Travelling America’s Pacific Rim of Fire

Nearing McKenzie Pass, Cascade Mountains, Oregon

After our sojourn in the desert and prairies of eastern Oregon we drove west to the Cascade Mountains. These are part of the ring of volanoes and mountains that make up the ‘Pacific Rim of Fire’.  As usual we skipped the towns and headed to the forest but we had some difficulty finding a decent camping spot, eventually finding one at the fourth campground we tried which was the last on the road that runs alongside the Metolius River near the tourist town of Sisters. The campgrounds were busy and many sites were reserved, obviously in preparation for the upcoming Labour Weekend when literally everybody seems to have their last summer holiday. We started out early the next morning so we could drive the Santiam/Mckenzie Pass loop and still get to a campground before it was too late in the day and we missed out. We squeezed in a fantastic walk through forest (a bit of a novelty on this trip) to waterfalls on the McKenzie River which were tumbling over basalt ledges.

Mckenzie River near Koosah Falls, Oregon.

We should have stopped at the Lava Lands Visitor Centre but we were worried about a campsite so we drove straight on to Newberry National Monument, which is the largest caldera in the Cascades volanic arc. Inside it are two lakes (Paulina and East) which were probably orginally one but were divided by deposits of pumice and lava. The oldest lava flows here are 400,000 years old but the youngest was formed only 1,300 years ago. We get a campsite by driving to the farthest campground (there are four).On the way in we stop at the Visitor Centre and Ranger Terra (who is a real treasure) shows Eddie how to fold the American flag, it must be folded in a particular way so that when it is done 13 stars (representing the first 13 states) are showing. We comment on the fact that we see the American flag everywhere and Terra tells us that most Americans treat the flag like a person (obviously a very well respected person).

Eddie & Ranger Terra folding the U.S. flag, Newberry National Monument.

Next day we walk the Lake Paulina circuit (7.5 miles) and then head on to ‘Big Obsidian Flow’ (which is the bit that appeared 1,300 years ago) where we have a good view of Lake Paulina after we’ve tired of marvelling at the glass-like and amazingly jagged flow. Native Americans travelled here to collect obsidian to make knives and tools and apparently an archaeologist was so impressed with how sharp and smooth obsidian edges were that he had scalpels made and instructed a surgeon to use them on him with exceptional results.

Lake Paulina, Newberry National Monument.

Big Obsidian Flow.

From Newberry we headed towards our next geological feature Crater Lake but first we stopped in La Pine for breakfast at Gordy’s Diner (a truckstop) where Eddie had the best steak of the trip.

Queuing to get into Crater Lake National Park, I think we had to wait 20-30 minutes to get to the head of the line.

After queuing to get into Crater Lake National Park the actual road through the park wasn’t too busy but the crowds at each overlook were pretty big and when we got to Rim Village it was all rather overwhelming. Well, we had to be somewhere for Labour Weekend but this certainly wasn’t the best place. Crater Lake is extraordinarily beautiful (I can see why it is so popular) but the crowds were not. All the accommodation options were full so we high-tailed it out of there. We’ll return someday to do some of the hikes, but not on a holiday weekend!

Crater Lake – the result of a massive eruption 7,700 years ago which left a basin where a peak used to be. Rain and snow filled the basin and the water is exceptionally clear.

As we drove south place after place had no vacancy signs out but we lucked into a cottage near Klamath Lake which had a huge bathroom and (oh joy) an oven – Eddie was missing his roast potatoes. We had lovely views of the mountains across the lake and could hear coyotes singing in the distance although we didn’t see any.

The view from the cottage in evening light – nice

Suitably restored by showers, foot-scrubs, roasted potatoes and sleeping in a decent-sized bed we carried on south through the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which was very dry although when there was water there were thousands of birds, to Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California. You might think that would have had enough lava by now but we were finding it all fascinating and loved the wide vistas that these sparsely vegetated areas gave us. Lava Beds are part of the Medicine Lake Volcano which over a million years has created endless miles of volcanic stuff. The last eruption was 1,100 years ago but it is now considered dormant.

