It’s Always Sunny In Central Oregon

It’s Always Sunny In Central Oregon
Crater Lake and Wizard Island, What's Left of Mount Mazama

While the Oregon Coast was brilliant, there were the drawbacks of rain, cold, and cost of living. After leaving Newport Marina, we made a sharp right turn and started traveling east. For the foreseeable future, we’ll be traveling east until we hit the Atlantic Coast. The task for now though was to explore Central Oregon.

We drove through heavily forested river valleys until we hit the high desert around the town of Sisters, where we’d spend the next four nights. Sisters is a tiny town of fewer than 3000 people, just 30 miles Northwest of Bend. Sisters is surrounded by snowy volcanic peaks and Ponderosa Pine forests. Black Butte, of Deschutes’ Brewery ‘Black Butte Porter’ fame, is located just outside of town. After more than a month of rain and cold, central Oregon was a welcome change. The weather was, for the most part, hot and dry.

Camping off Forest Road 100 in Sisters Oregon

We rolled in hoping to stay on the Eastern edge of town on BLM land, but our timing wasn’t the greatest. The rodeo was about to begin, and the rodeo grounds were just a stone’s throw from the BLM campsites. The Sisters Rodeo is the town’s second biggest event of the year, right behind the worlds largest outdoor quilt show. We made a quick pass and didn’t see any sites open so we headed back to town where Campendium showed more dispersed camping sites along Forest Road 100.

Forest Road 100 is a paved road just barely outside of town, right behind the Best Western Inn. Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Maps indicate that dispersed camping isn’t allowed but we saw some other campers and decided to set up shop. More campers arrived later in the week and forest rangers drove through on a regular basis, so it seemed kosher to camp there. The spot itself was very nice, spacious, and walking distance to town. The main drawback was the proliferation of broken glass. We picked up as much as we could find.

Small Town Vibes in Sisters Oregon

Due to its location in the middle of the National Forest, Sisters has some great mountain biking. I hadn’t ridden for a while, and the Pacific coast did a number on my now rusty bike chain. Some lubrication and elbow grease resolved the issue, and I hit the trails. Jackie enjoyed the quaint downtown, hit up the thrift store, and relaxed at one of the many coffee shops. The boys dug the two local playgrounds, some of the nicest we’d seen yet.

While staying in Sisters we took a day trip down to Bend. We’d originally planned to spend some time camping in Bend, but the options were limited by budget. The drive wasn’t too bad and we didn’t really need to spend more than a day in Bend. Bend is a wealthy, hippy-dippy, resort town. Think Boulder on Quaaludes, with no University. The Deschutes River flows through town, and provides some nice recreation opportunities. The Deschutes also acts as a traffic bottleneck since crossing points are limited. Bend has grown tremendously in recent years and the roads seem to be designed for a by-gone era. Driving was a bit frustrating, but hey we had no place to be.

Bend Oregon from the top of Pilot Butte

We took the boys to two playgrounds in Bend, each one right next to the river. Both were very nice. We took a walk on the bike path and watched river surfers at the whitewater park. Vacation rentals lined the river. Bend would have been more enjoyable if we weren’t on a budget with its trendy restaurants and hip breweries, including Deschutes. We drove to the top of Pilot Butte, which provides 360-degree views of the surrounding volcanic peaks. Views can stretch as far as Mt. Adams in Washington State to the north on a clear day. Unfortunately, it was partly cloudy the day we visited. Finally, we stopped at Whole Foods to grab our brand spanking new RV water pump from Amazon Locker, more on that later.

Our next campsite after leaving Sisters was in the caldera of an active volcano. Yeah, it’s currently dormant, but still. Newberry Crater is about 4 miles by 5 miles and encompasses two lakes, Paulina Lake and East Lake. The two lakes were at one time a single lake which was then separated by subsequent volcanic activity. The whole caldera used to be a large mountain that blew its top at some point. We stayed at the Little Crater Campground on the east side of Lake Paulina.

Paulina Peak from the shores of Paulina Lake in Newberry Crater Oregon

Paulina Lake, named for Paiute Chief Paulina, is an idyllic volcanic lake surrounded by pine forests and snow-capped peaks. Our site was right across from the boat launch, and judging by the traffic it’s a hot fishing spot as well. Waterfront sites were available, but we decided against for safety reasons. Our site was huge and allowed the boys some room to roam. It was also populated by a particularly aggressive population of hungry ground squirrels, including one that bravely ventured inside the RV on a food raid. I screamed like a girl which sufficiently scared him away, empty-handed.

