Clad in emerald robes and capped with ermine stoles, Oregon's Central Cascades rise to greet horse and rider. Like many natural regions, this area feeds one's soul with its incredible beauty and offers tantalizing visions of trail-riding adventures into a vast expanse of wilderness. The Cascades have an additional attraction - numerous horse camps!
With eager help from our equine partners, 11-year-old Scout and 9-year-old Buddy, both Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, we decided to check out this area, including the Three Sisters Wilderness (in the Willamette National Forest), Todd Creek Horse Camp (in the Deschutes National Forest), and the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.
The Three Sisters Wilderness
The Three Sisters Wilderness is the crown jewel of the Central Cascades, with more than 242,000 acres and approximately 260 miles of trails. To get there, travel west from Bend, Oregon, on the spectacular Cascade Highway (State Highway 46).
This wilderness is generally accessible from July to October or early November, when the snow starts to fly. Snowfall may accumulate to depths of 20 feet at higher elevations; you might encounter snow on trails even during the first week of August.
In summer, this region generally receives mild, sunny weather. The sunshine, lack of grizzly bears, geological formations, and well-marked trails draw thousands of outdoor enthusiasts every year.
Todd Creek Horse Camp
Our first camp was Todd Creek Horse Camp and Trailhead, located 23 miles west of Bend, on the Cascade Highway. Even in August, there was a chill in the air at this 6,200-foot elevation camp.
Horse camp facilities were more than adequate. Metal pipe corrals were well maintained, and there was a water pump. Dead wood was easy to gather for an evening fire. And at this elevation, cozying close to a crackling blaze was the place to be.
We really hit the jackpot on camp neighbors! It just happened that we were camped next to nine amazing women who were members of the Back Country Horsemen of Oregon.
These women do wilderness pack trips and packing clinics, build and maintain trails, and are impressive representatives of Back Country Horsemen. Ranging from age 40 to late 60s, these gals were just as comfortable in the wilderness as some women are in their backyards. It was our joy and privilege to share their campfire and listen to their stories.
Our first ride from Todd Horse Camp into the Three Sisters Wilderness was an easy, scenic ridge ride. We headed north out of camp across the highway to Todd Lake. Just before the lake, we turned right at the trail junction by the outhouse. This gentle trail is Upper Todd Trail #34. It works its way up a ridge and past Todd Lake.
After several miles, we went right on Trail #11 and found ourselves gazing in awe at Broken Top Mountain, elevation 9,175 feet. Wearing a ragged white mantel, Broken Top was trying to pierce the cloudless, blue canopy with his jagged edges.
By turning a bit, we could also see Mount Bachelor in his regal repose. In the distance, surrounded by green meadows, was Sparks Lake, a glistening blue sapphire. After taking time to enjoy the scenery, we rode back, returning the way we came.
This ride can be a 13-mile loop. Continue on Trail #11, then east on Trail #10 to Broken Top Trailhead. At this point, follow Forest Roads 380 and 370 back to Todd Lake.
Green Lakes was our next trail destination. We trailered from the Todd Creek Horse Camp, roughly three miles west, to the Green Lakes trailhead.
Beautiful! A feast for the senses!
We'll long remember this ride because of the "over the top," splendid scenery. We rode through a dense forest trail alongside Fall Creek. The trail was wide and shaded by protective arms of stately pines. Foaming waterfalls roared as they flung themselves over rocky precipices into the crystal-clear Fall Creek.
The trail gradually climbs from 5,450 to 6,500 feet and loops around the Green Lakes, snuggled between South Sister Mountain and Broken Top.
Ancient lava flows abound in the Three Sisters Wilderness. We rode past a monstrous lava flow that had come from South Sister Mountain, a 10,358-foot dormant volcano. One can only imagine the fiery inferno and explosions, indelible reminders of geologic history.
After about four miles, we reached the Green Lakes. And yes, the Green Lakes are green! Evergreens framing the lakes probably deserve some credit for that.
At Upper Green Lake, we rested and had a picnic lunch. Our kudos to the many visitors who hike and ride this region; there was very little litter!
While eating lunch, we watched a group of women packers heading into the Three Sisters Wilderness. We counted six riders with brightly colored cowboy hats and scarves leading four well-packed horses. Judging by the peals of laughter left in their wake, these gals were on one grand adventure and having the time of their lives.
A third beautiful ride in this region is the Wickiup Plains ride. The trailhead is located about five miles west of Todd Creek Horse Camp. At the beginning of this trail, you have to decide whether to ride your horse through a large tunnel that goes under the road or ride across the road, then continue on down the trail.
