2012 Pacific Crest Trail: McKenzie Pass to Crater Lake

After thinking about, and preparing for, this trip for the past several months, it was finally time to launch out on the 2012 edition of the Pacific Crest Trail travels.  This trip would cover the southern 2/3’s of Oregon and a section of Washington and would cover the month of August.  My wife would be providing support for the Oregon portion of the trip.  We left home on August 1st and headed to the town of Sisters, near the McKenzie Pass trail head for an early start on the 2nd.

Day 1

McKenzie Pass is in the middle of a fairly recent volcanic eruption zone.  Most of the ground on either side of the pass is covered in volcanic rubble with an occasional patch of trees.  Heading south from the pass the trail ascends up to the highlands around the Sisters, a set of three volcanic mountains, along with a jumble of other smaller mountains, buttes and cinder cones.

This was a beautiful country that, when I came through, still had quite a bit of snow cover.  There were only a few places were navigation was a bit tricky, although it did slow down travel somewhat.  The views of the Sisters and surrounding landscape were pretty cool.  And the occasional view of the northern mountains, including Jefferson and Hood were pretty awesome. Some portions of the trail were covered in obsidian.  It was interesting to see the gravel underfoot, as well as large nearby rocks, glistening in the sun, which was bright all day.

In spite of the snow there were quite a few people traveling through the Sisters Wilderness, mostly just covering that area, although some were thru-hikers.  It was a bit surprising to me how many of them seemed to easily get lost in the snow.  It did not seem that hard to navigate in to me.

This ended up being a long day that finally ended after about 20 miles and 12 hours at a meadow with Mesa Creek passing through.  There was a nice stand of trees nearby for the hammock and water to cleanup; what more could I ask for.  Quickly setup camp, cleaned up, ate dinner and crashed about 9.  I was tired but had enjoyed the day and was in good spirits.

The northern most pair of the Sisters from near McKenzie Pass.

The trail through the early lava beds.  A bit challenging to walk on.

The Asters were blooming throughout the trip.

Lots of paintbrush everywhere as well.  And of several different shades.

From left: Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt Jefferson & Mt Hood (barely visible)

Even in a barren patch of lava, the flowers will take root and bloom.

Still quite a bit of snow around the Sisters when I went through.  Having footprints to follow was pretty handy.

In places the trail was composed mostly of obsidian chips.  It sure glistened in the sun.

Obsidian Falls, the only real waterfall on the official PCT in Oregon.

Wide open views in the Sisters highlands.

The only Glacier Lilies I saw on the trip were around the Sisters.

Day 2

While the second day on this trip was mostly a viewless 20 mile walk through the dusty forest, there were a few highlights.  The Wickiup Plain was, I suspect, a lava flow that is hiding beneath a thin layer of dust.  It is about half a mile wide and a couple of miles long.  The ground is gently rolling but seems to grow little other than rocks and a few small plants.

The trail passed along Sisters Mirror Lake and just before leaving it I was able to see where it had gotten its name.  One of the Sisters, I believe the southern one, was reflected in its still waters.  It was a beautiful little lake; too bad I had only traveled 5 miles by that point.

Sue had spent the night at Elk Lake and came out onto the trail to walk with me a while.  We spent a couple of hours on the trail before she returned to her campsite and I went on.  It was good having someone to share the trail with for a bit.

Toward the end of the day I started hitting some of the lakes in the area.  Many of them were only stagnant seasonal ponds, but there were a number of beautiful little lakes.  I had planned on staying at Cliff Lake, but the only site I saw there was already claimed by a family with a bunch of kids and a dog, all of whom were noisy, so I went on.

I ended up staying at Horseshoe Lake and, after setting up the hammock, getting in a quick swim.  The water was great and it felt good to get semi clean.  While I was fixing dinner a northbound thru-hiker passed by and decided to stay as well.  It was interesting seeing how the super lightweight crowd lived; a bit spartan for me, but definitely lighter than my 16 pound base weight.

While the day had mostly been a long walk in a tunnel, I felt good at the end of it.  I had worried at the start of the trip about how my sore left calf would hold up, and it was doing fine.  While I was sore and tired, everything seemed to be working OK. The reduced pack weight and less ambitious daily mileage, as compared to last year, seem to be helping.

There was Lupine all along the trail.  Some were lush and bushy, and others only a couple of inches high with tiny flowers.

The view along the Wickiup Plain from north to south.

Sisters Mirror Lake with South Sister.

Mt Bachelor, I believe.

Sometimes the dry and dusty ground is covered with flowers.

Diamond Peak awaiting me.

My lovely wife and sometimes trail companion.

There are many mountains of rock around the trail, apparently left by retreating glaciers.

Horseshoe Lake, a beautiful little lake and home for night 2.

Day 3

Not sure why it takes me an hour to get up and on the trail in the morning, but that seems to be the best I can do.  Iron, the young thru-hiker next to me, was gone within a half hour of sitting up.  Granted he has less to pack than I do, but I need to work at reducing that time.  I would like to be able to hit the trail at first light to give me more time in camp in the evenings, as well as hike during the cooler part of the day.

