Of Obsidian, Lava Casts and Waterfalls: Newberry National Volcanic Monument

The lava sparkles. In a sea of black, rocks reflect light like mirrors. It’s eerie enough to walk through a lava field where the ground beneath seems scorched by a cataclysmic firestorm, inhospitable to life, meager vegetation struggling to stay alive.

A pine tree gets a rare foothold

Here in Newberry National Volcanic Monument in Oregon there also happens to be an enormous obsidian flow, one of the very few in the world that can be explored on foot. Obsidian shines because it is glass created by Mother Nature.

Welcome to eastern Oregon, a stark contrast to the greenness west of the Cascade Mountains. The landscape is strewn with volcanoes and volcanic fields thanks to the relentless creep of plate tectonics. When hot lava consists almost entirely of silicon dioxide (SiO2), cools fast enough and free of gas bubbles, obsidian is created. I never thought of pumice in this way, but it is likewise a volcanic glass, also high in SiO2, where explosive events trap gas bubbles before cooling. It isn’t shiny as a consequence. Ancient peoples treasured obsidian for making tools and weapons, particularly arrowheads.

Because of glass shards, there’s a sign on the trail that warns of taking Fido for a nature walk or your traipsing through with flip flops or sandals. The hazard reminds me of a time when I saw three or four young ladies from Japan trying to negotiate the steep, rocky trail to the top of Diamond Head crater—in high heels. I don’t believe they made it very far.

The flow area is about one square mile (2.6 km2). The easy loop trail is 0.6 mile (1 km). At the far end, there’s a good view of the Newberry Caldera, the large shield volcano that dominates the park after which it’s named.

Newberry Caldera

The higher I went, the more black glass I saw, some in spectacular piles, some still in layers.

The most astonishing fact was that the Big Obsidian Flow, which is what this attraction is called, was created only 1,300 years ago. That must’ve scared the living bejesus out of the local peoples who likely fled. Locals today would flock toward it, smart phones in hand.

Casts of Thousands

Halfway into the monument is an attraction called Lava Cast Forest. Imagine old growth trees suddenly inundated by lava flows. Instant incineration, you’d think. Not quite. Turns out that the steam from larger flaming trees caused slow-moving lava around them to cool down and harden. After the trees eventually rotted or burned away, molds were left behind. Vertically oriented hollows look like small man-made wells.

The longest horizontal mold is about 50 ft long. I might’ve found it if I walked far enough on the trail.

The ‘forest’ is at the end of a 9-mile gravel road that takes a bit of patience to drive and that’s guaranteed to cake your car in mucho dust.

Twist of Fate

Another curious sight in the lava fields are pines, some very ancient, whose trunks appear twisted, the biggest ones in tight coils. It’s a remarkable adaptation to a hostile, arid environment, the most efficient way to channel water to the whole tree from a single tap root that extracted scant moisture from the ground while the other roots expended energy just to keep anchor.

Twin Falls

At the edge of Newberry Caldera is Paulina Falls. It’s a little odd to see it in an area as desolate as eastern Oregon, but here it was, not one but two. They spill over from Paulina Lake which replenishes not from rain but hot springs and snowmelt.

The falls are a short hike from the parking lot.

Lava Butte

Oregon seems to have more than its share of volcanoes, all part of the Cascade range, which also includes Mount St. Helens. Mount Hood stands majestically over the horizon in Portland as much as Mount Rainier does in Seattle. On a clear day, you can see several at once if you’re high enough, as we did when we hiked to the top of Smith Rock.

More numerous yet are cinder cones, which look like miniature volcanoes, but are really a conical pile of cinders, like the ones used for landscaping, that were spewed from and settled around a vent. I noticed many as I drove along US 97, a major north-south thoroughfare east of the Cascades.

One of the largest is showcased in the monument. Lava Butte stands at 5,970 ft (1,820 m). My wife and I took a shuttle to the top from where we saw the crater and walked an interpretive trail.

