Once a year my cousin Sarah and I go on an outdoor adventure. Hiking is always the central theme to the trip, but often becomes secondary to some wild experience that wasn’t planned. We’ve hiked Big Sur, Mt. San Jacinto, Yosemite, Sugarloaf Mountain, Big Bear and a few others.
First, I must admit, I’m not the outdoorsy type. I’m a city girl through and through. That being said, I love an adventure, I love photography, I’m enthralled by the beauty of the places we go, I love to push my body to its limits and I’m an exercise nut. Those things should be enough to get me past my desire for a warm, cozy bed and a refreshing shower every morning, right? Kind of.
This year we chose Crater Lake, Oregon. The lake itself is actually an inactive volcano, filled with water, surrounding a secondary volcano that sprung up right in the middle, dubbed Wizard Island. When I saw the pictures online, I knew this was a must see/hike kinda place!
We left the house at dawn and drove 12 hours, taking turns every 3 hours or so. Shortly before hitting our destination, we rolled through a town called “Weed”. I actually saw a little gift shop along the road pimping t-shirts with “I heart Weed” emblazoned across the front. After a quick stop for gas in Weed (there should be a funny joke in there somewhere), we arrived in Klamath Falls, Oregon at a nice and cozy… hotel! Yep, we decided to “pamper” ourselves this trip and stay in a hotel each night. Hey, I’d say hiking countless miles a day warrants a little R&R to prep for the next day’s trek. I’d also suddenly partly thrown my back out a week earlier and was just finally starting to feel I could stand upright again, so it was a good excuse for a soft bed.
After a quick dinner and a short viewing of a mud-run style competition on the tube (gotta get hyped up!), I was lights out, already moaning about rising at 5AM the next morning.
Our first day brought us to the top of Crater Lake, on the East side, where it was finally time to get a few preparatory stretches in, strap on the backpack and start the adventure. A simple, downhill, mile long trail leads down to the lake, and I think my jaw was on the ground for most of that trail. The water was JUST SO BLUE!!! I’ve never seen anything like it. Water usually has some tint of blue of varying degrees, but once you see the water in Crater Lake, you’ll think every other water source you see will look colorless. Our plan was to hike down, then take a boat across to Wizard Island where we would be dropped off and left to our own devices for 3 hours. When we hit the bottom of the trail, we’re told we’d need to wait for 2 ½ hours, as they were having a bit of trouble with the boat’s engine. Oh no! What are we going to do for that long, sitting in the 88 degree blazing sun shining off the water? Perfect time for lunch: a chocolate Power Bar and an Apple Crisp granola bar. Filled with renewed energy, we begin to take in the beauty of where we are. Looking down towards the water, you can see impossibly small hot pink flowers, clinging to the edge of the cliff, just above the water’s edge. Look east and there is nothing but a huge rocky mountain, covered in lava rock and sprigs of wildflowers. Across the water, each mountain top sprung up from the water’s edge in unimaginable formations, while melting snow trailed down each crevice, doing nature’s job of re-filling the lake. It was all so BLUEtiful!
While perched on a rock at the top of a small cliff, we watch a few other hikers wander down to the water’s edge, while a few brave souls dip their toes in for a refreshing break. Suddenly a man climbs up the rock next to me, strips off his shirt, shoes and socks and Geronimos right over the edge into the cold blue. What!?!? Is he ok? Is it safe? Out he pops, with a loud “Woo-Hoo” and a shit-eating grin on his face. Hmmm… this guy might be on to something! We did just say we had a bit of time to kill. But that water was so cold! 49 degrees, to be exact. I’m always cold. My preferred temperature is always “as warm as possible, please!” Could I deal with such cold and not shiver my way through the rest of the day’s endeavors? Well I didn’t need to worry about it, because I had nothing to wear for swimming. (Note to self – a bikini doesn’t take up much room in a backpack – travel with one from now on!) I couldn’t very well strip down to my skivvies in front of random strangers. My cousin Sarah, however, had on quick dry hiking pants and had a spare t-shirt in her pack, so as the mischievous look grew on her face, I knew at least one of us was going in the drink post-haste.