With some trepidation, we cautiously rode through the tunnel. We didn't know how our horses would react if a car drove over the tunnel while we were riding through it. Breathing a sigh of relief, we made it through and didn't find out!
Gradually, the trail climbs and winds past stunning vistas of faraway South Sister Mountain. Then it meanders across Wickiup Plain. This plain is covered with short tufts of vegetation, like wispy clumps of hair clinging to a man's bald dome. Because this area is on an ancient ash flow at the base of Rock Mesa and LeConte Crater, the soil is thin and doesn't retain moisture.
We took a side trail to the left and visited Sisters Mirror Lake. Scout and I went to the water's edge to admire the abundance of rose heather growing on the lake bank.
Continuing through Wickiup Plain, the riding was easy - the kind of riding that allows one to gawk at long lava walls and daydream about prehistoric volcanic activity.
Finally, at the north end of Wickiup Plain, we reached the edge of a shadowy, old-growth forest. After locating our perfect picnic spot, we hobbled Scout and Buddy, and settled back to enjoy ham sandwiches.
While eating lunch, we had the good fortune to observe a father and his young son hiking. They stopped to watch the horses eat, the dad casually putting his arm around his son. A few minutes later, they continued on their journey; big pack, little pack, and young boy holding his father's hand. Being outdoors with family and loved ones is a healthy way to bond; these memories last a lifetime and are lifejackets in times of crisis.
The Pacific Crest Trail
In the western United States, the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT) stretches from Mexico to Canada. It runs along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains, wandering mostly through national forest and protected wilderness.
This trail has lured adventurous hikers and trail riders since the early 1970s. Trail elevation varies from a low of 140 feet at Cascade Locks, Oregon, to 13,153 feet at the summit of Forester Pass.
One stunning and geologically interesting portion of the PCT is accessed from McKenzie Pass. From Sisters, Oregon, go west on State Highway 242. On this portion of the PCT, good horse camps are Sisters Cow Camp and Whispering Pine Horse Camp.
If you're pulling a long trailer, check with the United States Forest Service before heading out on 242. We weren't able to go this way because of highway construction. Instead, we drove to the Scott Pass trailhead.
From Sisters, go west on 242 about 5? miles, then turn south on Forest Service Road 1018. Go approximately seven miles. Keep an eye out for Whispering Pine Horse Camp on your left. Turn right on Forest Road 1026. Scott Pass trailhead is about a mile ahead.
This is not a picturesque trail up to the PCT! Riding through 3.5 miles of blister-beetle-decimated forest was depressing and dusty.
When we reached the top of the pass, we left the destroyed trees behind and emerged onto the PCT. Go right about 100 feet, and you can water your horses at South Matthieu Lake.
We headed south to Opie Dildock Pass, 4.2 miles down the trail. Much of our trail was composed of crushed lava. Plant life here is sparse and drought-resistant. Even in summer, slabs of snow lay scattered about like broken pottery shards.
Yapoah Crater, an imposing 6,737 feet above sea level, towered above us. Amazing views of North Sister Mountain (10,094 feet) and Middle Sister Mountain (10,053 feet) greeted us as we worked our way around the gigantic black-brown crater.
Minnie Scott Springs is a refreshing stop before heading up to Opie Dildock Pass. Scout and Buddy enjoyed the cool water, while Kent and I relaxed nearby in the shade of old pine trees.
It's a gradual climb up to the pass. After the trail makes a sharp switchback, you can see a frozen river of lava, called the Jerry Lava Flow, which is almost a mile wide. From the top of the pass, you can see much of this motionless river, which extends for miles down the valley.
"Fire and ice," Kent murmured as he gazed at the lava anaconda sleeping in the hot sun, patches of snow tucked by its side. Finally, we filled our memory banks, took more photos, and headed back.
Ridin' into Town
We got lucky in the rustic town of Sisters, Oregon. A festival was in progress. Showtime for Buddy! He'd been chomping at the bit to wear his sheriff outfit: a cowboy hat, scarf, and sheriff badge.
Buddy and Kent happily worked their way around the park, checking out vendors. Kent introduced Buddy to one cheerful vendor as the new "town sheriff." Much to Kent's surprise, the vendor shuffled through papers and showed Buddy his vendor's license. Buddy then gave the vendor an enormous "smile." A good time was had by all!
Riding by Bronco Billy's Restaurant, Buddy was on a roll, looking in the windows and "smiling" at customers as he slowly plodded by. After one silver-haired man sputtered his coffee, we decided Buddy had had enough fun. But keep your eyes open; Buddy might be smiling at you someday.