A week and a half ago, my friend Jesse Fortier asked if I wanted to go skate with him at the new Sisters Skatepark. Instead, I talked him into heading south to Newberry National Volcanic Monument to join me for a quick hike up Paulina Peak.
It’s one of those hikes that, in terms of scenery, quickly pays dividends, like Black Butte or Tumalo Mountain, with vistas that rival any to be had in the area.
Perhaps the best thing about this hike — besides the vistas — is that, theoretically, one could drive there from Bend, do the hike and drive home in the span of about three, maybe three-and-a-half hours.
We did the hike on the Saturday before the Pole Creek Fire started, so I effectively talked Fortier out of his last chance to skate in Sisters, at least smoke-free, until the fire is doused. Sorry about that.
When Fortier showed up at my house, I noticed the dearth of gear he had with him, which was easy to do given that he had literally nothing with him other than his clothing, cellphone, hat and shoes. I went back in the house and filled a water bottle for him, because there may be a lot of water in nearby East and Paulina lakes, there’s not a drop to drink when you’re hiking to the peak of the shield-shaped composite volcano’s highest point.
I’m not judging. If anything, it was odd for me to be the one who’s better prepared. I often take outings with Map Guy, whose very nickname conjures images of zealous, Scoutlike preparedness. Whatever I neglect to bring, Map Guy has along two. Now it was me who was well-prepared, at least if an extra water bottle and a couple of granola bars count.
Soon enough, we were zooming south on U.S. Highway 97 toward La Pine. During the drive, Fortier mentioned that he doesn’t get down to Central Oregon’s southern offerings often enough, and that it had been years since he’d been down to the Newberry Volcano area. Something about its rugged beauty and mystique — not to mention its dozen trails, ranging from half a mile to the 21-mile Crater Rim Trail — draws me here at least once per season.
We drove up Forest Road 21 to the welcome station, but it had already been shuttered for the winter, so we drove on in. However, a Northwest Forest Pass or $5 day-use fee is still required through Sept. 30, according to Elizabeth Wasserman, deputy manager of Newberry National Volcanic Monument.
To get to the trailhead, turn right on Paulina Peak Road and proceed about a quarter mile to a small parking area on the right side of the road, before the road curves and begins its long ascent up to the peak.
We learned from Wasserman that the trail we took is a portion of the Crater Rim Trail, which, like the name says, circles the crater’s rim. Here, unfortunately, it’s unsigned at the trailhead. But after you cautiously cross the road, you’ll see to the right where the trail begins to diverge from the road and head uphill.
Wasserman suggested that those looking to add a little more distance to their hike park near the visitor center and proceed up the trail from there, adding a mile each way, “and it’s an easy mile," she said.
After the usual delay spent deciding what gear to take and what to leave behind (a really quick process for Fortier), we set off up the hill.
At first, the oxygen debt at the start made me think it might be a silent hike — I even flashed back to my one and only hike up South Sister 10 years earlier. However, once we grew accustomed to the trail and the pace, panting ceased and talking ensued.
The first 1.7 miles are spent on the Crater Rim Trail, and the views get dramatically better, naturally, the higher you get. At first, it’s a bit of Paulina Lake’s inviting blue waters peaking through limbs. A few minutes later, you’ll see more of Paulina Lake, and then a portion of neighboring East Lake.
The last third of a mile of the trail is, technically speaking, the Paulina Peak Trail, a spur that takes you to the same viewpoint as those who’ve driven up. All told, it’s about two miles each way, though, and you’re going to be getting a workout, because it’s a fairly steep two miles to the peak, 7,984 feet above sea level and about 4,000 feet above Bend, according to “Volcanic Vistas," Newberry National Volcanic Monument’s visitor’s guide.
On clear days, views of Mount Shasta to the south and Mount Hood and Mount Adams to the north are not uncommon. It was partly cloudy with a bit of haze during our visit, but we could clearly make out all the local peaks; Mount Hood was more of a shadow barely discerned from the gray-blue haze in the distance. But perhaps even more hypnotic are the views right in front of you in the 17-square-mile caldera: namely, the lakes and Big Obsidian Lava Flow, which were created about 1,300 years ago. The oldest lavas, according to the visitor’s guide, date back about 400,000 years.
Some may find hiking up the trail a waste of time given the perfectly fine road to the same spot, but they’re wrong. This is one of those cases in which both the journey and the destination are worthwhile. And it’s all the more rewarding when you — with your quads, calves and lungs burning from effort — stride past tourists lumbering out of their gas guzzlers.
Then again, I spend a large portion of my week sitting at a desk, in an office where the only view I’m afforded is of a monitor and the top inch or so of other people’s heads. Contrast that with the wild, inviting environs of Newberry, and you’ll see why someone might want to prefer to spend as much time out of their vehicle as possible.
It took us just under an hour to hike up, including a few stops for the views and photos. After the faster hike back down, we pulled into the also inviting Paulina Lake Resort to rejuvenate ourselves with lunch and beers.
A note on current fire danger: Even though the Pole Creek Fire southwest of Sisters hadn’t yet started when we visited, you didn’t have to be Smokey the Bear to realize how tinder-dry conditions are.
On our way up, we hiked by a woman who was smoking on a portion of trail a few hundred yards below the peak. According to the Deschutes National Forest’s Public Use Restrictions, in effect since Sept. 1, smoking is prohibited except “within an enclosed vehicle or building, a designated campground, or while stopped in an area at least three feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material."
I didn’t have a measuring tape on me, but I hope she was erring on the safe side.