Sarah climbed out on a mid-level cliff, steadied herself, told me who to call, should she not make it back to the surface, then took the plunge. Apparently the “Woo-Hoos” are contagious, as that was the first thing out of her mouth when she popped out of the water. OK, now I’m just jealous! Maybe I could fashion a “bikini” bottom out of my big floppy sun hat! And I did have a couple of garbage bags tucked away in my pack. (You’d be surprised how handy they come in on a hike… ever needed to glissade down a snowy mountain on a garbage bag configured as a sled?) As I’m fretting that I’m going to miss out on all the fun, Mr. Original Woo-Hoo pipes up and says, “You can borrow my son’s spare swim trunks if you want”. How cool is that!? (As a side note, the kindness and comradery of fellow hikers always amazes me. Maybe nature has a way of calming humans and bringing out their best.) If his 10-year-old son can go for a dip below and brave the frigid water, then I want in too! Sarah stands guard while I strip down to sports bra and kid’s trunks then make my way to the cliff’s edge. Wow. I know it’s only 20 feet, but from up here it seems more like 100.
Adventure is what we came for, and this is most definitely it! I’m ready! Sarah’s ready with the camera. 3,2,1 GO! SPLASH! WOO HOO!!! Incredible! Though the cold takes my breath away, I’m stunned at just how CRISP and clean and clear the water feels. It’s like swimming in a lake filled with Evian straight from the mountain spring of melting snow. And minus the Evian brand name, that’s exactly what it is. I glance across the water as I make my way back to the edge and feel the contagious shit-eating grin spreading across my face. I’m COLD, but so refreshed and invigorated! The moment I climb across a few shallow rocks and out of the lake, the sun immediately says hello and wraps itself around me like a warm blanket. I make my way back up the cliff, making sure to avoid stepping on the beautiful wildflowers, to where Sarah stands, with an “oops” look on her face. Uh oh! “I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t get your jump on video. Do you want to do it again so I can catch it this time?” You don’t have to ask me twice! Off I go again! She follows me shortly after for one last woo-hoo.
Shortly we’re dry from the sun and it’s time to board the boat for Wizard Island. The 30-minute ride over is beautiful and warm enough for me to peel off my outer layers. We arrive at no more than a skinny dock that ends at nothing but rocky shore, with a couple of small out buildings 40 yards to the right. Our boat pilot tells us he’ll be back to pick us up in 3 hours, and if anything happens, there’s a first aid kit and a ham radio in one of the out buildings. Uh oh. Should I be scared? Secretly I was a little nervous they would forget they left us there and we’d be forced to hunt for some sort of island dinner, while fending off old spirits from the inactive volcano we were now abandoned on. There are a mix of 37 hikers and amateur fishermen in the bunch of us from the boat, and the island is 316 acres. Maybe it’ll turn in to our own little version of Survivor.
Let’s go see an extinct volcano! Off we go, watching each precarious step as we hike up 1 ½ miles of 30-degree angle mountainside, covered in lava rock. The first thing that caught my attention was the day-glo green moss that covered every tree trunk and branch. It was quite enchanting, hanging in soft wisps over every surface of the trees on the north side. Touching it feels like running your fingers over dry and stringy peat moss. How surprising, as I was expecting soft and velvety.
Once we reached the first turn in a small switchback, we lost our breath. No WAY!! I had a panoramic view of the most incredible blue portrait I had ever seen. The blue! The clarity! The beauty! I had to stop for a moment to take it all in. No matter where you turned, you saw mountains with snowy hillsides, a beautiful sky and the bluest lake you can imagine. Lakes are usually only blue like this in drawings. And I could actually see to the bottom in parts. Wow!
We make our way to the 6,940’ summit, wary of every unsteady rock, not wanting to be the fools that had to visit the first aid building. The 1-mile circumference of the crater gives you a 360-degree view of a secret world that usually only birds see. It’s the perfect place to sit down to relax and take it all in. It’s city quiet, but full of the sounds of nature, from the breeze in the trees to the scuttle of lizards at your feet. It’s the perfect time to break out the real camera and capture some of this beauty on film. I like to think I’m an amateur photographer, but I’m too lazy to study the camera skills of a real photographer, so really I’m just a hack.
