November 20, 2012

Oregon's explosive past seen along the PCT south of McKenzie Pass

From left: Belknap Crater, Mt. Washington, Three Finger Jack and Mt. Jefferson

If a person wants to see evidence of recent volcanic activity, and by “recent” I mean within the past few thousand years, there is no place better than the Central Oregon Cascades. In this area, perhaps the best place to view this activity is along the McKenzie Pass. Here, a string of craters that once spewed immense flows of lava and spit cinder high into the air stretches for miles.

Between Three Fingered Jack and North Sister, an array of cinder cones and vents exists. From these, volcanic debris both oozed and exploded over large areas, destroying large swaths of vegetation. Because forests have not yet had time to grow back, the views of the Cascade Mountains while crossing these grounds are outstanding.

North and Middle Sister from PCT meadow

One trail delivering hikers into this once explosive region is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) heading south from the McKenzie Pass. A stretch of this section of PCT takes hikers over a lava field that flowed only 400 years ago and beyond, to the base of North Sister.

Camped at Lava Camp Lake, Felix (named changed to protect the innocent) and I left our wives at camp and hiked the short trail from the campground to where it intersects with the PCT. From there, we hiked the PCT south, bypassing North Matthieu Lake.
Lava Camp Lake

From South Matthieu Lake, we hiked past Yapoah Crater and on to a point that affords an excellent view of Collier Glacier along North Sister. Collier glacier has retracted up the steep slopes of North sister, having at one time extended all the way down to Collier Cone, leaving lateral moraines behind.

Beyond the viewpoint where Collier Glacier can been seen best, we ended our hike at Collier Cone.
Collier Glacer and summit of Middle Sister

Collier Cone is a huge pile of cinder shaped like a horseshoe. It stands at the north base of North Sister. Approaching the cone, hikers cross lava flows that stretch for westward for miles. These flows were belched from the throat of Collier Cone as recently as 400 years ago. The cone itself dates back roughly 1,500 years and stands at an elevation of 7,534 feet.

Enough lave poured from Collier cone to produce a west lobe 8 miles
Collier Cone

long and a northwest lobe 3 miles long. A lobe is an individual flow of lava. The first flow moved westward down the valley of White Branch Creek and then into the Lost Creek canyon, damming Linton Creek to form Linton Lake.

On the return trip, Felix and I stopped at Minnie Scott Springs and drank some of the clear, fresh and cold water. The spring lies north of Opie Dilldock Pass several feet east of the trail, but when its waters are running high, they may reach the trail. That cold drink was perfect for a hot day that consisted of a hike of around 15 miles.

Cinder cone Collier Cone in Three Sisters Area...
Cinder cone Collier Cone in Three Sisters Area, protected area Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon, USA. Lava flow outgoing from breached cone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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