On a beautiful, spring or fall day, when the summer crowds have all gone home, this drive is one of my favorites, if not my favorite.
Being so different geographically, having to drive through Sisters to get there and so far to the west of Highway 97, many people don't realize the Camp Sherman area is in Jefferson County. Sitting at the base of the Cascade Mountains, Camp Sherman is 722 feet of elevation higher than Madras. It is cooler, snow-covered in the winter, heavily forested and filled with lakes, the cold, rushing Metolius River and other gurgling forest streams and springs; quite different from the irrigated farmlands and the sage and juniper covered hills we see along Highway 97 through central Jefferson County.
Surrounded by deep forests, Camp Sherman's history is also quite different from the development of the communities of central and eastern Jefferson County.
This is the fifth in a series of articles titled My Five Favorite Historical Drives through Jefferson County. It is a condensed version of the 140-mile historical loop-drive described in my recently published book Historic Drives Through Scenic Jefferson County, Oregon. If you bring along the book, the drive begins on page 294. Due to the limited space of this article, I will begin to describe the drive once you arrive at the Camp Sherman area.
To begin your drive, enter Black Butte School, Camp Sherman, Oregon, into your smart phone's directional program. Though only 28-miles from Madras as the crow flies, the highway route from Madras to Camp Sherman is 61 miles, taking you through Terrebonne, Redmond and Sisters. So, settle back and enjoy the hour-plus long drive to Camp Sherman as the scenery shifts from irrigated farmlands, to sage and junipers, to glimpses of the snow-covered Cascade Mountains and into the deep forests of the Cascade foothills as you near Sisters.
After leaving Sisters (don't miss stopping at the Sisters Bakery!), you will pass around the western flanks of the imposing Black Butte. This 6,436-foot stratovolcano last erupted about 20,000 years ago and is actually older than many of the more prominent, Cascade Mountain peaks. There is a historic fire look-out-tower and a cupola cabin at the summit. The hiking trail up to the summit is popular, offering spectacular views. For decades, local gardener's sage advice for Jefferson County residents was, "To avoid frosts, don't plant your garden until the snow is off of Black Butte."
Early settlers found the forests around Camp Sherman to be a park-like setting with little brush between the massive ponderosa pines. Wagons and autos could easily drive in-between the giant, well-spaced trees. Ponderosa pines have a bark that is resistant to low-intensity, fast-moving fires. Fires such as these occurred somewhat regularly either by naturally occurring lightning strikes or fires set by the indigenous people. These fires would move quickly through the small amounts of low brush, fallen limbs and dropped pine needles that had accumulated since the last fire. This regularly cleaned the forest floor, leaving the mature trees unharmed while eliminating any dead trees and the young competitive trees. Fires also opened the forest floor for Indigenous people to hunt while creating meadows where berries, edible plants, herbs and wildlife could thrive
The area around Camp Sherman once was full of gigantic old growth ponderosa. They began to be logged-off after the arrival of the railroad into Redmond and Bend where massive lumber mills began to be built around 1911. Spur lines were built out around Sisters, where even more lumber mills were built. Millions of board feet of lumber were milled and shipped out. Millions of dollars were made by mill owners and the railroads with little regard for replenishing what seemed to be an endless, natural resource.
Turning right off Highway 20/126 towards Camp Sherman on the Camp Sherman Road (NF 14), you will begin passing areas of dense pine forests with brush-filled forest floors, areas with no brush but blackened trunks and lower limbs, stands of dead trees and areas where brush has been cleared by hand. These variations are the results of studies being done to see which forest management techniques are best. Formerly, areas where fires passed through dense brush were crowded with young trees and forest floor buildup created devastating results. Areas with little brush between the mature trees and areas where the lower portions of the trees have been blackened by fast moving, low intensity, intentionally set ("controlled") burns, the fire moves through the forest floor quickly, not harming the older, fire-resistant bark of the ponderosa pines.