As I’m munching my 2nd power bar of the day, I hear hootin’ and hollerin’ across the volcano. I look down to see 3 of the college aged guys from the boat sliding full speed ahead on their t-shirt covered bellies down into the 90-foot deep volcano’s center. They got their Woo-Hoo moment too! It must have been great, because they climbed back up for round 2, then 3. Crazy kids!
The clock is ticking so we head back down, feeling a brand new set of muscles kick in that will most surely be sore tomorrow. We take a side trail near the bottom to check out Fumarole Bay and happen across a group of young geologists, hacking away at the lava rock with pick axes. They’re doing research on a particular spore in the rocks. I’d wondered who that lone rowboat anchored on the other side of the island belonged to. The only boats running in the lake are the 2 operated by the National Park Service. Fun side note – the boats get lowered into the lake by helicopter and the fuel is hand pumped to a container near the edge of the lake from the top of the mountain.
We get back to the pick-up point and sit on the dock, swinging our naked feet in the water, pulling them out every few seconds because it’s just so dang cold! I swam in this?? But man it felt good to get my hiking boots off and my rear on the ground for a bit.
As we ride back in the boat, my cousin and I have a blast reminiscing about being kids, we re-count stories from our grandparents and thoroughly enjoy the wind blowing in our hair, the sun shining down on…. Oh no!!! I forgot sunscreen! That’s gonna leave a mark. I try to squeeze into a shape my floppy hat can shade. Here’s hoping!
We hit the shoreline and look up the trail, realizing that this is the hardest part of the day and we’re pooped! After a bit of grumbling between us about how this sucks (a favorite pastime of ours as we trudge up some mountain or other… it’s a rite of passage!), I tell her I’m just gonna go for it and “get ‘er done”, as some are wont to say. Meet you at the top! I start at a steady clip, feeling pretty proud of my gait, when a group of 4 guys go jogging by me. Yes, jogging. Ok, maybe I’m not as tough as I thought. Or maybe they just happen to be track stars out for some exercise. Yeah, we’ll go with that. The further I go, the heavier I breathe, but damnit, I’m not quitting! I pass a few people, I get passed by a few people (walking, not jogging, at least); meanwhile my muscles are starting to complain. Not quietly. ¾ of the way to the top, as I’m huffing and puffing but haven’t slowed my pace, I spy the joggers, standing still, bent over catching their breath. Ha! I’m gonna beat them! Oh wait, it doesn’t really count since they jogged that far.
Looks like we’ve maaaade it! (I can’t help but get that song in my head every time I finish a hike). Time to head to the car and go find some dinner that doesn’t consist of anything granola. Once we’ve filled our bellies, we hit the hay (or should I say comfortable hotel bed pillow) for a much-needed sleep. We’ve got another one of these tomorrow!
I awake refreshed, albeit sunburned, and grab a banana and some milk for our car ride to our next jaunt. This time we head to Varney Creek Trail, which is 45-minutes South of Crater Lake, in the middle of nowhere. Like literally nowhere. Here I go being a nervous Nellie again, but, um, should we be out here all by ourselves? It’s like a 6 to 8-hour hike, deep into the wilderness. But if something were to happen, Sarah is who I’d want by my side. She’s like the queen of all things hiking and safety related. She can tell you how you’re supposed to react per type of bear (my biggest fear when hiking), she’s made a sextant to get us back on trail and she’s the one I’d want nearby if a scary forest dwelling person came around. She’s well trained. But that doesn’t make the inherent nerves of being all alone in a forest disappear. Hiking with 37 fellow hikers yesterday was much more comforting!
We start up the trail, seeing what looks like dog poop a short way in. Hmmm. There was a single car parked a bit over from ours when we came in on the long dirt road. It had a funny bumper sticker about dogs on it. Maybe that’s his owner’s. I’m thankful it wasn’t bear poop though. Last time I saw bear poop on my path, extremely fresh bear poop, mind you, I almost turned around and ran home. I. Am. Scared. Of. Bears. Sarah tells me I need to just see one already, and I’ll realize it’s not that bad and not something to constantly fear. She’s seen a handful herself. Ha! Ms. Experienced Bear Girl can go on being alone with that stat. Note to self – watch for more dog poop… and don’t step in it!