Lava Butte (image from wikipedia)

I was amazed by the size of the lava field surrounding the base.

Where to Refresh

After all this outdoor activity, especially in warmer months, your stomach can work up an appetite and throat get pretty dry. Over the years, I’ve eaten at many places in and around Bend but only a few stood out.

I’ve yet to find any place better for a great dinner than Diego’s Spirited Kitchen, located in Redmond about 15 miles north of Bend, a Mexican restaurant with a menu more interesting than a typical one. Despite that and I’ve had this three times already, Diego’s flat iron steak is hard to beat, topped with an incredible sauce reduction and blue cheese butter. It doesn’t sound very Mexican yet it’s one of their specialties. Forget the side of fries and opt for green rice.

The margaritas are potent, none made from a mix and all customizable from a long list of premium tequilas. Gratis tortilla chips are wonderfully light and crispy served with a very good, zippy salsa.

Voted by Yelpers as one of the top 100 places to eat in 2017 and 2018, Bangers & Brews serves an excellent hot dog with suds to gulp it down with. The sausage, one of a dozen to choose from, is grilled nicely with casings that make each bite snap. The way it works is you order sausage, two toppings and one sauce. There’s enough variety to satisfy everyone. One of their signature sides is Bacon Gorgonzola Fries that is a meal in itself, savory and rich, but even its small portion is more than two people should sensibly eat. Craft beers from several local breweries are available.

Bacon gorgonzola fries

Smoked polish, sauerkraut, relish and whole grain mustard

Hot smoked andouille, caramelized onions, sweet peppers and spicy mustard

Bakeries are always nice places to get freshly made bread and pastries but few have outstanding meals to start the day. The savory morning sandwiches at Sparrow Bakery are the stuff of legend. Its croque monsieur combines slices of brioche, ham and bechamel all topped with Gruyere.

The most popular seller is bacon breakfast sandwich, a messy but delicious creation of poached egg, bacon and arugula aioli in a toasted croissant.

Bend is a popular winter sports destination but it should be part of the summer’s exploration of outstanding geological sites.


A Tuff Climb at Smith Rock (Terrebonne, OR)

It’s hard to miss the strange but spectacular rock formations as you’re driving through Terrebonne on US 97. The last time I visited Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon was in 2011. Even though ill with a slight fever, I managed to get down to the foot of these rocks to admire them as well as the climbers who were scaling the vertical walls. I wanted to come back some day to do one of the hikes to the top.

My wife and I spent a few days in nearby Bend located in a part of the Northwest that’s known for prodigious flows of lava and craft beers. Most of one day was set aside for the long awaited return to Smith Rock twenty-five miles to the north.

The rocks are the result of a volcanic eruption that happened 17 million years ago. The ash from the Newberry volcano spread over much of central Oregon and hardened into tuff over the millenia. The most visually striking features here are the sheer vertical walls and jagged peaks.

The loop Misery Ridge Trail starts at the bridge across the Crooked River. We took it in the opposite direction along part of the River Trail that meets Misery after rounding the southern end of the park. The walk along the river was gorgeous.

River Trail

Along the way, several climbers were scaling the walls. I like to think that I should conquer my fears but not this way.

So far it was an easy trail. Soon Monkey Face came into view. Isn’t it interesting how naming a rock after an animal gives it, well, personality? For obvious reason the formation is the park’s most iconic which from this vantage point looks like a chimp. Monkey Face is near the junction to Misery Ridge Trail that starts the ascent.

Monkey Face (look at the right half)

From its other side, I saw a gorilla.

The views became more fantastic as we made our way to the top. From there we got a sweeping view of several of Oregon’s volcanic cones, including Mount Bachelor, Broken Top and The Three Sisters, thanks to a warm, cloudless sky.

