MCKENZIE PASS, Ore. — My 11-year-old son has a goal of climbing Oregon’s South Sister mountain with me, either later this summer or next.
While we hike together fairly often, we have never approached anything as challenging as the 10,358-foot peak. I have reached the summit twice, but I figured Mason needed a warm-up before we seriously considered an attempt at the South Sister summit.
Black Crater, located about 12 miles west of Sisters along state Highway 242, is not nearly as long and difficult as the South Sister climb. But it would prepare us for some of the steep ups and downs of such a trek.
The Black Crater Trail is about 8 miles round trip and rises from 4,900 feet to 7,250 feet in elevation along lava-rock-riddled McKenzie Pass. The trail was closed for much of last summer in the aftermath of the 2017 Milli Fire, which burned more than 24,000 acres in the Three Sisters Wilderness southwest of Sisters. The trail reopened in late August, but the hike today is a stark contrast to what it was like before the fire.
The trail and trailhead were burned extensively during the fire, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Forest Service crews worked with nonprofit partners, including the Sisters Trail Alliance and Sawyers with Attitude, to remove dead, downed and hazardous trees on and near the trail.
Last Sunday I made the 45-minute drive to the trailhead with Mason. I had hiked Black Crater several years before, and even just from the trailhead the aftermath of the fire was startling.
Before the fire, the trail started out climbing through a thick forest of hemlock trees up the north side of Black Crater. Now all those trees are charred and blackened throughout the first 2 to 3 miles of the trail. What used to be a shady trail through the green forest is now mostly exposed to the sun, dusty and desolate.
But nature always finds a way to blend its beauty into the landscape, and purple and yellow wildflowers lined much of the trail.
The steepness of the ascent was unrelenting — and Mason set a hard pace — but the trail eventually flattened out into a series of switchbacks up the side of the peak. We took in views of Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson and Three Fingered Jack above the black and gray lava flows.
The fire did not reach some of the higher slopes of Black Crater, so we actually found some shade among the surviving trees as we neared the summit. A couple of snow patches lingered among the trees.
As we finally neared the summit, the rugged north face of North Sister appeared to the south just a few miles away, with South Sister right behind it.
Upon discovering the view, Mason looked back at me and smiled. The inspiring mountain vista was a nice reward for a challenging climb.
Once we were completely above the tree line, the terrain transitioned to a wide-open pumice slope, with views to the north and east as far as we could see.
Red and yellow wildflowers dotted the sides of the trail just below the summit. The route snaked through the black pumice as it wound its way to the rocky outcrop at the top.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, Black Crater is a shield volcano, formed almost entirely from fluid lava flows. The Sisters Country Trail Guide notes that the peak is located nearly in the center of the high Cascades volcanic chain, which extends from Lassen Peak in Northern California to Mount Baker in northern Washington.
Near the summit we ate the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches we had packed for lunch, all the while taking in the dramatic sights: the rugged green slopes to the west, the high desert to the east.
We decided to walk/run the descent, because some of the sections were so steep it was almost easier to run.
We trekked back down through the aftermath of the fire, trying to finish the hike before the heat of the afternoon was upon us.
By the time we made it back to the trailhead, we had hiked the 8 miles in about 31/2 hours.
Mason was hardly winded. I think he is ready for South Sister — but I’m not sure about his dad.
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