Headin' Outdoors with Scott Staats
Canyon Creek Meadows is breath takingI stood staring mesmerized down at the greenish glacial lake and up at the precipitous east side of Three Fingered Jack. Although the mountain is only 7,814 feet high, much lower than most other Cascade peaks, it's very impressive up close. According to my watch, it was exactly 10 o'clock.
I wanted to get close to the Cascades peaks, see meadows of wildflowers and escape the smoke of wildfires, so I planned a hike to Canyon Creek Meadows. I left the house at 5:45 a.m. and started my solo hike at the trailhead around 7:30.
Anyone with a bad back, neck or any other bodily ailment should be aware of the very washboarded road on the way up to the trailhead. I think my back felt every one of the 870,000 individual washboards. There's a primitive campground at the trailhead and Jack Lake sits less than 100 yards away. The water's glassy, still surface reflected the jagged peaks of Three Fingered Jack as well as the skeletal snags left by the 2003 B&B Complex Fire.
A short ways up the trail, the loop begins. The U.S. Forest Service wants hikers to walk the loop in a clockwise direction so as to not run into other hikers, since this trail can attract lots of people on weekends. At this point, both trails enter the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area. I took the left trail and began a steady climb through lodgepole pine, some in and some out of the burn.
As I started climbing, a rufous hummingbird flew down the trail and hovered at eye level about 10 or 15 feet away, as if to say "Come on old man, you can do this." I continued up the trail. "Don't call me old man," I called after it as it flew off. Perhaps, the little hovering critter was telling me to turn around, but it's a good thing I didn't.
A little ways farther, while descending through an unburned section of large hemlock, I looked down and saw a doe grazing near a spring. I made it to the lower meadow at 9 a.m. and was surprised to see the wildflowers at their peak, contrary to the Deschutes National Forest recreation report. Lupine dominated the meadow and their sweet smell dominated my nostrils. From Prineville to the trailhead, smoke from the many wildfires filled the air. I could still smell smoke all along the trail until I entered the meadow. There the air was clear and cool. Perhaps I climbed above the smoke or perhaps the nearness to Three Fingered Jack and its clinging glaciers create the clean mountain air.
The Canyon Creek Meadows hike has everything I like in an outing. First off, it's a loop trail, which is hard to find. It also has meadows, wildflowers, streams, mountains and good views. The loop is 4.5 miles long. At the lower meadow, a side trail leads 1.5 miles to the upper meadow, a glacial lake and a viewpoint on a high saddle (6,500 feet) on the eastern flank of Three Fingered Jack. The trailhead sits at 5,130 feet, the lower meadow is at 5,520 feet and the Wasco Lake cutoff is at 5,280 feet.
I really didn't plan on taking this side trail, figuring that 4.5 miles would be enough for me and my sore back and leg. But the clear fresh air, along with the meadows of wildflowers and this magnificent Cascade peak, pulled me on.
The trail climbed steadily through a forest of mountain hemlocks with some openings and meadows with more wildflower displays. A few mosquitoes bit my hands as I took photos of flowers and the mountain views. I put bug dope on but apparently these bugs weren't dopes.
I didn't plan on going any farther than the upper meadow, but then my internal (or maybe even my external) voice kept saying - just a little farther, just around the next bend." I have hiked this trail several years ago and remembered the fantastic views from the moraine and upper saddle.
I finally broke out of the trees above timberline and stood staring at the steep terminal moraine, and the jagged spires of Three Fingered Jack. It looked to be only a few hundred yards to the top of the moraine so I trudged up the cinder-covered slope until finally standing on its rim looking down into a green pristine glacial lake, aka tarn. On my last visit here, most of the lake was still ice-covered, but not this time.
From this little saddle I walked up the last few yards of the steep, narrow moraine to its highest point, where I could see the lake's outlet. One false step would send me sliding and tumbling down a hundred feet or more into the lake. I tried to keep my steps true.
For the last hour or so I'd been watching at least four climbers high on the upper southeast side of the mountain. I sat for a half-hour and ate part of my lunch while I monitored their progress through my binoculars. I also looked down at the upper meadow and monitored my own progress. I sat at over 6,000 feet and walked at least a mile from the lower meadow and over three miles from the trailhead. I could look up and see the end of the trail on the upper saddle, but it would take a few hundred more feet and almost a half-mile of climbing to reach it. I did think about it, for a second or two, but decided to head back down the trail.
On the way back to the lower meadow I met five hikers heading up to the moraine and upper viewpoint.
"Of course the best thing about the hike is the wildflowers that are in bloom, including the fields of lupine with Three Fingered Jack in the background," said Robert Martinez of Sweet Home. He and his wife Patti get out hiking as much as possible, but this was their first time to Canyon Creek Meadows.
The section between the lower meadow and the Wasco Lake cutoff is about a mile long, all of it following Canyon Creek. I noticed several beaver-cut stumps that were at least five or six feet high. Although it would be a good story to tell kids about the "monster-size" beavers in the area, the truth is that these trees were gnawed down when there was deep snow on the ground.
The trail once again meandered in an out of the old burn. I watched two young hairy woodpeckers working their way up a small burnt lodgepole snag only about 10 feet away, paying me no attention. Nearby I saw a flash of yellow and orange - Western tanager. This adult brought a large insect to one of its screaming youngsters on a branch. Its sibling screamed even louder when finding out the winged lunch entr‚e wasn't heading for its beak this time. Kids.
Just downstream of the Wasco Lake cutoff is Canyon Creek Falls - a series of cascading waterfalls, the highest dropping about 12 feet. Wasco Lake is 0.7 miles from there but I skipped the side trail this time. As I hiked through the burn, my eyes gravitated to the tasty treats on the side of the trail. It was time for some huckleberry hounding. A few handfuls went into my mouth and a few handfuls went into a sandwich bag to be enjoyed the next morning on my Rice Krispies.
I made it back to the trailhead at noon, after hiking about seven miles. As I put my hands on the steering wheel, I noticed purple fingers -- a good reminder of delicious berries. Now it was back down the bumpy road and into the smoke.
To get to the trailhead, turn off Highway 20 near milepost 88 (12 miles west of Sisters and one mile east of Suttle Lake) on Forest Road 12, also called the Jack Lake Road. Drive about 4 « miles then turn left on FR 1230 for about a mile and a half to the end of the paved road. Then turn left on FR 1234 and drive six miles to the trailhead and the primitive Jack Lake Campground.