Today’s hike as mostly a repeat of the previous day; looking forward to getting up into higher country so I can see the mountains I am walking by.  I did meet a mother/daughter combo who were hiking the whole trail.  Their initial comment, which I found quite funny, was “Where are we?”  Apparently Trail Bait, the 15 year old daughter, and Blair Witch, her very protective mother, had made it almost 2000 miles while seldom really knowing where they were.

Toward the end of the day I went through an area that had burned a few years ago.  There were still quite a few barren tree trunks standing, but all of the living trees were 8 foot tall or less.  There was also some grasses, small shrubs and flowers growing, but by and large it was pretty desolate, and hot.  I probably spent over an hour traversing this section and was very glad to get back into the shade of the forest again.

I spent the night at Charlton Lake, a fairly good sized lake, and one that had a road come to within a couple hundred yards of it.  As a consequence there were lots of people at the lake, although most of them left before dark.  This was the shortest day so far and gave me a bit of time to relax at the end of the day.  Seems like most evenings, while not rushed, are filled with setting up camp, cleaning up, eating, and heading to bed.

When I got to the lake I meet a group of thru-hikers who had stopped for a break.  Their plan was to push on for another 16 miles that day; I could only shake my head in disbelief.  Many of those guys walk from first light until they can’t see the trail and then curl up on a flat spot and sleep until the sky starts to lighten and then repeat the process, every day for 4 to 5 months.  I sure like the trail, and the experience, but not that much.

Ground Dogwood was not common but did find it in one location.

A surprising amount of the forest has no real ground cover to speak of; just the trees.

One of the nameless seasonal ponds along the trail.

The devastation caused by fire, along with the new growth that follows.

Swinging on the shores of Charlton Lake.

Day 4

Managed to be out on the tail shortly after 6 this morning, cutting a few minutes off the tear down time.  The trail was crawling with thru-hikers today; I meet 18 in the first 4 hours and nearly 30 for the day.  Greenbelt Granny was an 81 year old woman, walking through Oregon with two other women.  She looked like she was just out for a morning stroll through the local park; quite inspiring.

I also meet a trio of section hikers, A man and 2 women who all appeared to be my age.  I talked with them for a while and figured them for a couple and a friend.  Later I passed the man’s wife and two younger women.  They had all started together but after the first night the three jumped ship and headed for the car leaving the husband with the two older women to finish the trip.  Quite interesting.

Finally got back up into some high country briefly today and then descended past the three Rosary Lakes; pretty little lakes just a few miles up the trail from Willamette Pass.  I met Sue just below the lakes and we walked the trail down to the pass and then jumped into the car and to our camp site for the night on Odell Lake.

Found a place to swim in the lake to clean up a bit and then drove to a local bar for some broasted chicken; very good.  Had a thunderstorm with some rain pass through during the evening but stayed dry.  By morning it was all gone, although the storm did start some fires that affected me later on in the trip.

Sunrise over Charlton Lake.

In contrast with some parts of the forest floor, others are covered in life.

One of my favorite little flowers.  Don’t know what it is, but it was pretty.

Looking down at the three Rosary Lakes and Odell Lake.

One of the Rosary Lakes.

Day 5

Sue walked with me for the first couple miles up Diamond Peak before returning to camp and leaving me alone again.  Once she left, I only saw two more people until getting into camp.  This was easily the day on the trail with the most solitude.

Diamond Peak was a welcome break from the long forest tunnel of the previous days.  The trail ascends up to the 7000 foot level and then traverses around the mountain for several miles.  I enjoyed the views and the beauty of the flowers and snow that I occasionally hit.

While on top I met my two people for the day, about an hour apart.  They both warned me of a coming snowfield that they had difficulty navigating across.  I finally found this patch at the south end of the traverse, after giving up on ever seeing it.  It was a couple hundred yards across but there were no footprints that I could (last nights rain had seen to that) and it curved around a shoulder of the mountain hiding the other side.  I set off across the field and never saw any sign of earlier travelers.  Eventually I hit the end, broke out the phone and its GPS and found I had undershot the trail.  It was about 20 yards above me.

Almost as soon as I got back on the trail it started its long descent down to Summit Lake.  I was looking to camp on the southern shore, just before the trail left the lake.  I didn’t see anyone until I found what looked like the perfect place, and then saw the tent in the middle of it.  Went on a bit farther and found one more occupied site so went halfway back and set up in a semi cleared spot between two trees on the shore of the lake.  Not an ideal spot but it worked well for me.  The lake was very warm and made for a good bath.

Diamond Peak showing itself through the trees on the ascent.

An ageless Ent watching over the forest.

While only a single tree blow down, its many branches many it tricky to get across.

The big snow field on Diamond Peak, stretching off over the horizon.

One of the pretty little flowers that grow in scree fields on the mountains.

My first choice for a camp site on Summit lake was on the little peninsula with Diamond Peak in the background.  Unfortunately it was also someone else’s first choice.

