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Hiking Around Newberry National Volcanic Monument

April 1, 2003
Filed under Camping Destinations, West Camping

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As the sun melted into the western horizon its burning intensity degraded into a warm, pink glow and calming blue. The crisp evening air brought on the first shudder — more in contrast to the day’s heat than its own cool breath. A fantastical landscape of volcanic peaks and pillars, cinder cones and buttes, lava flows and lakes spread out before us. This land of lava was created by the eruption of Newberry Volcano nearly 6000 years ago.

The drive to the top of Paulina Peak, the highest point on Newberry’s crater rim, had measured up to our expectations. It was even worth the white-knuckle rounding of each skyward bend, where we offered up prayers that no one else had chosen that particular moment to descend the peak. Although our tendency was to linger, we knew we had to begin our descent before blackness settled in. A starry night and our warm camp waited.

Newberry National Volcanic Monument

We were at Newberry National Volcanic Monument. This outstanding playground in central Oregon stretches from high in Newberry Crater to the Deschutes River corridor and welcomes discovery by foot, horse, mountain bike, car and boat. The monument spreads across some 87 square miles and joins together pine forests, lava plains, caves, cinder cones, obsidian flows, a waterfall and twin caldera lakes, which rival famous Crater Lake to the south in azure-clarity and origin.

The attractions are all easily accessed along and just off U.S. 97, between the towns of Bend (a year-round recreation center) and smaller La Pine. Monument visitors can select their own pace and level of physical exertion and adventure. The region boasts a network of more than a 100 miles of trail, including a long-distance route encircling the crater rim and several short, all-ability nature walks. Drive-to vistas are also in good supply.

Campers will find lake, forest and creek side sites, with convenient full-service campgrounds just outside the park. Lounging in the shadow of a pine within earshot of the lake’s lapping has its own appeal. Add a cool drink and good book and you just might take root.

For many, Newberry National Volcanic Monument (managed by the U.S. Forest Service)
remains unknown. It was back in 1990 that this unsung treasure quietly crossed the threshold from local attraction to one of national standing. Prior to receiving this federal protection, nature provided its safeguard — a rugged armor of crusted lava. Monument visitors find a wild, mostly natural beauty, but one where the recreation potential has been coaxed to near perfection.

Despite its relative present-day anonymity, this area was not unknown to the earliest peoples. Archaeological excavations have documented a nearly continuous Native American presence here, dating back 10,000 years. As the eruptions of Mount Mazama (which created Crater Lake) and Newberry Volcano altered the landscape, the area’s inhabitants adapted to their changing home. With obsidian for tools and trade, trout-filled lakes and streams and game in the forest, this land of fiery origin had much to offer then, and now.

CENTER OF ACTIVITY

Whatever one’s style of exploring, the Lava Lands Visitor Center, just off U.S. 97 and 11 miles south of Bend, is a good starting point. The center is open daily (late April through early October) and presents programs introducing the geological significance of the region. Its immediate area offers first-hand discovery with lava flow nature trails, the Lava Butte summit and a three-quarter-mile trail to an overlook of Benham Falls on the Deschutes Wild and Scenic River.

Lava Butte is one of more than 400 cinder cones on the flank of Newberry Volcano. At its top (elevation 5020 feet) sits a lookout along with a quarter-mile rim trail. Panoramic views encompass forest and flow and the Cascade volcanoes: Mount Bachelor, Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington and Three Fingered Jack. The rough red and black cinders demand sturdy-soled shoes.

An eruption 6000 years ago spewed out the cinders that fell to the earth creating this 500-foot-high symmetrical butte. As the fiery event continued, the force then breached Lava Butte, releasing molten rock over a 9-square-mile area, damming and altering the Deschutes River course.

Benham Falls cuts through a lava dome deposited by that eruption. Over the centuries, the many lava dams and channels contributing to the “river of chutes” have eroded. This calming has resulted in passable conditions for whitewater rafting, while retaining the high-splashing fun. Local outfitters and resorts offer tours.

Just south of Lava Lands is Lava River Cave, one of the longest lava tubes in the Northwest, and it invites a self-guided tour. Brochures are available at the site, along with lantern rentals in summer months. Off-season visitors should carry the minimal three light sources recommended for any cave investigation. Explorers can venture nearly a mile into the tube, traveling a surface of rippled, crusted lava, sometimes stooping to avoid a low ceiling. Passing through the tube, one feels like Pinocchio in the whale.

Tubes form when the outer layers of molten lava cool and harden, while the interior flow rushes hot, leaving behind an empty shell. Cave features include arched ceilings, the shadow-and-light play from the feeble flashlight beam, echoes and modest ornamentation: hardened motion, lavacicles and pulloffs. The temperature is a constant 42-degrees Fahrenheit.

First-time travelers should be forewarned that the complete darkness impairs perspective and that lava is unforgiving. A hat will help you keep your scalp intact.

Southeast of the visitor center, another attraction bids notice — Lava Cast Forest. It is a natural record of the standing forest at the time of the Newberry Volcano eruption. A 1-mile, all-ability loop meanders across the flow that originated from a side vent in the main crater. As the molten mass oozed over the landscape, it engulfed the living trees in its path. When the rock cooled, it hardened around the trees, which eventually decomposed to leave a perfect impression of their shapes and often their bark. Hundreds of these tree casts riddle a 5-square-mile crusted field, and the trail visits more than a dozen. Bring drinking water since none is available there.

