It was sweet, sneaking in one last hike in Southern Oregon’s Cascades before the snow flew.
The snow was slow in coming this year, with the long-awaited first serious dump finally falling on Tuesday. But just a few days before that happened, there was time to enjoy a snow-free hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.
It was chilly, with the morning low dipping into the teens, during our hike along the PCT from the Summit Parking Area off Highway 140. Our southbound trek route paralleled the western side of Brown Mountain, the 7,311-foot lava-strewn shield volcano. It was cool, but that crisp, chilly weather also came with clear skies, which meant frequent and luscious views of Mount McLoughlin, then lighted flecked with only patches of snow.
But even more unexpected were pockets along the trail where the sun doesn’t shine. In those sections we walked on trail impacted by frost heave, defined as “an upwards swelling of soil during freezing conditions caused by an increasing presence of ice as it grows towards the surface, upwards from the depth in the soil where freezing temperatures have penetrated into the soil.” Translated, that resulted in areas along the trail where our feet sunk and inch or deeper into the spongy mix of dirt and ice.
The hard frost also produced even more frigidly appealing sights — dazzling ice formations on rocks and trees. The formations came in googolplex varieties — sometimes appearing like zillions of columns of prickly pointed ice crystals, sometimes like longer feathery frozen nodules. Lightly iced-over boulder fields looked like they had been spray painted white while some rocks looked like they were wearing mittens. Other times the ice gave an eerie texture to rocks sprouting green, gray and black lichens. But even more chillingly appealing were packets of fragile, hand-sized, stalagmite-like frozen together ice cubes.
In lightly iced sections, the contrast between the lava rock’s rough ‘n’ tumble and the layer of crushed red cinders used to help create a walkable trail was heightened. It’s said the section of the PCT along Brown Mountain was the most expensive to build. And, hiking the trail, it’s easy to accept that claim. Extensive sections of the PCT along Brown Mountain were carved and dynamited through extensive mounds of black lava and that contrast is heightened with dustings of snow. In areas free of snow, looking back where the trail curls along the mountain slope it’s hard to distinguish the path of the trail.
We hiked a bit over three miles, passing the point where the PCT stops crossing the lava flows and begins transitioning into a Douglas fir forest. Continuing south, it’s about 5-3/4 miles to the Brown Mountain trail intersection, nearly 7-1/2 miles to the Brown Mountain Shelter and about 9-1.2-miles to the Dead Indian Memorial Highway trailhead. After a lazy lunch, our group headed back.
The next time we visit the Brown Mountain section of the PCT here’s hoping it will be on cross country skis.