Hike, hike, hike. Grumble, grumble. Swat at mosquitos that are biting through your dual layers AND bug spray. Hike, hike, hike. Grumble, grumble. It helps to deal with the aching legs and bug bites if you can ratten schmatten (remember Yosemite Sam?) a bit. We definitely have a love/hate relationship with hiking. But the cool thing about that is, it will always end on a love relationship and that love always brings me back.
Suddenly the forest opens up to a beautiful little meadow with soft flowing green grasses, delicate purple, yellow and white flowers and butterflies mingling with dragonflies everywhere I turn. It’s the perfect depiction of what you see in your head when you picture a meadow. I even narrowly miss stepping on something that has just bounced by me, realizing it’s a little tree frog, as I squat down to see why the leaf on the ground keeps moving around. He’s so cute!
Hey! There’s the mystery dog! Looking cute as can be with a camo set of saddlebags slung over his back, trotting down the trail toward us. His owner is right behind him, in matching camo, telling his dog not to bother us. Phew! Nice peeps, him and his dog. Glad it really wasn’t a bear that just pooped like a dog.
A few hours in. Hike, hike, hike. Grumble, grumble. This is a tough one. Long, tedious and bland. I’ve been spoiled by Crater Lake. And my knees are starting to hurt. Are we there yet? Then suddenly 2 younger guys with hoodies up over the head and full pack gear come running toward us. ?? Bear? Fire? Just random scary dudes?
We finally reach Lake Cumo, which was originally a way point, but with my aching knees, I beg off and tell Sarah I’ll wait here for her and she can continue on up to Lake Henrietta, another 1 ½ miles in. She says, “Are you kidding? I’m happy for the excuse to head back!” Oh thank God, because I really, really didn’t want her to say ok. What if the scary dudes come back? How am I going to kill all these mosquitos if you take the bug spray? What if you get hurt and I don’t know, then you don’t come back? And you know… bears.
We come to a clearing and out pops a lake. We notice a torn down tent and small fire circle that was recently used. Maybe the scary dudes were actually just normal camping dudes that wanted to go for a run. In full hoodies. Hmmm.
We find a comfy fallen log and make ourselves at home for – you guessed it – a granola bar lunch. Lake Cumo is beautiful in its own right. It’s the color of pale pistachios, and you can even see fish cruising the bottom through the clear water. And the highlight of the hike was the bald eagle flying from perch to perch in the tree tops, eyeing the fish below. We got a great look at him as he sailed by on his way out. Incredible! I’ve never seen a bald eagle in the wild.
It’s now time to head back. Secretly I’m stoked inside. We break out that other set of muscles again and aim downhill. I now remember why I use those hiking poles. They really do help on the down-slope. I started noticing that I would get an escort from a little white and powder blue shimmering butterfly, the size of a quarter, for 10 yards or so, then he’d zig zag off to his meadow for whatever it is butterflies do. After a minute or so, another guide would flutter up and join me for a minute or so. Did I have a bunch of guardian angels? Do they know my knees hurt and I’m currently Ms. Poopy Pants? If nothing else, it put a smile on my face and made me enjoy the nature around me instead of focusing on other things. OK, this is pretty cool.
Are we there yet? Each meadow passed, each remembered fallen log pile or outcropping of rocks is a milestone and a relief. Only problem is, I don’t really recall which order they were all in on the way up. Wait, did we hit the meadow with predominately orange flowers before or after we had to duck under that fallen tree? But when we reached the (confirmed) dog poop in the path, I knew we’d hit pay dirt! We were almost back, baby!
First things first when we hit the car – boots off! Yay! We had a cooler of ice in the back, so I threw some in a bag and iced my knees. Ahhhh. A/C cranked, we threw some tunes on, hit the road and decided on what was next. How about some lava tube cave crawling? OK cool – I’m in! (Yeah, I’m afraid of bears, but lava tube caves don’t ruffle my feathers? Go figure.)
