Van-Tripping Journal: Dodging Wildfire Smoke On the Peaks Of Eastern Oregon

(more appropriate for Facebook, but I don’t do FB)    Some of you have emailed me with concerns about the massive wildfires raging in Oregon (and California) and of any possible impact on us specifically. It’s by far the worst Oregon has ever seen, a tragedy of epic proportions in terms of the loss of life, property and so much pristine nature. It’s going to be painful to drive up the spectacular McKenzie River valley and see where several towns were devastated and the forest denuded. But such is the reality of living out West during a time of global warming.

As to us personally, we missed the worst of it by escaping to the peaks of Eastern Oregon.

We woke up Tuesday morning to an apocalyptic scene outside: the sky was a dark orange and ash was falling like snow. The winds that had accelerated these fires were coming from the east, so we packed the van and headed east, and within 20 miles were in clear skies. We felt almost guilty. And we spent the next four days out in Eastern Oregon, enjoying the mostly pristine skies, until the shifting wind brought the smoke out to us this morning.


We spent the first night on the rim of Hole-in-the-Ground, a one-mile across maar (volcanic explosion crater). It’s a bit hard to appreciate it in this picture, but it’s a perfect natural amphitheater. I always imagine Pink Floyd playing there in 1970 or so.

We could barely make out one other camper rig on the other side, but otherwise we were all alone.


The air was still absolutely pristine, which was brought home forcefully after it got dark on this moonless night: the Milky Way lived up fully to its name, a giant belt of creamy white, punctuated by the brighter individual stars and constellations. A shooting star was highlight of the evening’s stellar attractions.

In the morning, we headed to Fort Rock, a giant tuff ring located in an Ice Age lake bed. This is a vintage shot I found which includes a University of Oregon Jeep Station Wagon.

From Wikipedia;

Fort Rock was created when basalt magma rose to the surface and encountered the wet muds of a lake bottom. Powered by a jet of steam, molten basalt was blown into the air, creating a fountain of hot lava particles and frothy ash. The pieces and blobs of hot lava and ash rained down around the vent and formed a saucer-shaped ring of lapilli tuff and volcanic ash sitting like an island in the lake waters.

We hiked up into the “fort”.

To check out the formations in greater detail.

from the web

We then headed up into the Fremont National Forest above Silver Lake, with the intention of hiking up Hager Mountain, the prominent peak in the area, and hence the location for a still-staffed fire lookout on top.

It was a splendid hike through big old Ponderosa pines, and the woman who staffed it invited us up and to look around. She’s pursuing a graduate degree in nature writing, so this is a highly suitable job for her. We ended up chatting for quite some time; these folks do like a bit of company once in a while.

To the west, we could see the wall of smoke hovering over the Cascades in the distance.

And she pointed out a fresh new blaze just getting going to the southeast. It had been started by a mountain biker who got cold and built a fire to warm up! Some of the stories about how these fires start are hair-raising. A gender-reveal party with fireworks? Mind-boggling.

Because of that growing fire to the south-east, we decide to head further northeast, to the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness.

winter time shot from the web

Strawberry Mountain towers over the John Day River Valley, and I’d long held an ambition to explore it and possibly climb it. We entered the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness from the back side (south), which provides access to several high lakes and streams.

The next morning we set out for High Lake.

Butterflies flitted about everywhere, feeding on the last of the wildflowers still in bloom. This one’s coloration was different than most.

Stephanie and the dog rested and watched, while I…

…took a dip in the very brisk water (at almost 8,000′). I make it a point to swim in every lake and stream where possible, no matter how cold.  A fire had come through here some years earlier.

Since this trip was completely spontaneous, I did not research the routes to the summit in advance. My trail guide described a rather grueling 12.5 mile round trip hike from the north side. But in perusing my map, the shortest (7.5 miles round trip) of several options to do so was actually very close to the Wild Lake trailhead, so we found a nice spot to pull off the road and camped, which allowed us to have an uncharacteristically early start on the hike.

This is the first view of the summit from the trail, where it turns a corner from an abandoned roadway. It was hard to gauge just how big and far it was, or how steep the trail would be. It looked a bit challenging from here.

But it turned out to be a fairly easy route up, and the shale was a lot more pleasant to climb on than the typical soft and shifting scree in the Cascades. The views were of course superb.

Little Man, who is going to be nine next month, was a trooper, albeit ready for a drink.

And he was quite happy to forgo the views for a sunny nap.

We woke up this morning there in dense smoke. Time to head home, and a rather depressing ride it was. And sadly, this is the view out of my window as I write this. Yukk. But it’s supposed to get better tomorrow.

And I have nothing to complain about; my heart goes out to those that were really affected.