These are usually areas where agencies are experimenting with clearing brush and competing smaller trees or trying to mimic nature by setting regular scheduled controlled burns. Unfortunately, during the Smokey the Bear era, we were all warned, "Only YOU can Prevent Forest Fires!", agencies suppressed fires allowing decades of forest floor growth and debris build-up. When a fire started, it burned with a greater intensity of heat, burning through the protective bark and "laddering" high into the upper branches, devastating entire forests. We learned that a little bit of fire is not a bad thing. Too often today, with our ongoing droughts, any fire can get out of hand with terrible results. Drives over the Cascade passes, through thousands of burned acres and some towns, bear witness to that. The Forest Service, various agencies and preservationist organizations are working cooperatively to restore and protect this area's beautiful forests, rivers and streams. Wish them well.
My cell-phone mapping program, and hopefully your's too, brings you into Camp Sherman via NF 14, then veering left onto the Metolius River-Camp Sherman Road. As you enter a housing area, the Metolius Meadows development will be on your left. In 1924, this was a large meadow and site of one of Oregon's first golf courses; a sheep mowed, tin can buried for the hole type of course.
Continuing, you pass scenic resorts, drive over creeks, pass a fire station and a historic community center. At a four-way stop, turn right. Just after passing the Cold Springs Resort Road on your right is the Chapel in the Pines, a 1924-era, box-car church.
In the early 1900s, portable logging camps and small-gauge railroad tracks spiderwebbed through these forests. When an area was logged-off, the rails were moved to another area, the logging camp cars (supplies, bunkhouses, kitchens and even a small church) were either moved on their specially made boxcars or made to be loaded onto railcars and moved to the new location, hence the name "box-car church". Today you see an enlarged, still operating church building called The Chapel in the Pine where services and many weddings are held there. Signs about the area give you more historic information regarding the boxcar church. Oxen and horses moved felled and limbed logs on skid roads in the earliest days. By 1935, trucks became the primary mover of the logs to the mills and the rails in the forests were removed.
Continuing, you pass the Black Butte School, an RV Park and cross a bridge over the Metolius River. You have arrived at the Camp Sherman Store. Park in the lot on the right side of the store where there are public restrooms. The store has a bit of everything for visitors, campers and fisher-persons. I find their made-to-order deli-sandwiches are hard to be beat.
Walk the 40 yards down to the bridge where you will find a river overlook, benches and several descriptive signs telling you about the various fish found in the Metolius River and a bit of the area's turbulent, geologic history. This riverside overlook is an excellent spot to sit, eat and listen to the water rushing by. You may even see a fish swimming by as the Metolius River is a world-class fly-fishing river (catch and release only). Several easy hikes along the river emanate from here and at each of the several riverside campgrounds.
The Camp Sherman area was frequently visited by the Indigenous people from the Willamette Valley and Columbia River areas for thousands of years before the white settlers arrived. This cool, shady river area was an excellent respite from their homeland's hotter locations and was great for hunting, fishing, gathering edible roots, herbs and berries. Different bands would meet here, socialize, play games, gamble, trade goods and swap news, stories and gossip. No tribes lived in Central Oregon on a permanent basis until the Warm Springs Indian Reservation was established (1855). Then the Indigenous people from along the Columbia River were more or less forced into settlement there.
A rural post office named Matoles was established in the Camp Sherman area in 1855. The Camp Sherman Store, at first a tent on a wooden platform, was established in 1917. The Forest Service began leasing land for summer cottages in 1916. Most supplies for the area were seasonally brought in over the pass from Albany. Perishable local dairy items were submerged in water-tight containers in the cold river. Eventually individual cabins built small water-wheels in the river to generate electricity as electrical power lines were not brought into the area until 1948.
Once the railroad arrived in Central Oregon in 1911, the mill's loggers began the decades long devastation of the area. Fortunately, preservationists and the Deschutes National Forest now oversee the forest with protected areas such as the 86,000-acre Metolius Conservation Area. Though there are some very large ponderosa pines seen in the forest today, few of the giant "old growth" ponderosa, known as "yellow bellies," remain.
