Van-Tripping Chronicles: The Magical Metolius River and the First Van Breakdown – Lightning Does Strike The Same Place Twice

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The Metolius River in Central Oregon has been a tourist destination since the late 1800s, when hot and tired wheat farmers from Eastern Washington first set up camps on its banks to revel in its cool waters and fresh mountain air after the harvest. The Metolius is essentially a giant spring, or series of springs, all fed by an underground aquifer that drains snow melt from the high Cascade volcanoes. This vintage Kodachrome from the late ’40s shows a family at the headwaters of the river, having driven there in their splendid Buick woody wagon. The river first gushes out of a cliff a bit off to the left, and then wends its way towards snow-capped Mt. Jefferson on its 28 mile course to join the Deschutes River.

The Metolius has been our favorite destination since 1998 for a quick deep-nature immersion, like the one we did just earlier this week. It was a stellar three-day trip marred only by the first mechanical breakdown of our Promaster van, on a high and remote trailhead no less.

We’ve been here many times, including with my parents, who fell in love with the area. We come back at least a couple of times a year, and this year it was a bit earlier than usual, arriving on Memorial Day in order share it with as few others as possible. That turned out to be remarkably few, due to the pandemic and most of the campgrounds not being opened yet.

The spring wildflowers were at their peak, and the nearby peaks still had plenty of snow on them to accentuate their grandeur. But the main attraction is the river itself, with its perfectly clear water. It’s magical, and has a magnetic attraction.


The Metolius’ unvarying flow starts out quite modest at some 50,000 gallons per minute. But additional springs, all part of a vast drainage area that was once the ancient Metolius River before being buried under a Pliocene Epoch (5.4-2.4 million years ago) lava flow, all add to its flow, and by the time it ends in Billy Chinook Reservoir, it’s up to 600,000 gallons per minute. In the upper parts, it’s more like a canal, gurgling along briskly with vertical grassy banks that stay green all summer long, despite the high-desert climate.

The steep banks were a bit of a challenge for the pooch, as he loves to drink and wade, but it’s a bit of a struggle to get back out.

There is a series of lovely rustic campgrounds along the upper half of the river, all of which were still closed except for this little four-site spot. It was legal to camp there, it’s just that there were no services (or fees), meaning mainly no fresh toilet paper in the outhouse. Not a problem for us! We had the whole place to ourselves, although I did notice a few campers in some spur roads and undeveloped sites in the general area.

Prime riverfront views (and sounds). There are some rustic summer cabins along on some stretches, that have ground leases with the Forest Service. We covet one.

But we have our own cabin on wheels. Setting up camp for us means…opening the back door. We’re totally self contained.

We arrived mid afternoon on Monday, which left plenty of time to take a long loop hike down the trails that line both banks. The place was deserted. Yet just a couple of hundred yards down river the delicate strains of music wafted could be heard above the gentle murmur of the river. It turned out to be this little trio playing on the bank. The Metolius really is a magical spot. There’s also a fly fisherman in the background; this is fly-fishing heaven, especially with a bit of live background music. Maybe it makes the fish bite more?

There is one bridge along this stretch, but we decided to make our own to get to the other side, via that downed log in the distance that spanned the main channel and this bridge a cabin owner had built out to a little islet, where there was also an old defunct waterwheel.

That involved fording the waterwheel’s sluice, just a bit too deep for shoes. Yes, it was chilly. There’s several old defunct wood and steel waterwheels along this stretch in front of some of the cabins, presumably to power generators before electric lines were strung to them. It would certainly be a perfectly reliable source, as the flow never varies.

This being the east side of the Cascades, the climate is much dryer and the flora quite different. At this altitude (some 3,000′) the Ponderosa pine predominates; they are stately and their trunks have a lovely reddish hue.

They get big.

And grow big even in the most unlikely places.

from the web

On Tuesday morning we decided to climb Black Butte, a perfect cone-shaped small and young (1.43 ± 0.33 million years old) volcano that is situated in the center of the valley and affords unparalleled 360° views of a huge swatch of Central Oregon. It has served as a fire lookout since 1910.

The gravel road to the trailhead from Camp Sherman (on the Metolius) winds up to and along Green Ridge, then splits off and climbs up to the trail head, at 4880′.

The last couple of miles the road becomes narrow and steep. It’s doable with passenger cars, or in this case, our former Dodge Chinook, shown here on the last legs of that stretch. Why am I showing it and not the Promaster? Because lightning actually does strike in the same place twice. Here’s an excerpt from a post in 2016, shortly before I decided to let the Chinook go:

The last time we used it was September 2013, when we took it to Camp Sherman, on the Metolius River in the Cascades. We hiked Black Butte one day, and this shot was taken up there near the parking lot, which is quite a ways up a rough forest road.

After the hike, on a rather warm day, I drove down the steep gravel road in first and 2nd gear to save the brakes. Further down, on the black top on Green Ridge, I had to stop for an intersection. And then it happened: the left front caliper locked up/wouldn’t release.

This had happened once before, several years earlier, on a hot day heading for the coast on a back road. Both times, we had to sit and wait well over an hour for the brake to cool before we could go on, with great trepidation of it happening again.