View from the top of Misery Ridge Trail

It wasn’t a particularly hot day but it seemed so as I gasped up the switchbacks bearing backpack, lunch and camera gear with very little shade along the way. It was a tougher climb than it should have been which age did not assuage. Ah, to be lingering over one of Bend’s ice cold brewskis, but a Subway sandwich and water would have to do. Despite that it was a splendid hike.

Serenity by the Sea

It amazes me that seabirds can find comfort in daunting places. Below an overlook somewhere south of Cape Perpetua on the Oregon coast, I saw this gull resting on a rocky ledge high above crashing waves, not bothered by a stiff wind ruffling its feathers nor a loud colony of sea lions barking from the beach below.

Sea lions

Calm in the Storm, Devil’s Churn (Oregon)

Part of the thrill of walking on the intertidal lava rocks near Cape Perpetua in Oregon is to watch the seething currents offshore. If I stood too close to shore’s edge, a sneaker wave could easily claim me victim. Yet, there are sheltered tidepools that are a remarkable contrast to the chaos nearby.

Devil’s Churn is a narrow channel that opened up when a lava tube collapsed ages ago. Now, waves go barreling down the chasm and can build enough energy to create monster spouts that can and have claimed the lives of unwary victims.

Devil’s Churn, Cape Perpetua, Oregon

Iris Explosion in Oregon

We were en route to Los Temos Taqueria in Salem, Oregon, when we saw them. Blooming in the fields were millions of irises laid out in swaths of almost every color imaginable. If it weren’t for the season, we would never have noticed, as we hadn’t in all our previous drive-bys. But, there they were in all their splendor, just up the road from Los Temos.

iris - 1

The fields belong to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens that also has an eye-popping demonstration garden, a true gem in central Oregon, less than an hour’s drive south of Portland, almost exactly at the 45th parallel.

Schreiner’s Iris Gardens
3625 Quinaby Rd NE
Salem, OR 97303

Hood River Fruit Loop (Oregon)

I enjoy the drive through the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon side, not only for the waterfalls but because it’s a beautiful drive along one of America’s mighty rivers. Another revelation, as I discovered on this trip, is noticing the transition between the climate zones on either side of the Cascade mountain range without having to drive over a mountain pass. The drive is relatively flat throughout, thanks to the Columbia (or more accurately, the pre-historic megafloods that shaped the Pacific Northwest).

There are several tourist attractions along I-84 (also OR 30). The biggest, of course, are the waterfalls, the most famous of which is towering Multomah Falls. Another is the Vista House at Crown Point from where you can marvel at the view of the Columbia River. Bonneville Dam is also along the route. Lesser known is the so-called Fruit Loop that starts at Hood River, about 50 miles east of Gresham (near Portland) where we spent three nights, and extends south into neighboring Parkdale. Promoted by the local chamber of commerce, it winds 35 miles over country roads past farmland, pastures, orchards, wineries, vineyards, shops, U-picks and fruit stands. Thirty-one businesses are members of the Loop, all open to visitors. Using our GPS to find them proved easier than following the county-provided map. As an alternative, you can keep your eyes open for signs along the roads. A bonus throughout the loop are magnificent views of Mount Hood (top image), another volcanic peak in the Cascade Range.

On this trip, we had hoped to catch the tail-end of marionberry season. Our favorite pie to make uses uncooked marionberries with marionberry glaze. Cultivated in Oregon, they are superior to blackberries because their seeds are smaller, and are sweeter and more juicy. Once again, we struck out because the early warm and dry season forced them to fruit earlier. There was no shortage of jams made with the fruit (and many others, including huckleberry, blackberry, blueberry, apricot, peach, pear and more). All the participating country stores let you sample almost everything they had in stock.

Marionberries (Image from wikipedia)

Apple Valley Country Store had quite an inventory of jams, some pastries and shakes made with huckleberries or marionberries, and some crafts. A nice flower garden and sitting area is outside.