Day 6

The trail ahead was dry for about 34 miles, much further than I thought I could travel in a day.  So I loaded up with a gallon of water and headed for Maidu lake, about 25 miles away and a mile off the trail.  The trail was just barely visible when I left, but I wanted to have plenty of time to get to camp before dark.

The day started with a long climb up Cowhorn Mountain.  There was still a little bit of snow on top, but the views were really great.  To the north I could still see a couple of the Sisters as well as Diamond Peak; it is pretty cool to see a distant peak and realize that you were there just yesterday.  To the south were Mt’s Theilsen, Bailey and McLoughlin.

Along the way I met a guy in a wedding dress and pearls.  Apparently he had one for each week he was on the trail.  Quite unusual, although you eventually come to accept the unusual as quite ordinary.  There are a surprising number of gals in skirts and guys in kilts on the trail.

An hour from Maidu I passed a trio of young ladies heading for my lake.  I chatted with them a bit before racing off for the lake.  If I was going to get a bath I needed to beat them there by more than a few minutes.  Not to worry, they hit the lake over an hour after I arrived.

Maidu was a pretty little lake, although shallow and with weedy shorelines.  But I found a good place and got cleaned up; then started to setup camp.  And to my surprise I found that there were no rocks anywhere. After a long search I ended up driving in tarp stakes with a stick.

At 25 miles this had easily been the longest mileage day of the trip.  It felt good to be able to do it and still feel good at the end of the day.  The feet and legs are toughening up and the shoulders and hips are getting used to the weight of the pack.  An overall good day.

Looking back at Diamond Peak from Cowhorn.

The far distant Sisters from Cowhorn.

The trail around Cowhorn.  Many of the high country trails are similar.

Looking south toward Theilsen on the left and Bailey on the right.

I saw a number of these lilies, but only this one in bloom.

Sunset over Maidu Lake.

Day 7

Today started off with a long climb to the highest point on the official PCT in Oregon or Washington, 7560 feet.  There was some snow in the high country but mostly bare ground and sparse meadows, beautiful in the own way.  Also lots of scenic views of the country around.

From this high point the trail dropped down to Theilsen’s Creek, the only on trail water for over 60 miles.  This was a good place to refill the water bottles and get some lunch, and then back up to Mt Theilsen.

The trail wraps around a couple of the western shoulders of Theilsen, offering the last views of the Sisters and Diamond Peak, glimpses of Diamond Lake and Mt Bailey to the west and, finally, the crater wall of Mt Mazama; whose caldera now houses Crater Lake.

Partway down the descent from Theilsen I met Sue and we hiked together down to the road, where she took me out for ice cream, a shower, dinner and a night at the Forest Service campground at Diamond Lake, a very large complex.

Morning mist raising over Maidu Lake

Looks like it is just waiting for someone to come along and give it a shove.

An un-named peak to the north of Theilsen.

While the trail gets higher around Crater Lake, this is the high point for the official trail.

Mount Theilsen.

Theilsen Creek coming out from under the snow.

Mt Bailey and Diamond Lake

The remains of Mt Mazama.

Day 8

The final day of this part of the trip started with a delivery back to the trail head at the base of Theilsen followed by a long walk through the forest north of Crater Lake.  This ended up being the least maintained portion of the trail I traveled.  There were at least 100 trees across the first 9 miles of trail.  None of them required much effort to get across, but they were a bit of a nuisance. 

Eventually the alternate route diverged from the official PCT and the trail began to climb for a few miles and eventually came out on the western edge of the rim wall.  I have to admit I was pretty stunned by the sight.  I do not remember a more beautiful lake.

There is about a 6 mile rim walk over to the Rim Village.  I met Sue about half way around and we then walked on around to the Village and some more ice cream.  The next day would be spent resting and exploring Crater Lake, so I headed on down the trail another 4 miles to Mazama Village, a camp ground with some cabins, a store and a restaurant.  We had a cabin for a couple of nights, which was nice and allowed us to spread out a bit.

My right quad has begun to tighten up quite a bit, causing some pain while walking.  The rest day coming up should do it a world of good.  Otherwise I am  in pretty good shape.

The forest north of Crater Lake.  Often times the trail looked just like this.

One of the little flowers growing in the dust.

A patch of Lupine on the ascent of Mt Mazama.

These mounding flowers, of various hues, were all over Mazama.

My first ever look into Crater Lake.  The picture does not do it justice.

Left over formations from the eruption, collapse and weathering of Mazama.  The lake is in the background.

Clark’s Nutcracker were a common, and noisy, bird around the rim.

Another view of Wizards Island near one side of the lake.

A field of mixed wildflowers on the descent from Mazama.


The first 8 days of this trip covered 160 miles and covered the central third of Oregon.  I felt much better at this point than I had at the end of last years 8 day 160 mile trip, primarily because Sue was meeting me periodically, meaning I did not have to carry nearly so much food at the beginning.  It also helped having the experience of knowing that it was going to hurt for the first few days;  just hang in there and it gets better.

Overall the trip has been great.  I’ve seen lots of cool stuff and met some interesting people.  I’ve had lots of time alone and been able to spend some time thinking deep thoughts along the way.  And best of all I have been able to enjoy the creation and the Creator.

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