In September of 2015, I found my days on the Pacific Crest Trail winding to a close. I’d spent the previous two and a half months picking up the pieces of what was supposed to be a continuous 2663 mile hike from Mexico to Canada, but was derailed by a stress fracture after less than a quarter of that. After recovering from my injury, I pushed to return to the trail, at first attempting a southbound hike from the Canadian border, then settling on a more piecemeal approach, targeting specific sections of the Trail that I’d wanted to see, but didn’t get the chance to.
After hiking much of Washington and a significant portion of Northern Oregon, I set my sights on Mt. Jefferson, Oregon’s second highest peak and a significant landmark since I’d first started my planning of the trail. My mother had grown up not an hour’s drive from the mountain, in a tiny town called Mill City, Or, and had talked often and at length about how she’d loved the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, and how she and my dad would try to meet me there on my push north. I didn’t know much about the area when she would talk about it, and not much more when I set out that warm mid-September day to hike into the surrounding lake district, Jefferson Park.
The drive to the PCT trailhead took me up a winding mountain highway through the cascades before I had to turn on to one of the worst roads I’ve ever driven. Hugging the line of the mountains, the road up to the Breitenbush Trailhead was beyond rocky, and rarely less than one lane. I passed a few other day hikers on the way up, pulled off to the side, their passenger cars at near 45 degree angles, debating their decision to tackle the road in the first place. I bounced past in 4 wheel drive, waving as I did to the looks of chagrined hikers who I wouldn’t see again.
I parked at the trailhead, or at a dusty turnout which seemed to be the trailhead, and readied my day pack. It wasn’t a long hike, less than 7 miles to my target, Russell Lake, but it was nearly noon, so I debated an overnight by the lake. Ultimately, I opted for a light pack and planned a round trip back to my car where I’d camp and eat that evening. After nearly six months of backpacking and living out of my pack, I was open to the prospect of not carrying everything I needed on my back, plus 13 miles seemed easily doable in the 8 hours I had until nightfall.
The PCT at Breitenbush Trailhead
I set out onto the trail at a good clip, making excellent time as I climbed out of the enclosing woods and into the edges of a burn area that seemed to have been there for a few years. Heavy undergrowth carpeted the floor of the burnt out forest, in autumnal hues of red and orange, and combined with the green of unburnt woodlands and the blue of the sky made for a dazzling display of technicolor hues.
Edge of the Burn
Burn Areas and Shield Volcanos
The trail didn’t linger in the burn area for long, and soon I found myself once more surrounded by the thick coniferous forest that seemed so ubiquitous along the PCT in Oregon. The grade was easy, the trail well defined and well maintained, and before long I caught my first view of Mt. Jefferson, peeking above the trees in the distance.
The PCT in Red and Green
Jefferson Makes and Appearance
It was a lovely section of trail, but I was growing increasingly concerned that I wouldn’t rise above the treeline for a proper view of the mountain. I’d found in many cases, both in Washington and Oregon, that the trail spent a large amount of time buried in surrounding forest, which was lovely and a refreshing change from the deserts of Southern California that I’d gotten so used to, and tired of, in my first few months on the trail, but not ideal for my purposes of photography. My worries were soon proven unfounded, and I rose above the treeline into an alpine landscape carpeted with golden grass and lichen covered rocks.
Pine and Pond
Golden Alpine Meadows
I climbed steadily up the rocky slopes to a long ridge where I got my real look at the mountain, and was blown away at the sight. Jefferson looms above the surrounding valleys and shield volcanoes, a basin of pristine lakes and golden meadows surrounding its base, and creates a rather epic scene. As is often the case when I find myself pleasantly surprised by an unexpected view, my heart started racing and my legs picked up speed, and my shutter finger moved more rapidly than it had done in weeks.
Rocky Ridge Overlooking Mt. Jefferson
Above the Treeline
Every turn seemed to offer some amazing prospective on the mountain and its surrounding landscape. Smoke from the fires far to the south, from a lingering fire on the north end of Crater Lake National Park, left a low-lying haze across the horizon, and the sun cast its diffuse light on the mountain itself, while blasting the forests and surrounding slopes with a more harsh, golden late afternoon light.