That spooked me then, and we decided to cut our trip short, and drove home in the cool of the evening and hoped it wouldn’t happen at high speed coming down the long McKenzie Pass grade on the west side. And I finally put in new calipers.

It was still quite cool in the morning as I headed up the same road in the Promaster, about 58 degrees. About a half mile before reaching the trailhead parking lot, bumping along at slow speed, I heard the twin electric radiator fans come on with a noticeable whooosh. I thought it a bit odd, as it wasn’t that steep, and the engine wasn’t working hard, and it was cool. But I didn’t even bother to look down at the temperature gauge, as overheating a modern car or truck is so…old fashioned. Like all modern vehicles, the Promaster has never broken a sweat, even in the hottest weather climbing long grades. All the more reason that I should have looked at the gauge.

Just as we rounded the last curve and I could make out the parking lot, I suddenly noticed the red temperature warning light come on at the same time as I noticed some puffs of steam emerging from the hood. What the?!? There’s no way this should be happening!

I pulled into the parking area, turned it off, got out and opened the hood. Everything was wet and slimy from a drenching of expensive orange Mopar coolant. A major cooling system blow-out! I had visions of just how expensive a two would be from up here.

I quickly found the culprit: a broken plastic tee I had inserted into the two heater hoses, in order to tap them for the Isotemp water heater in the van, which uses hot coolant to heat the domestic water via a heat exchanger. Which by the way has been highly satisfactory; it delivers warm water even on the third day of no driving, and we never sit still that long.

I bought these tees at NAPA, and they look identical to the ones supplied by FCA for their rear heater installation kit. But it appears that they’re not strong enough. The bouncing from lots of rough back roads must have done it in; this one obviously gave way on that last stretch. The question is: how far back did it give out? How much coolant did I lose? But more importantly, how was I going to fix it?

I decided to mull that over on the hike, as it was way too hot under the hood to do anything anyway, and it would give me time to consider the options.

It’s a little over two miles to the summit, but it can get hot on the treeless southern side. But not on this cool morning. And the views from the top are just stellar, in every direction. The most obvious one is to the southwest, where Broken Top, the Three Sisters and Mt. Washington dominate the views. Unfortunately, my older iPhone does not do justice, making the peaks look even further away than they are. Black Butte ranch is directly below, in the large meadow.

The preserved original fire lookout, from the 1920s, is still there. To its left is Three Fingered Jack and to the right of it is Mt. Jefferson, partly obscured by clouds. We could also see partial views of Mt. Hood, far to the north.

Looking to the northeast, the hills and valleys of the high desert of Eastern Oregon could be seen for some 100 miles.


The current lookout is still in use, but not yet open for the season. In 1998, when my father, sister and I climbed up here for the first time, the lookout person invited us up, which was quite an experience. That just doesn’t happen anymore, due to the much larger number of daily visitors. Although on this day, there were only a few parties on the trail.

As to the repair, it didn’t take me long to figure out that the obvious solution was to remove the tee and plug the lines. But with what? 3/4″ was going to be too big for a pencil or such. Looking down, the solution was laying there on the ground in front of the van: a short and nicely-round piece of an old branch, which looked to be just the right size. I whittled it down a bit to make it fit.


And there it is. Thanks to having installed valves on the two branch lines going to the heater, I didn’t have to plug that line.

And how much coolant had it lost? A fair amount, it turned out, as I filled my two water bottles about 4-5 times from the van’s domestic water tank. I didn’t exactly measure it, but eventually the tank had water again, and I started the engine and hoped for the best. It’s held just fine, except for a very minor ooze.  No need to go home early this time.

As I headed down and turned that first curve, a big orange tow truck came up the other way. What? I didn’t see notice anyone up there in the parking lot, and certainly no sign of any automotive distress like open hoods. Did someone see my hood open and call them? Or? I’ll never know.

After another utterly serene and noiseless night (not a given at designated campgrounds, unfortunately) except for the distant soft gurgling of the Metolius, we packed up (meaning closed the back door) and headed for the lower section of the river, where there is a superb section of trail from Canyon Creek to the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery. Just a few hundred yards from the trail head, one passes the second major visible springs that feed the river (there are others underground).


Watching the water erupt from cracks in the basalt rock is another bit of magic.

As were the wildflowers blooming along the way. This is a columbine.

Delphiniums and a blooming bush in a loving embrace.

Hundreds of swallowtail butterflies flitted about, feeding on the various blooms.

The turnaround point was the bridge at Wizard Falls, which really showed off the deep blue color of the water. The purer the water, the more it reflects the blue spectrum of light. And the Metolius is about as pure as it gets.

After we got back to the van, we decided to put that to the taste test, and dipped some of its water for our ritual afternoon tea. We both thought we could taste a difference. But maybe the setting had something to do with that.


related reading:

My Promaster Van Build

4300 Miles Through Arizona, Nevada and California

1700 Mile Loop of Eastern Oregon

Probing the Promaster’s Off-Road Capabilities in Central Oregon

The Promaster’s First Outing: Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area