Oregon’s High Desert: September 17-25, 2011

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Enlarge pictures by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

Our planned itinerary from Boise took us back out to the west coast, then down through California. Folks we’d met earlier in Salem, Oregon told us we shouldn’t miss Bend, and a stop at Crater Lake was in order. So we planned Bend as our next destination, with a side trip down to Crater, about 90 miles away.

Not being happy with descriptions and reviews of the RV parks in Bend, however, we looked to adjacent areas. Two of interest were to the north, but one in the city of La Pine also caught our eye because it was 20 miles closer to Crater Lake. Next to the highway and a busy freight train line, it wasn’t the quietest place we’d been. But it was very handy to regional history.

It was over 300 miles from Boise, so we made a pit stop half way at Burns, Oregon. Parking behind the Old Camp Casino, we spent nothing on slots but bought dinner there. Early the next day, we continued our trip across the High Desert, a plateau that stretches in a parabolic (bloated triangle) shape starting north of Bend, with one side heading 200 miles east to the Idaho border and the other heading 130 miles south to the Nevada border. The plateau continues into both of those states, as we discovered driving the long stretch from Boise to the Oregon border.

The High Desert has been known over the years by many names; my favorite is the Oregon Outback. It’s not quite a desert; rainfall averages 10-12 inches a year. So it’s rife with sagebrush, woody grasses and scrub trees. And it’s teeming with wildlife; the deer and the antelope play with the jackrabbit, coyote, grouse and quail. It is the product of volcanos (more later on that) and ice age mutations. Much of it is owned by the BLM, but both agriculture (mostly grains and bulbs) and livestock industries thrive. Just before you get to Bend, you come upon the BLM’s Badlands Wilderness area, a 29,000 acre preserve of hiking trails, camping opportunities and spectacular views, including the 400 foot deep Dry River Gorge.

It’s also interesting to learn that the volcanic action of the Cascades built the High Desert by blocking the easterly flow of moisture from the coast. The coast receives three to five times more precipitation than the eastern side of the range.

We waved at Bend on the way by and turned south to Newberry RV Park. Don, the manager, was very nice and helpful; he had little to do and whenever he was out and about, he visited with our pups. (He also had a 1970’s Lincoln Continental Phaeton for sale, which I lusted after!) Most important, he clued us in to the historical riches of the area we’d just come through on Rte 97 between La Pine and Bend.

Sitting on the lip of the Cascades, the landscape on both sides of the highway included miles of black basalt lava. The Cascades, running from southern B.C. to northern California (part of the Pacific Ring of Fire) include Mts. Hood, St. Helens, Shasta and Mazama among its most famous volcanos. Mt. Mazama hosts Crater Lake in the remains of its peak. Mt. Bachelor, a major ski resort, is just west of Bend, Just to the north of it are the Three Sisters. The Sisters, now known as North, Middle and South, were once known as Faith, Hope and Charity. These three peaks, almost identical in height, are much closer together than volcanos are usually found in the range. Perhaps you can guess how Mt. Bachelor got its name!.

There were four separate locations to visit. Three fall within the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a 50,000 preserve which, in turn, is within the Deschutes National Forest.

The first was the Lava Lands Visitors Center and Lava Butte. The Butte is a cinder cone with a 150 foot deep crater in it that covers an immense area. The lava flow that created it actually altered the course of the Deschutes River. At the base of the Butte, the headquarters houses a fine exhibit center that gave us the story of activities that formed the region over eons. In many ways, this was even more geologically informative than our Mt. St. Helens experience, because it provided more generalized exposure to the entire range.

The next was the Lava River Cave. Because white nose disease threatens the bat population nationwide, we signed a pledge that we would never wear that day’s clothing or shoes in another cave, since no amount of cleansers can purge the virus. Following that, we were provided with a propane lantern and pointed to the entrance. The first fifty feet had a stairway; after that we were confronted with not only pitch black but an extremely rocky path. Considering that the cave was a mile long and this was the only entrance, we quickly took a couple of been-there-done-that pictures, returned the lantern and retreated!

Then we took in the Newberry Crater National Monument. This venue offered us multiple opportunities to see, in the raw, the power of volcanic activity. The area is the caldera of Mt. Newberry’s core; the mountain has erupted repetitively over a 600,000 year period. The Newberry volcano covers an area of over 500 square miles, and its rim is at about 4500 feet high. Paulina Peak is the highest point, at just over 7300 feet. Compare this to its neighbors mentioned above, which top our around 10,000.

