BEND, Ore. — My hiking friends and I needed an escape.
After a week of being stuck inside recently due to hazardous air quality from the wildfires, I’m certain many Oregonians required fresh air and a trip to the mountains.
That fresh, healthy air finally arrived, and we took full advantage. A hike in the high country of the Central Oregon Cascades would not only allow us to fully enjoy the clean air and blue skies, but also serve as a bittersweet reminder of what we still have in these mountains.
The devastating wildfires just west of the Cascades last month took homes and lives, and they also ravaged some of the state’s most beloved destinations for outdoor enthusiasts. Affected areas include Detroit Lake State Park, Jefferson Park on the north edge of Mount Jefferson, Opal Creek Wilderness just east of Salem and areas of the McKenzie River Valley.
Most of these locations are less than a two-hour drive from Bend without the road closures.
Closer to home, it was time to be thankful for our treasured spots. A trip to Broken Top and No Name Lake was just the ticket.
The small lake sits nestled below the craggy spires and strata of 9,177-foot Broken Top on the peak’s east side.
From Todd Lake (23 miles southwest of Bend), a 6-mile drive along bumpy, rocky, sketchy Forest Road 370 and Forest Road 380 is required to reach the Broken Top Trailhead. (For a longer hike, start from Todd Lake, or ride a mountain bike along the roads to the trailhead and stash the bikes there before hiking.) A high-clearance, four-wheel- or all-wheel-drive vehicle is necessary, as the U.S. Forest Service does not maintain the road for passenger cars. The gate at the road at Todd Lake is closed once snow accumulates; it was closed on Nov. 18 last year.
Bend’s Dave Hawkins deftly maneuvered his 20-year-old GMC Yukon along the rough road to get four of us hikers to the trailhead on a recent Sunday.
The trail started out through the trees but quickly rose above the tree line. At the first junction, we made a right turn to continue along Little Crater Creek toward the lake, as a left turn there leads to Green Lakes.
The scenery in mid-September was somewhat different since last I had hiked the trail in July 2018. This time of year (late September), the wildflowers that blaze the area with colors in midsummer are long gone, as are the vast snowfields that remain well into summer.
But the dramatic alpine scenery in the area is a constant. We were treated to views of Broken Top ahead of us and Mount Bachelor behind us as we trekked uphill.
Once we crested a steep, rocky ridge, we arrived at the banks of sparkling green No Name Lake at 8,105 feet in elevation, sitting at the base of an almost entirely snow-free Broken Top.
Once at the lake, we continued along a trail that led to the right and skirted the east shore.
At the north end of the lake, the trail continued up a steep slope to the top of a ridge. We topped the ridge in about 10 minutes and were treated to dramatic views of South, Middle and North Sister and more jagged slopes of Broken Top. A crevasse-laden glacier was directly below us.
Looking out from atop the ridge, we noticed puffs of smoke from the fires that continued to burn to the northwest. A thick, long, gray haze covered the far horizon to the north, but we could still see Mount Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack and Mount Washington.
After eating our sack lunches and soaking in the alpine beauty, we made our way back down for the relatively fast descent back to the trailhead.
The 6-mile hike included about 1,200 feet of elevation gain and took about four hours.
We saw very few other hikers, and at one point, we had the ridgetop all to ourselves. But the trail is more crowded during summer months. Also, we got quite an early start and actually encountered several other vehicles on the drive back down Road 370 as they were making their way up.
Broken Top Trailhead is one of several popular trailheads in the Forest Service’s Central Cascades Wilderness Limited Entry Permit system, which is scheduled to launch in May 2021 and is designed to further protect wilderness that has become overcrowded. (It was originally scheduled to begin this year but was delayed due to COVID-19.)
Over the past five years, visits to the Three Sisters Wilderness have increased by 200%, according to the Forest Service, and Broken Top Trailhead is one of the most frequently used trailheads. Within the Three Sisters Wilderness, which has 36 trails, 55% of use occurs on five popular trails, according to Jean Nelson-Dean, Deschutes National Forest public affairs officer.
All overnight visitors to the Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington and Three Sisters Wilderness will be required to have a Central Cascades Wilderness Permit, according to the Deschutes and Willamette National Forest websites. Day-only visitors will be required to have a permit for certain trailheads, including Broken Top, Tam McArthur Rim, Todd Lake, Green Lakes/Soda Creek and Devil’s Lake/South Sister, among more in the Three Sisters Wilderness and others in the Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington wilderness areas.
Permits ($1 per person for day use and $6 per person for overnight) will be required starting May 28, 2021. The last day of the permit season will be in late September 2021. Permits will be available through recreation.gov starting in spring 2021 on a date to be determined.
The remaining permit availability will become available seven days before a trip would start, according to the Forest Service.
So next year will be different for Central Oregon hikers in many ways. They will need to plan ahead for certain trails. They will need to be flexible.
And they should still have many opportunities to explore some of the most wild and beautiful areas of the region.