to quit torturing me like this Linda or I'm gonna jump a plane and move in with you for awhile.

    Fantastic images.

  9. Spectacular! What a great way to spend the day. I love the image of the 'Raindrop-studded lupine leaves', and the image of the 'Dewdrop-spangled fall colors'. Fabulous.

  10. Very nice- I'm curious about how many people you actually came in contact with and are there times when it is not crowded and you don't need a permit?

  11. You always visit such breath taking places and offer us such a wonderful look alongside you ! Great photos . I am mesmerized with the illuminated morning light in that forrest shot ~ Awesome!!!

  12. Very beautiful. But I'm not sure I'd call your forests dull!

  13. Linda, I love hiking with you! The sights were so uplifting, I didn't even mind my feet. Our fall is over here because of the snow - I'll look forward to yours.

  14. Hi! Your photos are very beautiful. I enjoyed them very much. I especially like Bright blue tarn and Mt.Washington photos very much. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Wonderful looking place - although too many mosquitoes can take the edge of any view!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  16. No problem understanding how Obsidian Trail got its name. Gorgeous scenery but I cannot imagine driving 3 1/2 hours to get to it, hike the trail and then drive 3 1/2 hours back home!

  17. Yes! This was on of my favorite spots of my hike too. Did you get to the top of the S. Sister? :)

  18. Wow! You are quite the hiker and your pictures are delightful.

    We don't see obsidian in Virginia but my dad gave me an obsidian arrowhead many years ago and I found it fascinating.

  19. Right off the bat you had me humming These are a Few of My Favorite Things. "Raindrops on Lupine and Whiskers on Kittens.."
    I love that dazzling lupine shot! The dew looks like jewels - it's one of my favorite things to come across certain plants that water beads up on just so.
    Awesome views, awesome obsidian,
    awesome photos.. You're a rockstar hiker, Linda!!!

  20. What a beautiful experience. That was surely worth the effort getting up so early :)

    I love the mountainous view and the dewdrops. I can imagine how fresh the air was.

  21. That was so enjoyable. Such amazingly beautiful country. I know I live very close to this but hiking it would be impossible for me with the shape I'm in. Instead I can enjoy the panoramic views from your eyes.


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