Monday, September 7, 2020

Patjens Lakes and Coffin Mtn Sunset

Summer means camping and hiking.  In mid-July my hubby and I decided a trip to the Central Oregon Cascades was in order.  We have a favorite Forest Service Campground along Highway 22 where we love to stay.  But since some of its sites are first-come first-serve, there's always a risk of being skunked.  In past years, an early Friday morning arrival has always secured a spot.

Beargrass-covered forest floor

This year our luck didn't hold.  In this post-COVID world, everyone has discovered the great outdoors, and I've noticed hiking trails and campgrounds are busy all the time, not just over weekends.  So....sadly we discovered our favorite campgound was full, as was our second choice down the road. 

Beargrass close-up

Would we end up back home for the weekend instead of camping?  Luckily our third choice, Marion Forks Campground, wasn't far away.  Driving in, we were astounded to see most of the sites still empty.  After choosing a nice spot and setting up camp we discovered why.  No water.  Not being prepared for such an inconvenience, this necessitated a trip to the closest town to buy a couple gallons of water and then on the way back, another stop a nearby campground to fill up our large water jug.

Tiny pond all dried up
Finally, campsite secured, water procured, it was time for a hike!  Over the years I've visited most of the trails along Highway 22.  However, there were still a couple left on the list.  Today's trail of choice was a short loop to visit the Patjens Lakes.  A lovely trek through lodgpole pine forests at Santiam Pass, I'd heard the wildflower bloom was good here this year, so I was itching to check things out.

Wilderness boundary

So hubby and I made the short drive from our campsite to Santiam Pass, and then to the shores of Big Lake.  The Patjens trailhead had it's parking area near one of the lake's campgrounds.

Beargrass and Scarlet Gilia brightened the forest

Due to the morning's campground chores, it was nearly noon when we started our hike.  And it was already hot.  But we had plenty of water so off hubby and I went down the trail.

One of the few butterflies I was able to capture

I'd heard there was a good wildflower bloom and right away I discovered that the rumors were true!  Beargrass covered the forest floor, along with purple penstemon and orange-red scarlet gilia.  Many photo breaks may have been taken.

Beargrass everywhere!

The forest here burned in a 2011 wildfire, so there wasn't much shade.  Tall gray and black skeletons of trees provided the only semblance of a forest.  And there were lots of downed logs across the trail. Hubby and I clambered over several in the first half mile.

Gotta stop and smell the beargrass....

Deciding to save the trek past Big Lake for the end, we started heading westward on the loop, passing through burned-out forest, a dried up pond (that was really deep green) and then climbing up a ridge with some great views of the nearby hills and mountains.  Mt Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, the Three Sisters and Mt Washington were all in view, plus nearby Hoodoo Butte.

First Patjen Lake

On the downhill side of the ridge hubby and I were passed by two young girls with huge backpacks.  One of them did not look very happy.  The older girl said they were looking to camp at one of the Patjen Lakes.  We kept leapfrogging the girls until passing by the first lake (more like a pond, really) when they left the trail to go check it out.

Scarlet Gilia

The four lakes that make up the Patjens Lakes are all very tiny.  Actually we only saw three lakes.  I suspect the fourth lake might've dried up to just a grassy swamp.  The third lake was the only one that looked suitable for any camping or swimming.  We hiked down to it's shore and admired the view.

Third Patjen Lake was the best

Past the third lake, the trail started gradually climbing uphill, back to a junction with Big Lake.  Although I'm never a fan of forest fires, I have to say the fire cleared away dense forest, opening up spectacular views of nearby Mt Washington.

Scraggly dead tree

The burned out trees also created a great habitat for woodpeckers.  My eagle-eyed hubby spotted three of them pecking away on a nearby snag.  I switched to my zoom lens, but the light was terrible and I only got a few extremely backlit images before the birds flew away.

Mt Washington

Climbing further from the lakes, we came upon the best concentration of beargrass yet.  These fluffy plumes lined the forest floor.  Forward progress may have been slowed a wee bit.....

Lovely beargrass poofs

Wildflowers also attract butterflies, and there were several flitting around the blooms.  Continuously on the move, they were difficult to capture.  We came upon one place in the trail where several beautiful blue butterflies were congregated on the trail itself.  It was a damp, muddy area, and I assumed they were attracted to the water.  I tried my hardest to get a good image of all those butterflies but nothing really turned out.  So you'll just have to take my word for it.