Lava Beds National Monument from Fleener Chimneys

I was especially keen to see Captain Jack’s Stronghold, an area of lava flow where Kientpoos (Captain Jack) and 150 of his Modoc people held off the U.S. Army for five months. The story goes like this (it may sound familiar). Settlers wanted to take up land around Lake Tule and in 1864 the Modoc were asked to give up their homeland and live on a reservation near Klamath Lake. On the reservation tensions between the Modoc and the other tribes sent there and the shortage of supplies promised by the U.S. government led to the Modoc returning to their lands. The Army was ordered to return them to the reservation – by force if necessary – and a skirmish at Lost River resulted. Many Modoc fled to their traditional stronghold by Lake Tule, successfully rebutting the U.S. Army for five months until their water supply was cut off. They left in the dead of night and broke up into small groups but were later captured. Kientpoos and three other warriors were hanged and the rest of the men, women and children were sent to a reservation (at one point chained together in cattle cars) in Oklahoma, half a continent away.

Eddie on the trail through Captain Jack’s Stronghold

I know this now, but the interpretation at the site was coy about the eventual fate of the resistant Modocs. Neither the hangings or the exile were mentioned. This wasn’t the first time that we’d noticed this kind of reticence. Many information panels started with details of the original inhabitants and how they lived but then jumped to the life of the later white settlers without mentioning how the settlers acquired the land or the fate of the native Americans whose home it was. I got cross about this a few times but at this site in particular.

Aside from being the scene of the Modoc’s resistance Lava Beds is also well known for its enormous number and variety of lava tubes. We explored a few, some of whose entrances were adorned by pictographs painted by the previous inhabitants who used the caves for special cultural ceremonies. Some of the caves were very rough, some had ice at the bottom (!) but our favourite was Valentine Cave (found on that day) which was wonderfully smooth.

Just inside the entrance of Valentine Cave, Lava Beds National Monument.

After Lava Beds we headed south along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. The road was an interesting succession of gravel washboard, seal with enormous gouges in it (snow plough?), wide asphalt, single lane but sealed and finally a two lane sealed road of average quality. By looking at the map we could see that the road quality depended on who was responsible for it and presumably how much budget they had left that year.

Our best lunch spot – Lake Helen with Lassen Peak in the background

Our next ring of fire stop was Lassen Volanic National Park which erupted energetically between 1914 and 1921. The park had only recently re-opened after being evacuated due to forest fires and we drove through some of the damage (no stopping allowed). The trail up Lassen Peak was closed for trackwork to make it safer after a boy was killed by a rock-wall collapse in 2009 so we’ll have to do it next time. Instead we hiked into Bumpass Hell, (named after an early guide, Kendall Bumpass, who fell into a pool and burned his leg), an amazing thermal area with the hottest steam vent in the world that’s not actually in an erupting volcano (161 degrees C). There are lots of things named hell or devil in volcanic areas.

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

We’d love to have spent more time at Lassen, there’s lots to explore, but we needed to start making tracks back to San Francisco and our flight home. We spent a couple of very hot days on the gold-fields where I lamented the fact that there is so little to see on the ground and that everything was closed (most things were only open Thursday to Sunday even during the summer). Plumas-Eureka State Park was excellent (hard rock mining but also the birth-place of skiing in North America).

Rock Lake, Eureka State Forest.

We also went to the site of Marshall’s 1849 discovery of gold in a sawmill tail-race which started the whole California gold-rush. Great museum but most of the buildings were closed and the actual discovery site was a little underwhelming.

The site of the first discovery of gold (by Europeans) in California – 1849.

We stayed in a brilliant little cottage to relax and pack (which took a while) and then drove to San Francisco to begin our journey home after a fantastic trip – reflections will be next up.

About Julia Bradshaw

Historian and writer living in Hokitika, New Zealand. Special interests are the goldrushes, the West Coast of New Zealand, crime and the stories of women and Chinese on the goldfields. Also keen on tramping (hiking) and involved in the Mt Brown Hut Community Project.
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