In the caldera, one finds both Paulina Lake (first two pix) and East Lake (3rd pic). Paulina sits at 6300 feet; East is slightly higher. Originally formed by a destructive flood, Paulina Falls (middle row) is today approximately 200 feet farther upstream than its original location. The soft rock is continuously eroded by the water flow and huge boulders crash to the bottom. Near the lakes is the Big Obsidian Flow (bottom row), which occurred 1300 years ago and is the largest of its kind in North America. When first spotting it, you’d think it was the output of the largest coal mine in the world.

There was one more reason to stay south of Bend: The High Desert Museum. I’ve used lots of superlatives about previous museums we’ve visited, but the High Desert Museum certainly ranks near the very top. It’s obviously well endowed, and the exhibits are thematic. The experience begins as you walk up the path to its contemporary main building; you’re greeted by numerous bronze wildlife sculptures.

Once inside, you are first offered two art galleries, the Collins and the Brooks, both of which hang changing exhibits that envelope the themes of the place. There are also two live inhabitants, a bobcat and a lynx, in lovely habitats. Down a hall to the right, the Spirit of the West exhibit chronicles local industries, such as fur trading and ranching, as well as the trials and tribulations of getting there over the Oregon Trail.

Another permanent gallery, called By Hand Through Memory, charts the life and times of the original settlers, the plateau Indian tribes.

The main building also houses a Desertarium, where creepy-crawlies are separated from you only by glass.

Heading out to the intricate pattern of paths, we first took in the Birds of Prey Center. While we didn’t learn a lot of new stuff here, we did get to see another live hawk demonstration as well as other birds in habitats.

From there, we wandered on back to an exhibit called The Changing Forest, which detailed the development of the logging and lumber production industry and included a model of Tom Lackey’s Sawmill.

Uphill from there was the Miller Family Ranch, a 1904 re-creation with re-enactors playing the family and coaxing you to help with chores, like tending the garden. Next to it is the Lazinka Sawmill, reconstructed there board by board, tool by tool, and actually working today. Steam driven, it produces most of the lumber for construction projects throughout the campus. A knowledgeable docent explained in detail the history and workings of the equipment. I shared with him the disappointment that two Oregon Trail museums in the Willamette Valley not far away were closed for lack of funds, but I didn’t have the courage to suggest that High Desert share some of its opulent funding with them.

Our last visit along the many paths was the Otter Habitat. Walking down a ramp and entering a cave-like structure, one could view his (I only saw one) pool through a window and read all about him. He got active quite quickly, so I walked back outside to the top of the pool and adjacent shore within his territory. The results are clearly visible below.

It was recommended that we allocate four hours for the visit. We did, and it still wasn’t enough. Just a few more images:

On the day before our departure, we piled the troops in the truck and headed south to Crater Lake. The eruption that topped Mt. Mazama in 4850 BC was 150 times greater than the 1987 St. Helen’s outburst. Once 12,000 feet tall, the caldera rim now sits at 7100 feet at he Village. It is over 2000 feet down to the lake surface from the highest rim point; half that at the Lodge.

A few more fun facts: The major Mt. Mazama eruption was the biggest blast in 600,000 years, since the major event at Yellowstone. It spewed enough magma to cover today’s entire state of Oregon 8 inches deep. The valley immediately below is called the Pumice Desert; the pumice and scoria that cover this treeless plain (first 2 pix below) is the surface of a deposit over 100 feet deep. Subsequent eruptions have occurred within the caldera since then. The water is not blue; it appears such (next 2) because as light descends into water, it loses ranges of the spectrum until only blue is left, and this water is so pure that the image is rich and royal.

Wizard Island (first 2 below) in the lake stands about 800 feet high, and you can actually take a boat over to it and spend the day. In addition, the Phantom Ship (tucked in along the shore in pic 3) pokes its head 170 feet above the surface. This formation got its name from the fact that it has mast-like pinnacles and appears and disappears depending on angle of view and weather condtions. It is actually older than the lake, having been formed over 400,000 years ago.

It’s just breathtaking. Pix on their website show that it’s even more dramatic mid-winter; average snowfall is 44 feet and all but the southern access are closed. The 2010-11 winter saw a record 673 inch (56 feet) snowfall.

In 1885, William Gladstone Steel, a Portland businessman and serious mountaineer, first gazed on the lake and considered it his duty to help preserve it. He relentlessly lobbied Washington for seventeen years until President T. Roosevelt declared it the nation’s sixth National Park in May, 1902. In 1886, he and two members of the US Geological Survey sounded the depth in 168 locations with a weighted spool of piano wire.The maximum depth they measured was 1996 feet. Using sonar, the official scientific measurement in 1943 was just 53 feet less than the Steel/USGS probe!

So our trip to Bend was a non-trip to Bend, except for one shopping jaunt. Our eyes and brains were offered many feasts, however. Now it was on to the coast.

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