Majestic Mount Jefferson and Magical Jefferson Park
Towering 10,497 feet (3,199 m) and second in size to Mt. Hood, lofty Mt. Jefferson adds to the spectacular northern Cascades with its jagged ridge line and clinging glaciers. I’ve camped and backpacked along the outer flanks of this mountain, but never gotten within an arm’s length of this peak before. So when Brad, my husband, suggested a backpacking trip into Jefferson Park, I was game. From the description in William Sullivan’s “100 Hikes in Oregon’s Central Cascades” book, it sounded just like right opportunity to get to know Mt. Jefferson a little better.
With temperatures in the Portland area hovering around a withering 100 degrees, we got off to an early start, hoping to beat the heat. But as we took Highway 22 around Detroit Lake, the temperatures started climbing at an alarming rate. By the time we turned off on Whitewater Road to venture 7.5 miles to the Whitewater Trail parking lot, it was sweltering. We had loaded up on Gatorade and watered the dogs, so we were about as hydrated as we could be. Off we went!
In what would otherwise in cooler conditions be an easy looping ramble for 5.1 miles up to Jefferson Park, the trek ended up being a little hotter than we planned. Fortunately, Whitewater Creek afforded a great liquid break about 4.0 miles into the hike, and we gratefully plunged ourselves into the icy waters to cool off and refresh (dogs and humans). Then, it was another 1.1 miles to our camping destination.
As we looped around from one ridge line to another through a saddle pass, Mt. Jefferson came into view, dominating the entire eastern horizon. No other ridges stood in our way, so it was almost an ethereal feeling to have such a huge mountain above and open air below. We crept our way through some open rock debris fields, the heat shimmering across the boulders. Yikes, it was hot!
But many wildflowers stood undeterred by such oven-like temperatures. Amazing lilies, somehow surviving the hot temperatures, permeated the air with a heavenly scent. (Later, I wasn’t able to identify this plant on my own, and availed myself upon the resources of the Native Plant Society of Oregon who identified the lily as lilium washingtonianum, whose mountainous range, ironically, doesn’t quite make it to Washington state!)
As we climbed a little higher, we finally dropped onto a plateau. We had arrived in Jefferson Park! We crossed a small bridge over a stream fueled by snow melt, gave the dogs some water, and started up our final hill which hugged the mountain stream, gurgling merrily to our right.
Once we reached the top, we were greeted with a crisscross of trails heading left and straight, leading to a series of at least five to ten hidden lakes. Citing heat exhaustion, we opted for the easiest and closest spot. This area is considered one of the gems of the Detroit Ranger District, and strict regulations govern camping activities up in this area. No fires were permitted, which is why we brought our little backpacking stove, and we could only camp in designated spots to reduce the damage to the fragile alpine meadow caused by trampling boots.
I rested while Brad scouted the area, and he found a nice spot on a hill top overlooking Scout Lake. At that point, we were parched from thirst and ravenous from our hike. You’d be surprised at how many calories you burn hiking 5.1 miles with 50 pounds on your back in 100 degree heat. It made me appreciate what the soldiers in Iraq have to deal with every day, as a salute to these servicemen and women!
Brad went to work setting up shelter (man make shelter!) and I started on heating up a freeze-dried dinner. It felt a little silly heating up food on such a hot day, but at that point, any kind of food was starting to sound good! Too bad I was too worn out from the hike to manage a pathetic stumble down the hill to the water’s edge. A swim sounded delightful, but I didn’t want to pollute the water with the abundant sunscreen and insect repellent I had liberally applied to myself.
Speaking of which, before long, the local residents had also found us and decided to join us for a snack. The snack, being, of course, us. The mosquitoes must have radioed their cousins from miles away, because over the course of probably 20 minutes, we were swarmed. Thankfully, I had brought a mosquito tent and put the dogs under its protective enclosure. I’m not sure, but I could swear that both Buddy and Timmy looked completely grateful to get away from those biting menaces!
After dinner, Brad joined the dogs in the mosquito tent and I went inside our sleeping tent for a respite from the hordes of whining insects outside. Quietly, we laid there, and each watched thunderheads form right above us. Our location was perched right at the point in the Cascade Mountains that the heat and moisture came together to form the thunderstorms that would roll down into Eastern Oregon. I got one picture of a tiny cloud that wasn’t big in circumference, but ballooned thousands of feet upwards. It was the smallest thunderstorm I’d ever seen. We also watched the sun set over Mt. Jefferson, and took in the silence and peace of such a magnificent place. Risking more bites, I dashed outside the tent to grab some sunset photos of the mountain before darkness set in.
With temperatures forecast to be in the high 90′s, we decided to head back out the following day. The mosquitoes hadn’t really disappeared, so that meant mobility was limited. The only activities we could really engage in were swimming then making a mad dash to the mosquito tent to dry off. That morning, I was better prepared to take photos on the way back, and got some good pictures of sunrise over Jefferson Park. The views were breathtaking, as were the wildflowers.
At one point, we did hear a couple of large ‘booms’ and what sounded like thunder, but they were actually rocks falling off of Mt. Jefferson, probably loosened by the melting glaciers and snow. The rumble lasted for about 15 seconds and then you could hear the boulder cracking its way down the steep slopes. Fortunately, there was a long drop below us, so we weren’t in any danger of getting crushed!
On our way back down in the morning, Brad and the dogs were ahead on the trail, when I happened to glance across the melt water creek and saw something moving. I peered across, and I could tell that the animal was in the weasel family by the shape. It was on the far bank of the creek, making its way down. But the dogs and Brad walking down the trail startled it, and it made its way back up the bank, moving back and forth agitatedly. I stopped, and let the other get ahead. Something told me that the animal was going to cross the creek, so I crept forward silently, camera at the ready.
Sure enough, within a few seconds, the creature bounded in the thicket of trees not 20 feet away from me. Slow reflexes and an even slower camera shutter prevented me from getting a good shot of what turned out to be a fisher, a relative of the weasel family. It was very exciting, and definitely worth the additional mosquito bites I suffered from standing there!
The final trek back was fairly uneventful, albeit hot. We ran into a Forest Service Ranger who was heading up for a three night-stint to patrol the area… armed with natural insect repellent. We wished her luck. Also along the trail, we passed a National Forest Service trail crew who were doing maintenance on the path. Just as a side note here, I absolutely have to give a shout-out to these amazing people who keep our trails in such awesome shape. They had even cut through a giant tree which had fallen over the path sometime this winter… on the way up, Brad and I had to lay ourselves the top of it in order to boost ourselves over. What a pain. But on the way back down, we walked right through the gap that they had cut. Now that was hard work!! So, thanks, guys and gals!!
Needless to say, by the time we arrived at the car, everyone was parched and the first order of business was getting water into us to cool down. Thirst slaked and air conditioning on ‘high’ – we headed home, grateful for the amazing experience that we just had!