In addition to providing access to the area’s volcanic features, U.S. 97 also serves as the jumping off point for Deschutes River accesses, including La Pine State Park. This state park has hookups, tent sites, yurts and log cabins. The Deschutes, along with being popular for rafting, it is a challenging, blue-ribbon trout-fishing river. From the park’s McGregor Viewpoint, guests overlook a sleepy set of horseshoe bends that appeal to the more laid-back floater and fly fishers in chest-high waders.

TWIN HEARTS

Newberry Crater (reached east off U.S. 97, just north of La Pine), with its multitude of
offerings, suggests you pitch a camp and settle in. Eight forest campgrounds beside a lake-shore, along Paulina Creek or at the quiet foot of the crater overlooking a prairie, offer something for most everyone. Critters inhabit tree branch and forest floor, as well as lakeshore and desert sky. The regal pass of a bald eagle or osprey contrasts with the outraged hiss of a Canada goose herding you from its domain.

Cupped in the caldera, Paulina and East lakes invite boating and fishing. Small, rustic resorts located at each offer boat rentals, food service, lodging and a place to swap fishing tales. First planted with trout in 1910, the lakes now boast prized catches of Kokanee, rainbow, German brown and brook trout. Paulina, the larger and deeper of the two lakes, is 2 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. While fishing season officially opens in late May, lingering snows may push that back.

Although there are sites to fish from shore, the most serious angling is done by boat. The often-selected enticement is the deep-sinking Ford Fender. It is the Liberace of the tackle box, a 4- to 5-foot-long leader of silver and red doodads sure to capture the attention of deep-swimming fish.

When I pressed the proprietor of Paulina Mercantile to give up the secret on which lake held the best fishing, he swore they were truly almost identical in catch, species, size and technique. After a judicious pause though, he added, “Not that you could convince the locals of that. They hold fierce loyalties, about equally divided, for one lake over the other.”

At the other end of the fish spectrum are the chubs. While not desirous for the dinner plate, the many chubs, easily caught from shore or dock, can keep children entertained for hours. Ospreys sometimes go for this easy catch, too.

A popular 7-mile loop trail rings the cobalt-blue waters of Paulina Lake, which reflects the crater rim. It travels grassy shore and gravel beach, pine forest, semi-open cinder slopes and the base of an obsidian flow (a ridge of shiny black, glass-sharp rock). Craggy Paulina Peak overlooks the setting. In a couple of places along the shore, tiny hot springs take form. Partway around the lake, hikers can indulge in buying a cold drink at the resort store.

Downstream from Paulina Lake, trails lead to Paulina Falls, an 80-foot divided falls housed in a canyon of reddish-brown volcanic cliffs. The 9-mile Peter Skene Ogden Trail pursues the north shore downstream to Ogden Group Camp, bypassing some quiet corners and picturesque cascades and falls. The route is shared with horses and uphill-traveling mountain bikes (an alternate route allows the downhill return). Because dust is a common problem on these trails, be sure to carry plenty of water.

At either Lava Lands or the crater visitor center, you can learn which trails are open to horse and mountain bike travel. If there wasn’t room for the bike racks, you’re still in luck. Area outfitters rent bikes and lead tours.

The Obsidian Flow Trail introduces a more extensive flow of the shiny black rock seen along the Paulina Lakeshore Loop. This flow is a geologic youngster formed a mere 1300 years ago. The sharp-edged, volcanic glass catches the eye of the collector, but rock collecting is prohibited. Boots or thick-soled shoes should be worn when exploring the trail.

A short drive southeast from the crater lakes will lead you to the Dome Trail, which mounts and traverses the summit plateau of a horseshoe-shaped pumice dome. The airy, light-colored rock and its unique habitat make the Dome Trail a fun day hike.

At the end of the day, you may want to secure your own sunset moment atop Paulina Peak (elevation 7985 feet). Just point your wheels toward the 4-mile-long, narrow and twisting improved summit road (Forest Road 500, not one for the motorhome or trailer). The route delivers one of the best drive-to vistas in all of Oregon. Mounts Hood and
Jefferson, Broken Top, Three Sisters, Newberry Crater and aptly named Fort Rock seen to the south top the lineup of landmark attractions.

BEND AREA OFFERINGS

Although La Pine can fill the basic needs — a trip into Bend is in order for more complicated supplies. It offers a host of outdoor stores and experienced outfitters. Another drive-to vista in town will take you to the top of Pilot Butte. And just over three miles south of Bend is The High Desert Museum (541/382-4754). This acclaimed facility introduces the natural history and culture of the region and is open 9 to 5, except major holidays.

Bend is also the launching pad for excursions along the scenic Cascade Lakes Highway. You’ll find camping, fishing, boating and sightseeing opportunities, or the equally enticing McKenzie Pass/Santiam Pass Scenic Byway, which introduces the volcanic beauty of two wilderness areas and provides access to both the McKenzie and Metolius Wild and Scenic Rivers.

When You Go To Newberry National Volcanic Monument

A Northwest Forest Pass (a day or annual pass) is required for parking at most trailheads and sightseeing stops. These passes are sold at several outdoor outlets, visitor centers and ranger stations. Campground fees do not cover this pass; it is a separate purchase.

For additional information about the monument, camping or how to obtain a Northwest Forest Pass, contact Deschutes National Forest, Bend/Fort Rock Ranger District, 1230 N.E. Third, Bend, OR 97701; 541/383-4000. The Central Oregon Welcome Center (541/382-3221 or 800/905-BEND) can help you plan your Newberry area visit.

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