Headin' Outdoors with Scott Staats
More than 200,000 years ago, Three Fingered Jack appeared as a symmetrical shield volcano, building in height with each subsequent lava flow.
Then more violent and explosive eruptions followed, transforming the mountain's symmetry. The Pleistocene glacial period carved even more of the mountain away, producing its present form.
Three Fingered Jack is one of most easily accessible of all the Cascade peaks in Central Oregon. The Canyon Creek Meadows Trail leads from Jack Lake to several meadows near the base of the mountain. Another trail takes off from the meadows up a moraine to a viewpoint saddle on the shoulder of the mountain.
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 great views.
The journey to the trailhead however is a rough ride up a washboarded and dusty road. There's a primitive campground at the trailhead and Jack Lake sits less than 100 yards away. The water's glassy, still surface reflects the jagged peaks of Three Fingered Jack as well as the skeletal snags left by the 2003 B & B Fire.
A short ways up the trail, the loop begins. The 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 that point, both trails enter the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Area. From here, it's a steady climb through lodgepole pine, some in and some out of the burn.
Thanks to the burn, there are glimpses of Mount Jefferson to the north and Three Fingered Jack to the south. About a mile into the hike, the lodgepole gives way to an unburned section of large hemlock. The moss on these trees starts about 10 feet up, marking the average snowfall. Then at two miles in, the trail reaches Canyon Creek and its spectacular meadows of wildflowers – lupines, columbines, Indian paintbrushes, asters, cinquefoil and mountain mariposa to name a few. Almost every color of the rainbow is on display.
The crisp, clean, cool mountain air provides a refreshing relief to the heat and smoke of the lower lands. Once at the lower meadows, the 4.5-mile loop trail continues to the north. 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.
The side trail climbs steadily through a forest of mountain hemlocks, with some openings and meadows with more wildflower displays. A few mosquitoes are out, so bring some bug dope along.
After breaking out of the trees the trail reaches a steep terminal moraine with views across to the jagged spires of Three Fingered Jack. The outline of the mountain resembles that of a stegosaurus.
The moraine acts as a dam for an aqua-colored pristine glacial lake, aka tarn. The sole glacier of the mountain, which looks more like a big snowfield, is the unofficially named Jack Glacier. At around 6,000 feet, it's at an unusually low elevation for Oregon Cascade glaciers.
I didn't spot any climbers that day, but on a previous hike, I watched at least four of them high on the upper southeast side of the mountain. Three Fingered Jack is a dangerous mountain to climb. Hazards include unsteady pinnacles, crumbling rock and vertical cliffs with 1,000-foot drop-offs. The summit was first reached in 1923.
The section between the lower meadow and the Wasco Lake cutoff is about a mile long, all of it following Canyon Creek. Along the banks are several beaver-cut stumps 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 meanders in and out of the 90,000-acre B & B burn. Just downstream of the Wasco Lake cutoff is Canyon Creek Falls – a series of cascading waterfalls, the highest dropping about 12 feet. The side trip to the deep, clear Wasco Lake is 0.7 miles.
Although no one knows for sure, it's said that Three Fingered Jack got its name not from the shape of the peak, but from a three-fingered trapper named Jack who lived near the mountain. In the 1870s it was called Mount Marion. At around 1900, it was changed to Three Fingered Jack.
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 1/2 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.