There wasn’t much variety at Kiyokawa Fruit Stand except for early apples, peaches and pears. The friendly sales person had us sample a few fruits. We purchased smallish apples with a surprising red flesh and tart flavor and Flemish Beauty pears. Unfortunately, all the pears developed (or already had) a spoiled, brownish core that I had to cut away. The wonderfully creamy flesh is somewhere between a Bartlett and Comice in texture. From the farm, you can see Mount Adams to the north and Mount Hood to the south.

red haven peaches

Thomas Betts, proprietor of Cascade Alpacas and Foothills Yarn & Fiber, took the time to explain the virtues of alpaca fleece in clothing and yarn. There was a noticeable difference in softness and plushness when compared to wool. His alpacas were housed in a barn next door. The property overlooked rolling hills covered with forests and orchards, a bucolic sight if ever there was one.

Cody Orchards Farm Stand, looking like a large shack constructed of wooden planks, had boxes and baskets of beautiful peaches and plums, some clothing and crafts.


Our final visit was to Fox-Tail Cider, one of several cideries in the area. In fact, there is another attraction, just west of Hood River, called the Columbia Gorge Cider Route that features 11 cider houses (not including Fox-Tail), a natural evolution of the thriving apple and pear culture and increasing popularity of ciders. Fox-Tail has a tap room where you can sample ten different varieties, some blended with berries, an excellent way to compare cider styles which are as varied as beer’s.

Tasting notes: At lunchtime, we were in the commercial district of Parkdale and decided to eat at Apple Valley BBQ (Yelp: 4.5/5.0; TripAdvisor: 4.5/5.0). What else to try but one of their specialties, Smoked Prime Rib Sandwich. Thickly cut and topped with a tasty demi-glace with mushrooms and onions, it would have been a very fine sandwich but for chewy meat (☆☆☆). Garlic Parmesan Fries needed a little more oomph and seasoning, though they were crispy enough (☆☆½).

Pacific City to Oceanside, Tillamook County, Oregon Coast

Among the many sea stacks that are found along the Pacific Coast, Cannon Beach is famed as much for iconic Haystack Rock as for its art galleries, boutique shops and restaurants. It’s natural to think that Cannon Beach has the tallest stack along Oregon’s coast, maybe because of the town’s unverifiable claim (“third largest intertidal monolith in the world”), but the one in Pacific City, which also happens to be called Haystack Rock, is taller. Yet, for all its extra 92ft, its impact is not as dramatic because it’s dwarfed by Cape Kiwanda to the north and its greater distance offshore makes it seem smaller than Cannon Beach’s.

There’s more to like about Pacific City. The flat sandy beach is firm enough to walk and drive on. Many visitors park their vehicles on the beach and spend the day. It doesn’t attract nearly the crowds that Cannon Beach does, while having good amenities for tourists. We stayed at The Inn at Cape Kiwanda where every room has a terrific view of Haystack and the ocean. On summer days, like today, the temperatures are mild, rarely exceeding the 70s, which attracts many beachgoers, who tend to congregate between Kiwanda and the brewery. A short trudge to the south will give you all the solitude you might want.

Cape Kiwanda is an easy walk from the beach. You can get to the top by climbing what amounts to a giant sand dune, called the Great Dune, on the back end of its southern flank, or from access roads further north. We did the climb. Shifting sand made for tricky footing. When we reached solid sandstone, we got a panoramic view of the shoreline. Going back down was much easier, but not as fast as boys schussing down on their sandboards. The cape, consisting of brilliant but soft orange and yellow sandstone, still stands by the grace of Haystack Rock that has shielded it from the erosive force of rough waters. It would otherwise have disappeared long ago.