Around 1911, wheat farmers from Sherman County starting coming here after their summer harvests to celebrate and cool off. They posted "Camp Sherman" arrow signs on trees to help people find their way. This name, over-time, became the name of the location.
During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps. (C.C.C.) set up camp at what is now the Riverside Campground. Their efforts created many of the trails, bridges and campgrounds along the river that we enjoy today.
When ready to drive on from Camp Sherman, set your cell's mapping program to the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery. It will take you past the Camp Sherman Store, out to NR 14 where you will turn left. You'll now drive paralleling the Metolius River, though it will mostly be out of sight. There will also be nice, up-close glimpses of the Cascades to your left and Green Ridge to your right.
About 4 miles from the store, watch for a sign pointing left to the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery. Turning left, you cross a bridge over the rushing Metolius River. Park in the lot on the other side of the bridge and walk back. The mixture of the river's colors is spectacular in the sunlight. An original fish hatchery located near Camp Sherman was replaced in 1947 with the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery. It is a place of wonder for kids of all ages. Thousands of fish, separated by size, inhabit the fish runs. All are hoping you will put a quarter in the fish food dispenser and throw the feed in to them. They will reward you with a frenzy of splashing.
The hatchery is very park like. Signs explain about the purpose of the fish runs and the types of fish raised. Tall trees are identified by signs. A large "escapee" pond with gigantic, well-fed fish and docks out over the water with feeders are lots of fun. Be sure to ask a ranger why this is called the "escapee pond."
Eagles often sit in the trees waiting for an unwary fish lolling too near the surface or a dead fish thrown to them by a hatchery worker. Picnic tables, lawn and shade all lure you to stay probably longer than originally planned.
When ready, continuing down NR 14 you pass several riverside campgrounds. They each have paths along the river that are lovely to walk if you are so inclined.
Three-miles from the hatchery, you come to a 90-degree, left-hand turn in the road. Here is the Lower Bridge Campground and Lower Bridge, a single lane bridge over the Metolius River. Find parking on either side of the bridge, walk out and enjoy the beautiful river as it flows beneath you and then curves around a bend. There are just not enough superlatives to describe the river and this entire area.
Once ready to continue your drive, enter into your cell phone's directional program: Head of the Metolius River. If your cell phone is not getting a signal, it is 9.6-miles back up NF-14, on your right. Lack of a cell signal is not an uncommon phenomenon in this area. Once there, follow the sign into the parking lot. There are restrooms located in the parking area. A short, paved walkway along a moss covered, split-rail fence leads you down to an observation area. Here, when the weather is clear, you will have an excellent view of Mt. Hood. The paved path ends at an over-look just above where the Metolius River suddenly pops out of the ground. Constantly, this spring gushes 55,000 gallons of water per minute at a steady temperature of 48 degrees. This is the headwaters of the scenic, 29-mile-long Metolius River as it rushes down to join Lake Billy Chinook. Before the dams were built along the Columbia and Deschutes rivers, thousands of migrating salmon returned here to their birth waters after spending several years maturing in the Pacific Ocean.
In the later 1800s, loggers used the Metolius and Deschutes rivers to float logs down to a sawmill near the present-day Pelton Reregulating Dam.
From the mid-1860s to the turn of the century, an Indigenous peoples' trail over to Central Oregon, from the Albany area was used to cross the Cascades. Over time, it was improved to a horse and cattle-drive trail, to a semblance of a road that wagons, with difficulty, could manage. This road is roughly the route the McKenzie Highway follows today. The pass was closed much of the year due to snow, mud, flooding and landslides. It became a state highway in 1917 but still remained a sometimes rough drive, with many curves.
The South Santiam Pass opened in 1939 as Highway 20. Being 500-feet lower in elevation and built to modern standards, it quickly became the pass of choice. With the lumber industry slowing due to state and federal logging regulations, and with easier access into Central Oregon, tourism and outdoor recreation became the bread and butter of the Camp Sherman/Sisters areas and remains so today.
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