Descent to Jefferson Park
Desolation around Jefferson
I moved quickly down the rocky ridge line down into the forest once more, racing the sun to capture the perfect light on the mountain and lakes ahead of me. The trail wound quickly downhill, but was so even that I had little trouble bouncing down on legs energized by the beauty surrounding me.
Trail to Jefferson
Into Jefferson Park
Mt. Jefferson Approach
I reached Russell Lake and wandered the shoreline as late afternoon sunlight cast deep shadows through the haze of the smoky sky to the south and west. Everything became increasingly golden, as dead grass and dry trees caught the light and reflected it in a stunning display of autumnal hues. The lake itself was calm, gently lapping the grassy shoreline as a dozen PCT hikers got water and swam on the far shore. I waved to them as I walked along the north shore, to the inlet creek where I stopped to take a few photos before acknowledging that it was probably time to turn back.
Russell Lake Inlet
Red Leaves Beneath the Mountain
I continued my circuit of the lake before following the outlet creek down and back to the PCT. The sun was getting increasingly low, the light increasingly more beautiful, and the shadows stretched long across the meadows of Jefferson Park. I climbed the trail quickly, pausing only long enough to snap a few pictures as I moved ever upward toward the ridge I had just descended.
PCT above Mt. Jefferson
I stopped as I reached the top of the ridge and took a few last photos of the beautiful mountain and the lake strewn basin at its foot. The sunset cast the most amazing light over the whole scene, and as I raced the dwindling sunlight and impending darkness to return to my car.
Waning Sunlight on Jefferson Park
Mt. Jefferson Sunset
Red Forest Floor
I returned to the trailhead well after night had fallen, and panicked thinking I’d lost my car, before finding it after a 20 minute search of the darkened road. I set up camp and made dinner and enjoyed a peaceful night on the trail, content with the day and determined to return and spend more time in one of my new favorite places.
Directions to Breitenbush Trailhead via www.oregonhikers.org:
From Estacada, head southeast on Hwy. 224 (which turns into FR 46) for about 53 miles until you reach a junction with FR4220 just before FR 46 turns to the right and heads toward Detroit. You’ll find the junction right at the crest of the ridge at the boundary between the Mount Hood National Forest and the Willamette National Forest. Turn left here on to road 4220, signed for Skyline Pond. Stay to the right at the first intersection. After 1 mile of decent gravel, reach a gate on FR4220 after which the road turns very bumpy with lots of loose rock in the road. The road becomes increasing narrow, and most of the time is wide enough for just one vehicle. While the road is admittedly rough, it is passable for passenger cars if you just drive slowly. After about three miles, pass the poorly-marked trailhead for Breitenbush Cascades, cross the North Fork of the North Fork of the Breitenbush River, after which the road becomes increasingly rocky and rough. Just before you reach Breitenbush Lake you encounter the most nerve-wracking section of the drive, a section traversing a talus slope that is seemingly more rock than road. While it’s bad, it doesn’t last that long, and you can exhale as you are almost to Breitenbush Lake. At the crest, you’ll see a red dirt road leading to the right. Follow this short spur to a large loop-style parking lot. The well-marked trailhead is 6.5 miles from the highway and there’s room for quite a few cars-remember, this is a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail.
Alternately, if you have a tank or a 4-wheel drive truck, you can drive here a slightly different way. Rather than turning off at FR4220, you can drive southeast on 224/46 for 48 miles until you reach an extremely well-marked sign for Olallie Lake at the junction with FR4690. Turn left onto FR4690 for 8 miles, then left onto FR4220 for approximately 11 miles, passing Olallie, Monon and Horseshoe Lakes until you reach Breitenbush Lake. The 2 mile section of road between Horseshoe and Breitenbush Lakes is among the worst sections of road in Oregon, and is not recommended for passenger car drivers with any consideration whatsoever for their vehicle. Seriously, it’s really that bad. Consider yourself warned.
For those not coming from Portland, you can reach the turnoffs for FR4220 and FR4690 by driving east on Hwy 22 from Salem to Detroit. In Detroit, turn onto FR46 and drive roughly 17 miles to the turnoff for FR4220, or 24 miles for the turnoff to FR4690.