Heading back up the Ochoco’s to visit the upper trailhead to Twin Pillars trail. How close was I to the trailhead when the road was blocked by snow in early May? Less than two miles, it seems. So close I could taste the trail, if I decided for some odd reason to eat the trailhead. Today’s motto: Eat the Trailhead!!!
The Forest Road heading north out of Prineville is lovely, a wide creek valley of fields and farms that slowly narrows and climbs into denser stands of Ponderosa pines, and increasing patches of wildflowers – yellow Mule’s ears, purple penstemons and lupines line the side of the road.
The first oddity of the trip was the car and ancient bus stopped in the middle of the road as I head towards the crest of this forest road. Dogs and people milling about in the meadow, and in the road. Is there a music festival happening in the Ochoco’s today? Turns out there is a gathering of like-minded souls happening somewhere in the Ochoco’s this weekend. I get flashed many peace signs, which I generously return, as I drive by.
Up up up and over the crest line where I was turned away on my last drive up this road. I turn onto the gravel road that heads to the trailhead and see a huge open green meadow – no, this is not the part where I say there is a stage and a live band playing – but instead a vast lawn surrounded by trees. Bingham Prairie. An unexpectedly beautiful swath of open landscape near the crest of these hills. This is what I love best about the outdoors, simple, unexpected beauty. Assuming to see one landscape and finding something completely different, instead.
The second oddity is arriving at the trailhead and finding that there is a group of families camped there and I am met by a loud wave of cacophony as I get out of the car: dogs endless barking, and the various owners repeatedly shouting at the dogs to shut up to no effect, along with several hidden babies crying nonstop. So much for the peaceful outdoors. This will not end well, time to exit this scene quickly!
Once away from the madness I am reminded how much I love the Ochoco’s. The western hills of the Ochoco’s are older, softer, more rounded, especially at this altitude. Little waterways slip through low ridge-lines, marshes turning into meadows filled with green grasses and tiny flowers. At some point during the hike I wander into the Mill Creek Wilderness, but that distinction is unclear on the trail. There are many dead snags killed by pine bark beetles. Now surrounded by thickets of crowded, younger pines. The oldest trees, for the most part are lodgepole pines, and mountain hemlock, covered in lichen. The entire hike is above 5000′ feet. I see many wildflowers, but I also see many flowers still to bloom, and I forget (because from Bend I am starting at 3600′) that even the modest elevation gains are leading to fairly high elevations for wildflowers to be in bloom this early in the year. Always more wildflowers to come it seems!
Hundreds of wild strawberries line the trail, their ground-hugging white flowers in bloom. Tiny purple violets, occasional larkspur, pink wild onions, and as with other hikes, the promise of many lupine to come, later in the season, lining the trail.
After winding through several meadows the trail climbs to a cliff-line dropping to Desolation Canyon below, and then further uphill through occasional tall trees, but mostly dense thickets of young pines crowding together. The high point of the trail is around the 5800′ level and after another mile or so the trail begins to descend and then moves into a decade old wildfire landscape. Because pines are built to survive most wildfires, there are still at least some pines with blackened bark that are very much alive in the canopy. However, there is also plenty of dead and blackened trees and branches that have fallen to the forest floor. As the trail continues to lose elevation heading towards the base of Twin Pillars there is very little ground cover other than occasional lupine and grasses beginning the recovery process. The forest still in the early stages of re-vegetation, and on this hot south facing slope, seed distribution and water are key for the cycle of growth to continue in this burnt landscape.
The charred land makes the two basalt plugs of Twin Pillars even more dramatic rising from the dusty grey and black forest floor. Deep blue skies, frame these basalty plugs. Occasional dead, silver barked snags, provide contrast to the proceedings. Profound silence ‘fills’ the air.
I take the time to absorb the area and admire the geology before heading back: today it is a hot, dry and dusty landscape. Outside the fire zone, though, the forest is a beautiful: a lush time for the Ochocos. Occasional surprise wildflowers appear. Young pines bright green from fresh spring growth. The air warm and clean. There is a rustling in the underbrush at one point; wild turkeys, deer or hippies I know not. I arrive to solitude at the trailhead. The campers have left, and silence has, thankfully, returned to the lands.
I relax, drink water, stretch and take early evening photos of Bingham Prairie. The meadow is now a model of stillness. Only a few early evening mosquitoes with their bloodsucking ways buzz through the silence. The unexpectedly wide open vistas, long lingering summer sunshine and a few fair weather cumulus clouds make for an captivating view. The low ridge across the meadow is a sea of close-knit firs. A few tall, silver columns of trees, that lost the battle against insects and the elements, rise above the verdant green below.
I love long days like this – sleep in, get some chores done, and then head many miles away for a hike and still enjoy the drive home in sunshine. Heading down from the mountains a sight I haven’t seen before as a small raptor dives down over the car in front of me gliding right above the car for a while, and then suddenly swinging away. Hmm? Waiting for the traveling car to possible flush a bird along the side of the road or slip-streaming, hard to say, but as always, some wildlife learn and adapt to humans in mysterious ways that is always a wonder to see.
Nearing home, rising columns of smoke bespeak of a growing wildfire. The smoke a wall of black drifting southwest towards Newberry Crater fills the horizon. Much like the fire-scape I hiked through today, Central Oregon’s landscape lives in delicate balance, and peril, on a daily basis.