Our first full day at Newberry Crater was spent exploring the areas around the crater itself. First stop was Paulina Falls. Paulina Falls sits on Paulina Creek, the only outlet for either of the crater’s lakes. The falls were just a short hike from the trail-head and were picturesque. When the white man discovered Newberry Crater there were no fish in either lake, only crayfish. Scientists suspect the crayfish must have climbed the 80 feet up Paulina Falls to gain a foothold in the lakes, a testament to the adaptability of those tasty mudbugs.

Scenic Paulina Falls

That afternoon we made the short drive over to the Big Obsidian Flow. Created by the volcano’s most recent eruption around 1300 years ago, the feature is appropriately named. While I expected an actual flow, the BOF is pretty much a big pile of jagged obsidian, mixed with smaller amounts of pumice and other volcanic rock. The trail was a nice loop, and in mid-June still had quite a lot of snow. From the top of the loop, we had great views of Lake Paulina below, and snow-capped Paulina Peak above.

So Much Obsidian!

After hiking we toured the rest of the crater, including East Lake, via automobile. After returning to the campsite, I took a quick run on the Paulina Lake Trail. I crossed another obsidian flow and eventually made it to the hot springs on the opposite side of the lake. The hot springs are a remnant of past volcanic activity and visitors are allowed to dig their own private pools out of the pumice gravel beach. I scoped it out but did not partake. If it weren’t for the 5-mile round trip hike, we probably would have come back with the boys and made a day of it.

The next day we traveled down to Crater Lake National Park, a very long day trip made longer by the fact that the north entrance to the park was still snowed in. It was an almost three-hour drive one way, made worse by the long entrance line to get in. At this point in the season (early June), exactly zero hiking trails were open, so the only real reason to be there was to see the lake. We stopped at the visitors center. Since there wasn’t much else to do, we viewed the informational movie which we normally skip at other National Park visitors centers. It was quite informative and narrated by that Ken Burns narrator guy.

Iconic Crater Lake

After the movie, we stamped our passports and then drove up to the lake overlook. It was spectacular. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in America and is also the world record holder for clarity. The overlook was still covered in deep snow, reaching all the way to the bottom of the steeply sloped gift shop roof. The boys loved it, and of course, we all threw snowballs at each other. Of all the National Parks we’ve visited so far, Crater Lake ranks in the top few for sure, maybe number one in terms of views.

On our way out of the park, we got flagged down by a guy on a motorcycle. Apparently, some people had gotten stuck in a snow bank on an unplowed side road. Lucky for them we were driving the Jeep and had all the necessary equipment for extraction. Ever since buying the Jeep I’d been hankering for an opportunity to pull someone out of the snow, and here was my chance. The hardest part was removing the bike rack so I could access the recovery gear in the back. It only took about 20 minutes from start to finish and everyone was back on the road safely.

Sunset over Paulina Lake

I had grand plans for our last full day at Newberry Crater that included quickly replacing our fresh water pump, then spending the rest of the day mountain biking. As mentioned previously, we were dealing with a failing water pump without which we’d not have fresh water supplied to our faucets. The day didn’t quite work out as planned, and the water pump replacement was not as easy as expected. Removing the old pump was a challenge, and mounting the new pump proved just as challenging. The main issue was the cramped quarters where the pump resides. I gotter done in the end but was in no mood for mountain biking afterward. I settled for a couple cold ones instead.

The next day we headed further into eastern Oregon on the way to Idaho, but before leaving the area we stopped at Lava Butte on the northwest edge of Newberry Crater. Lava Butte is what it sounds like, a small butte consisting of lava rock. Technically it’s a cinder cone. There’s a permit system that allows visitors to park at the top in half-hour time slots. Luckily we snagged one, drove to the top, and took in the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. This time the sky was clear enough to see all the way to Mt. Adams. We hiked around the rim of the cone finishing with only moments to spare in our allotted half hour.

Top of Lava Butte just south of Bend Oregon
Watchtower on Lava Butte from the loop trail

Our next destination was just a one nighter at Chickahominy Reservoir, a brief stopover on our way to Boise. It wasn’t much to speak of, just a small reservoir in the middle of hilly scrubland, but at $8 per night, the price was right. The next morning we embarked for Idaho and waved goodbye to Oregon. Central Oregon was beautiful and provided a nice contrast to the wet coastal weather. I was surprised how remote and mountainous it was, definitely a place I’d like to visit again.

Basic but nice campsite at Chickahominy Reservoir in Eastern Oregon

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