Lava Beds National Monument is located in Tulelake, California, about an hour and a half outside of Crater Lake. Just enough time to relax, chill, ice the knees and prep for more adventure. And do some Googling to see what these Lava Caves we’re heading to are all about. Gotta love technology!
We arrive at the National Park and find ourselves driving through small winding roads amidst large lava rock. We spy a small sign sticking out of the ground and pull over. It says “Catacombs” with an arrow pointing down. Hmmm… are we heading to our death? I put on my down vest, because I read it was substantially cooler in the caves, and climb down a short metal ladder into the mouth of the cave. I also read that many of the caves had bats, and if we came across any, leave the caves quickly. I don’t see any bats, but the walls and ceiling are covered in guano. I can stand up straight, but as we continue in, I have to begin hunching. We don’t know what to expect, and mostly thought we’d glance in and then decide on a plan. But it’s so amazing, we keep wandering deeper while ensuring we can still see light at our backs. When the first fork in the road appears, we choose right, agreeing always to stick right, as a way of laying “bread crumbs”. God forbid our lights die and we’re stuck in here in the pitch black. Which it now is, since we took a turn. The Catacombs extend for over a mile in length, with hundreds of offshoots and different “paths” and turns. Some of those paths are large and you can stand up straight. Some you have to hunch or scoot along on your haunches. (Bring a hard hat and knee pads if you ever go… wish I woulda known that. Ouch.) And some you have to army crawl on your belly and elbows. We heard there was a book to sign at the very end of the cave, if you actually made it that far. We do another 3 or 4 offshoot paths, but finally reach a point we aren’t comfortable exploring further. We’re too many turns in and it’s the 2nd belly crawl. It’s completely silent. It’s still. With your eyes wide open, you can’t see a thing, not even your hand directly in front of your face. It’s one of the most chilling feelings I’ve had. It’s somewhat majestic, in its magnitude. And alarming, knowing that if you lost your light and your way, it would be pure panic. Time to turn around. We have a bit of fun for a minute, trying to walk with our eyes closed while trailing our hand along the side, as if the lights had gone out. Scary!
We made it out safe and relieved! We hop in the car to head to the next cave and it’s an open air cave… The tubes didn’t fully form, so it makes a beautiful picture with the sun shining down on the tall, bright green grass and hieroglyphic style “dripping” rock on the walls of the cave. Much of the rock also has guano on it, but some kind of orange, yellow and white markings as well. Quite interesting looking! The open air caves reminded me of the caves on Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland.
After a couple more caves, we’re ready for dinner, which will be an early birthday dinner for Sarah, at China Garden. Then an early bedtime, because we’re rising at 4am to hit the road.
On the road again! Lucky for me Sarah likes driving. I do too, but after 3 hours, I get sore and need a break. But Sarah can drive forever and not really care. She starts the first leg, while I map out our route to Chico, California. My younger brother lives 30 minutes away from there so we’re going to meet him for lunch. I’m so excited!! I haven’t seen him in 2 or 3 years, and I’ve never met his youngest son.
Driving down the highway, I spy fruit stands ahead. Stop the car! I love fresh fruit and anything home-grown. I come across a red onion that could compete with a soccer ball in size, and I have to get it. My husband Vince and I love to cook, so this will be a fun “souvenir”. I pick up some fresh nectarines, peaches and cherries, picked minutes earlier. I also met a squash I didn’t know. Paddy Pan squash look like silly little yellow or white UFOs, and turns out, they are delicious!
We have a lovely lunch with my brother, catching up and “meeting” my youngest nephew for the first time. Wow, I still can’t believe my “little” brother is a proud papa of two! It wasn’t long enough, but we must hit the road again, since we’ve got 7 more hours of driving. The drive home is great – mostly because Sarah drives for ¾ of it. She keeps offering, so I keep accepting!
It was an amazing trip. A great adventure. I’m already thinking of ideas for the next one. Mt. Whitney, Zion and Tahoe are top on my list. But I’m ready for home. Ready for my hubby, my furry baby and my own bed.
The craziest part is… Sarah went on a road trip to Yosemite with her sister the following morning. Told you she likes driving!