Oregon’s Strawberry Mountain is Tops!
Oregon’s high east-central plateau is dominated by numerous forested mountain ranges rising above fertile rangeland, with enough vistas wide enough that you can’t quite wrap your arms around them.
It’s a peaceful place, and in August, Brad and I set off for the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. Our hiking compass was set to climb and summit 9,038-foot Strawberry Mountain itself, a once-active volcano. It got its name from Nathan Wills Fisk, a homesteader in the area, because of the many wild strawberry plants that can be found in the area.
We drove about 4 hours from Portland to our secret camping spot nearby, and set up in a campground that we had absolutely to ourselves. The quiet of the woods was occasionally broken by the rattling of a woodpecker on a nearby tree or a raspy chirrup from a hawk high up in the thermal winds. The next morning, we packed up our gear, loaded extra water, and headed to the trailhead.
Starting near the 7,000 foot level definitely helped make this hike not as arduous as it may seem. The trailhead starts on an old road that is fairly level and flat. Not very far down the path, the dogs, Brad and I were quickly startled by a big buck deer bounding through the undergrowth as it bolted away from its breakfast foraging. A little later down the trail, we ran into some other hikers. A man and his son from the Portland area were scouting the area for the hunting season, and had their binoculars trained on a ridgeline not too far away. We stopped and asked what they were looking at, and they pointed out a tiny white dot. It was a mountain goat! Somehow, on an impossible angle, the animal nimbly tip-toed across cliff faces that left me dizzy, but it was pretty cool to watch. The duo weren’t actually looking to hunt the goats (illegal) but rather looking for deer. My thoughts turned to the buck that we had just seen; had he met any of bow hunters currently out, he might not have been so lucky.
Right at this point, the trail turned south and quickly narrowed down to about 1-2 feet wide, with a couple of steep drop-offs right off the trail in a number of places. About 15-20 years ago, a wildfire had swept through the area, and while the area is recovering, the vegetation is still a little thin, punctuated with dead, blackened snags, lending a surreal feeling to the hike. Interestingly, as we followed just below the shoulder line of the ridge, the views far below were pretty amazing. Small, lush meadows beckoned, and I could imagine deer and other animals thriving in such a rich environment.
I heard twittering overhead, and stopped to watch a large group of mountain bluebirds flitting from tree to tree. Their calls are very muted and cheery; sweet, almost. After a few minutes of observation, we continued on, and started a number of switchbacks up to the base of Strawberry Mountain itself. It loomed far above us, and my palms began to sweat. This, I thought, is gonna be a tough hike!
We came around a corner and found ourselves traversing a shale trail. Shale is a type of loose rock, usually in large piles as it breaks off a larger source- such as a cliff face. And that was exactly what we were crossing. High above, cliffs with big rocks towered over us, and I silently issued a request to the forces that be that nothing decided to come tumbling down.
The path was so rocky that the trailblazers before us had actually built some rock cairns to mark the way, although enough boots had passed this way, a distinguishable line could be seen. At this point, despite the cool August morning, the sun’s rays began to warm things up a bit, helped by the reflection from the rocks.
Up we went, and found ourselves in a brief flat spot where some other trails joined ours, and we stopped to enjoy a view from a forest of tortured junipers and bristlecone pine trees edged by brilliant blue lupine flowers. I glanced up. The trail went up from that point another 45-50 degrees. Not quite climbing on your hands and knees, but it was steep…
The final summit assault had begun. We climbed up and zig-zagged across the rocky face. We were high above the tree line yet somehow, flowers managed to entrench themselves into the seemingly impenetrable stone.
Winds up here have gotten up to legendary speeds. Apparently, there was, at one point, a lookout up here, but it was eventually abandoned. At one point, a storm blew the entire structure off the top of the mountain. All that remains are some cables littered around and some errant nails.
Brad made the summit first, and whooped when he did. I slowly trudged the final stretch, stopped, took a breath, and then looked at the amazing view.
For 360 degrees, we could see mountain range after mountain range. Far to the south, we could see 9,700-foot Steens Mountain, 150 miles away. It was a stunning view!
Sitting down, we ate some lunch, enjoying the expansive vistas. I did notice a pile of rocks nearby and something stuck in them, so I went to investigate. A number of glass jars held small notes and pens. People who had made it to the top had written little notes about their adventures. I added one myself – this was Brad’s and my second wedding anniversary- and it was hard to top this at 7,038 feet high!
While we were up at the top, a few more people showed up. A father-son hiking team had actually done a much tougher round-trip hike that started farther below our trail head. They shared some tips on additional spots that they had seen along the way. As we headed down, a friendly couple on their way up to the summit and we chatted. It turned out that he was a cattle rancher in Prairie City, and it was really great to be able to talk to a local. From our vantage point, he pointed out his ranch far below with a great deal of pride. We wished them well and continued our way back down the mountain.
By the time we got to the car, my creaky knees were screaming. I was beat, but this was an awesome hike and was the perfect way to enjoy yet another Oregon favorite vacation spot.
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