Patjens Lakes hike offers wildfire damage view
Headin' Outdoors with Scott Staats
If you want to view the aftermath of a large wildfire then consider a hike to Patjens Lakes. Most of this hike passes through the lightning-caused Shadow Lake Fire that started Aug. 28, 2011. The fire ended up burning about 10,000 acres.
The trail to Patjens Lakes is a very scenic, easy six-mile hike into the Mount Washington Wilderness Area. Hikers are rewarded with spectacular views up at the spire-topped Mount Washington from the lakes at the base of the mountain. Along the way, I got to sample huckleberries, strawberries and vaccinium berries.
At 7,794 feet, the sharp pinnacle of Mount Washington can be seen for miles around. About 25,000 years ago, a massive blanket of ice covered Mount Washington and the surrounding Cascades. Glaciers made their way down the mountain, carving out its flanks and leaving the jagged point (volcanic plug) we see today.
Looks can be deceiving in geology. Although Black Butte, 10 miles to the northeast, appears younger than Mount Washington because of its smooth, symmetrical cone shape, it is actually about five times older. Black Butte is 1.4 million years old and Mount Washington is 300,000 years old. Black Butte was just far enough away to escape the erosive fingers of the glaciers and remains a perfectly shaped cinder cone today. There is evidence of a series of spatter cones on the northeast flank of Mount Washington that erupted 1,330 years ago.
A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at trailheads in the Cascades and other areas. Also at the Patjens Lakes Trailhead, be sure to register and fill out a free backcountry permit, whether hiking or backpacking in the wilderness area.
In about a half-mile, the trail passes a long, narrow, open meadow before gradually climbing a ridge. At about a mile and a half into the hike, the trail enters the Mount Washington Wilderness Area. No motorized vehicles or bicycles are allowed beyond that point, although I did see mountain bike tracks on the entire trail. To the north are glimpses at the red cinders of Sand Mountain and its lookout tower, along with Mount Jefferson more distant. From the low pass there are good views of Mount Washington, Belknap Crater and the Three Sisters.
Patjens Lakes are a group of four lakes. The first is a smaller pond on the right. The next lake is a half-mile farther on the left and has a tree-lined, brushy shore. The third lake is the largest and most scenic of the four. Its meadowed shoreline offers breathtaking views up at Mount Washington. The last lake on the left is shallow and often has muddy shorelines.
After another mile and a half the trail reaches the south shore of Big Lake. There, a sandy beach awaits hikers, and offers a refreshing wade or swim in the lake. The large, rectangle-shaped butte across the lake is Hayrick Butte. From there, it is another mile back to the trailhead.
Motorboats are allowed on Big Lake, so be prepared to be greeted with a little more noise than the solitude of the wilderness hike. If you are into boating, water skiing or fishing, Big Lake is a good place to spend the day or weekend. There are two campgrounds around the lake.
Another option for a shorter hike is to start at the trailhead or the West Big Lake Campground and hike to Patjens Lakes in the opposite direction. The famous Pacific Crest Trail passes near the east shore of Big Lake and heads through the Mount Washington Wilderness Area on its way from Canada to Mexico.
As summer draws to an end and the days get shorter, there's still plenty of time left to head to the mountains and take advantage of our beautiful Central Oregon surroundings.
To reach the trailhead, take Highway 20 through Sisters past Black Butte, and turn south at the Hoodoo Ski Area sign, just past Santiam Pass. Drive about four miles down Big Lake Road to the trailhead on the right shortly after the Big Lake Campground entrance. The Patjens Lakes Trail is a loop trail and it is recommended to hike it counterclockwise, taking the right fork a short distance from the trailhead.