Brian's Photo Blog — Article 17
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Sand Mountain Photo Outing
Friday 12 August 2011   —   Category: Outings
I had mentioned in a previous post that a location we hiked at was inspired by the hiking guidebook Hiking Oregon’s History by the famed Oregon author William L. Sullivan. Well, Bill inspired us again, this time to the region of Sand Mountain, high up in Oregon’s Cascades.

U.S. Route 20 — the longest road in the United States — passes through Albany, crosses over the Cascades at Santiam Pass, and continues into eastern Oregon. We headed up this highway for about 75 miles — which takes nearly 90 minutes — passing through Lebanon and Sweet Home, and then up into the Cascades. About three-quarters of a mile before the junction of Oregon Route 22 and U.S. Route 20 (and the Santiam Junction State Airport), we turned right onto the National Forest Development Road 2676, just opposite the Little Nash Crater. We drove south on this dirt road, past Nash Crater, for nearly two-and-a-half miles before parking where the historic Santiam Wagon Road crosses the road we were on.

From the parking place, we hiked east along the old wagon road. One of the first things we encountered were some unusual-looking flowers which were actually lying down on the ground. Very strange! As soon as we got back home, I searched in books and on the Web, but was unable to find out what kind of plant it was. I finally contacted the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University in nearby Corvallis — special thanks to Dr. Richard Halse for graciously replying to my e-mail and identifying this plant for us. We were very happy to learn that this plant is called Mount Hood pussypaws.

Once we stopped pussyfooting around with the pussypaws, we continued east for a total of about 1.8 miles until we came to the dirt road that branches off to Sand Mountain. So far, we had gained about 550 feet in elevation. Then we climbed an additional 1.9 miles, and 774 feet in elevation, up National Forest Development Road 810 to the fire lookout tower at the summit of Sand Mountain. On the way up, we came to a patch of snow, where we refreshed ourselves for a moment. But the refreshment didn’t last long — by the time we reached the lookout tower, we were hot, tired, thirsty and hungry! After walking nearly four miles, and gaining over 1,300 feet in elevation, it shouldn’t be too hard to understand why!

The scene from up there is pretty amazing, with clear views of quite a number of Oregon’s foremost peaks, including Mount Jefferson (the second-highest peak in Oregon), the oddly-named Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, the glorious Three Sisters (the third, fourth and fifth highest mountains in the state), Black Crater, and Broken Top. Whew!! But even more astonishing than the view was the human element we encountered in that lost place!

The photo to the left shows the very kind and hospitable fire-lookout staffer that we met on the top of Sand Mountain. To our shame, I have to admit that we didn’t even have the courtesy to ask him his name. (But then again, he didn’t ask us our names either.) He overheard my wife Catherine and my daughter talking in French, and then he started talking to Catherine in French! He told us that he had been studying French off and on for 20 years, ever since he had listened to, and memorized, the French lyrics to many Edith Piaf songs!

Catherine and our host conversed for quite a while in French — he had an excellent accent, and a large vocabulary. He thoughtfully invited us up to the balcony around the lookout tower so we could take some photos from the slightly higher elevation. Before we continued on our way, he even serenaded us by singing a number of Edith Piaf songs to us from his balcony, including the famous La vie en rose! Right here in the middle of nowhere, we stumbled upon an avid lover of the French language and culture — incroyable! This isolated and lonely staffer gave us the gift of an enjoyable and memorable first visit to Sand Mountain!

After the eating and chatting and singing and picture taking, we hiked south-west around the rims of the 450-yard-diameter caldera, created after Sand Mountain errupted thousands of years ago. During that volcanic activity, lava flowed about three miles downhill to the west (as can be seen on this Google map), which resulted in the covering of the headwaters of the McKenzie River, and the creation of Clear Lake. (If you haven’t seen them already, don’t miss the 33 gorgeous shots in the Clear Lake 2008 photo album.)

Here’s a photo my daughter captured of me capturing one of the other pictures on the walk around the caldera. Between the photographic equipment, food and water in the camera backpack, and the camera and lens in the camera holster on the side, I was carrying around 25 pounds of extra weight on this eight-mile hike. As a soon-to-be 50-year-old, I'd sure like to see one of my teenage kids do that! After completing the loop around the caldera, we headed back down the mountain towards the car.

Another 1.9 miles, and we were once again at the junction with the old wagon road. When I had originally planned this hike, I had (naïvely!) imagined that we would walk all the way to Big Lake, with just a “quick detour” up to the top of Sand Mountain. Gosh! What was I thinking?! (Or more accurately, NOT thinking!) From the junction where we now were, it was a further three miles to Big Lake, then nearly five miles back to the car, in addition to the nearly six miles we had already walked!!! Fourteen miles total?!?! One thing’s for sure: the Byrd Family isn’t THAT good! Seems like I had better do better research when planning future trips!

The 1.8 more miles back to the car were kinda miserable. We were already pretty tired after our six miles, and to make things worse, it was hot and we were getting low on water. We also discovered why this place is named Sand Mountain. The dirt is made from fine volcanic ash, and little clouds of it were floating around us as we shuffled through. I started thinking about the pioneers who had traveled in their wagons over this very “road,” and all the hardships they had faced coming from the eastern United States — just to get to this point. And they still had a ways to go, over very rough terrain, to get to the Willamette Valley! Even though we were hot and thirsty, we had less than two miles to get back to our air-conditioned car!

Finally, we did make it back to the car, and were very happy to guzzle down the ice-cold water and sodas we had left in the ice chest. I was very grateful that I live in my day and not theirs! I’m definitely NOT pioneer material! Once we had returned to Albany, that was the end of our adventure to Sand Mountain! Be sure to check out the 41 best photos of the trip in the Sand Mountain 2011 photo album.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 17
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