Beargrass was especially thick beyond the ponds

After a mile of hot climbing, I glimpsed some blue water through the trees.  Finally Big Lake!  A lovely royal blue, this lake was home to two campgrounds and a church camp.  It also attracted the motorboat/waterskiing and off-road vehicle crowd, so it really wasn't our kind of place to camp.

More Mt Washington views

But the lake made a lovely place to hike around.  As we contoured around the shore, Mt Washington became more and more visible until we reached a high point that had a money shot view of the mountain.

Hoodoo and Hayrick Buttes from Big Lake

Across the lake Hayrick and Hoodoo Buttes were visible.  Hoodoo Butte has a small, family ski area atop it's summit.

Wonderful Mt Washington view from Big Lake

As we completed the loop and headed back to our truck, both hubby and I decided this short trail packed a lot of wonderful scenery into 6 miles.  The only drawback was tons of blown-down trees that we had to navigate over, around, and in a few cases, under.

View from Coffin Mtn trail

But our day wasn't over yet.  Because we were camping a short distance from Coffin Mountain, I really wanted to capture sunset from the summit.  My hubby is such a good sport, he agreed to such a crazy request!  So we took a short break at our campsite before packing back up and driving to the Coffin Mountain trailhead.

Wine, cheese and Mt Jefferson views from Coffin Mtn

It was still hot, and we both carried a heavy load.  I had my camera gear (although my sweet hubby carried my tripod! Thanks dear!) and we packed a wine and cheese dinner to enjoy on top.  Although only a short 1.5 mile climb, it's also 1000 feet of elevation gain.  We puffed, sweated and groaned as we slogged uphill, but once reaching the top, it was so worth it.

Coffin Mtn lookout at sunset

There's a staffed fire lookout on Coffin Mountain's summit.  The guy manning the lookout waved but didn't come out.  No matter, hubby and I perched ourselves on the helipad, dug out our goodies and enjoyed a front-row view of Mt Jefferson.

Sunset over Detroit Lake

I was lucky - the sunset was spectacular.  We were joined by another couple and one young man with a big camera like mine.  As the sun sank and the sky turned colors, I tried my best to capture the show in all directions.

Mt Hood

The sky to the north and east turned a lovely shade of pink.  I caught Mt Hood on the horizon.  To the west the sky above Detroit Lake turned orange with the setting sun.

Last view as we hiked back down

Once the sun sank below the horizon, hubby and I packed up to try and beat total darkness.  We trucked downhill quickly, but about halfway I ended up digging out my headlamp.  It was nearly 10 pm when we reached the truck.  By the time we arrived back at our campground, all the sites were full and our neighbors across the road appeared to be gearing up to party for awhile.  But tired from two hikes, hubby and I fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows and didn't hear much all night.

A great day of hiking!  And I'd planned a jaunt up the PCT for the following day.  Coming next post.....


  1. Covid has made a difference in ways we couldn't have imagined such as the increase in numbers going for a hike. Glad you found somewhere to camp eventually. Beautiful spectacular views as always. I'd say that sunset was worth the upward struggle.

  2. Hello Linda

    I enjoy your hikes, you always take me to places I will never see in person. The wildflowers are gorgeous, I like the beargrass, Gorgeous views of the lakes, mountains and the pretty sunset. Great post and beautiful photos. Take care, enjoy your day!

  3. ...a fabulous part of the world, the bear grass i amazing.

  4. persistence and patience pays off for some great photos of the area and snuset. And oh yes you got a camping site!

  5. Quite a day's hiking after your delayed start. I've seen bear grass in photos before but didn't realise how large a plant it was till I saw the picture with you in it for scale.

  6. Spectacular views. I can't decide whether I like the sunset or some of the mountain scenes best.

  7. Sunset from the summit with a glass of wine - can't be beat :)

  8. Wow the sunset was worth the hike up! Wonderful photos! I was thinking earlier today how many of your favorite hiking trails are in wildfire areas today as it seems most of the west coast is burning.

  9. Glad you managed to camp in spite of everything. I am not familiar with beargrass so I found the pictures of it intriguing.

  10. Seems like there was a lot of burned trees or dead ones but the views were still quite lovely. That Beargrass was rather interesting.

  11. That's a lot of elevation gain, but if there was wine and cheese waiting for me at the end, I think I could do it! Beautiful photos. I really like the shots of mountains with patchy snow, with beargrass in the foreground.

  12. So many more people everywhere. I hope you are surviving the smoke.


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