It seemed appropriate to end this year's mountain trail running season in my most sacred Central Oregon spot: Broken Top.
The picturesque bowl of this volcano, where glaciers generate frigid clear streams, is not only an image of artistic perfection, it's the stage for many of my finest memories. And, for as rugged and remote as it feels, Broken Top has easy accessibility.
If you have a sturdy, high-clearance vehicle, you can drive ridiculously close to a viewpoint — the Broken Top Trailhead leads quickly into the heart of the crater.
If you have sturdy, high-endurance legs, you can run or hike through this setting via a couple of different starting points.
Over the years, I've approached it in many ways. I have trudged to the top of one of the craggy peaks (a nontechnical hike) and looked down the other side. I have walked a short distance from the Broken Top Trailhead to watch the sunset, a loaf of fresh bread and a bottle of good red wine in hand. With my dad, I killed a summer afternoon meandering around the streams that were exploding with so many wildflowers it was downright psychedelic.
Most notably, in August 2003, my husband proposed as we sat on a rock, drinking hot coffee, watching the sunrise flow down the flanks of the mountain, after an impromptu (or so I had thought) van-camping sleep-out at the end of Forest Road 378 (which is the trailhead for the Crater Ditch Trail).
Recently, I visited the Broken Top area with two friends with whom I've done a respectable number of mountain trail runs this year.
To avoid any car shuttling, we parked at Todd Lake's lot and ran up the dirt road from there. Forest Road 370 leads to Forest Road 378, which takes you to the Crater Ditch Trail (see “If you go").
The Crater Ditch Trail, which is not even labeled on many official trail maps, is a little-used, narrow trail, perched on the edge of an irrigation canal, shadowed by big hemlock and fir trees. Managed by the Tumalo Irrigation District, the canal was built in the early 1900s as a ditch rider trail for monitoring and maintaining the irrigation canal, according to Tumalo Irrigation District Assistant Manager Ken Rieck. The ditch diverts water from the two glaciers on Broken Top and transfers it into the middle fork of Tumalo Creek. The water is again diverted from below Shevlin Park and used to irrigate agricultural lands north of Bend and east of the Deschutes River.
Rieck said the public is free to use the trail, but hikers all too often vandalize the channeling equipment. People play with the boards, move them and change the flow patterns, he said. Irrigation district employees have to carry new equipment to the site, a cost to the district and a problem for irrigators who may suddenly lose some water.
The irrigation system is really only used about 60 days of the year, the hottest days of the summer, Rieck said. When we followed the ditch on our late-season run a couple of weekends ago, it ran dry.
Within a short time, the ditch trail leads out of the trees and unveils a view of Broken Top, which is so close you feel like you can touch it. The trail crosses through barren, dry, alpine openings that offer views of other Cascade Mountain peaks. It then connects to the Broken Top and Todd Lake trails, which led us back to our car.
In the high country, we encountered a few hunters, which is why fellow runner Lisa Husaby decorated her dog, Nell, with a bright orange handkerchief. Only one group of hunters made a snarky comment implying we were somehow insane to be running on this wilderness trail. Ironically, I think Husaby and fellow runner Leslie Cogswell would agree with me that our most sound-of-mind moments, and our clearest, calmest and most rational thinking happen exactly in places like this, when the rhythmic tapping of our feet on the dirt falls into sync with the beat of our hearts, the blood pumping through our bodies, the oxygen powering through our lungs.
The Todd Lake Trail descends into the trees and ends at Todd Lake. Suddenly we were surrounded by families and hikers carrying their lunches. These people had absolutely no intention of going as far as we had come. The RunKeeper app on my iPhone said it was a nine-mile loop, which we did in about two hours, including lots of breaks for pictures, small stream crossings, and layer shedding as the morning warmed up.
You don't have to run nine miles to reach my sacred spot.
A person equipped with the appropriate vehicle can drive to the Crater Ditch trailhead and do a short hike in from there. Or, drive farther along Forest Road 370 to the Broken Top Trailhead for another, shorter out-and-back hike that offers the same spectacular views.
If you've never been to these spots, go quickly. Winter could close the curtains on this scenic stage any day, at least for dry-land excursions. We discussed cross-country skiing out here come snowfall. Insane? Or exceptional?