Pacific City beach from Cape Kiwanda (click to enlarge)

Pacific City beach from Cape Kiwanda (click to enlarge)

At low tide, tidepools can be explored on and between the rocky shoreline, heavily encrusted with mussels, barnacles, limpets and chitons, making for treacherous navigation. At least one tidepool harbored a colony of colorful anemones. A common murre, one of several indigenous seabirds, remained amazingly unperturbed by humans, even as a kid patted its back.

common murre

Common murre

Pacific City lies along the 40-mile loop called the Three Capes Scenic Route. Cape Meares, Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda, the last jutting out from Pacific City’s shore, make up the three headlands. It’s a beautiful drive that rivals any stretch that Oregon has to offer. Taking Sand Lake Road (part of the Scenic Loop) north out of Pacific City will lead to Cape Lookout and its state park via Cape Lookout Road. We stopped here for a brief hike along the South Trail to stretch our legs. The view out to sea and of Cape Kiwanda was largely obscured by trees. The trail dead-ended twenty minutes into the hike with a warning sign not to go any further, so we turned back and found a short path down to the beach before returning to our car. Though we didn’t take it, the longer 2.4-mile trail along the cape ends up at a viewpoint that gives you unobstructed views of Tillamook Head, Cape Falcon, Cape Meares, Three Arch Rocks, Cape Kiwanda, Haystack Rock, Cascade Head and Cape Foulweather, the only single spot along the coast where all these geographical features can be seen.

South Trail, Cape Lookout State Park, View toward Cape Kiwanda

South Trail, Cape Lookout State Park, View toward Cape Kiwanda

Our next stop was Oceanside. We only had time to get a glimpse of Three Arch Rocks, which stand about a half mile offshore, and have lunch at Roseanna’s Cafe, before heading out to Centralia, WA.

Three Arch Rocks from Roseanna's (Oceanside, OR)

Three Arch Rocks from Roseanna’s Cafe (Oceanside, OR)

Although not on the coastal roads, two nearby places are worth mentioning. At 319ft, Munson Creek Falls is the tallest in the Coast Range, located about 10 miles south of Tillamook. It’s only a quarter-mile walk from the parking lot to the viewing area. Unfortunately, storm damage caused the closure of the path closest to the falls. Still, a very good view can be had from the existing vantage point.

Munson Falls

Munson Falls

Without doubt the area’s most popular attraction, enticing 1 million visitors a year, is the Tillamook Cheese Factory in the city of Tillamook, first made famous by its award-winning cheddar. Nowadays, far from being the small facility that we remembered from decades past, it’s an enormous complex with two gift shops, gigantic ice cream parlor and café. Gone are the guided tours where you could actually watch employees making cheese, replaced by self-guided tours from viewing areas far above the factory floor. Despite making all sorts of cheese today, it seems the main attraction is a full line of premium ice creams served in two lines, each staffed by half a dozen servers. This place is a circus, to be sure, but worth at least one visit.

Tillamook ice cream lines

Tillamook ice cream lines

Tasting notes: Pelican Pub & Brewery (Yelp: 3.5/5.0; TripAdvisor: 4.0/5.0) in Pacific City has a prime spot on the beach. Here, you can get better-than-average grub, but more to the point, taste its award-winning beers. Try their delicious Kiwanda Cream Ale, for example. There’s an outdoor dining area facing the ocean that’s hugely popular with customers in the summer. The chef aspires to use the beers as ingredients in the menu items. There’s even a suggested beer pairing with each item. With very few restaurants open on Tuesdays in Pacific City, we wound up eating lunch and dinner at Pelican, across the street from the Inn. Roasted tomatoes were a tasty component of the Oregon Shrimp Niçoise Salad (☆☆½), a pretty good salad with lemon-caper vinaigrette. Their ‘fabulous clam chowder‘ would’ve lived up to its billing if the clams weren’t so minuscule, rubbery and sandy. The broth itself was very tasty and thick (☆☆½). One at least has to give credit to the kitchen for offering Sweet Potato Quinoa Cakes, more like a salad with arugula, roasted tomatoes and fried onion rings obscuring the yam patties underneath (☆☆☆). Fish Tacos sounded appealing, with another slight change-up with jicama lime slaw and Southwest quinoa salad. Two problems. The Alaskan cod had been previously frozen that rubbery flesh betrayed and the slaw tasted more vinegary than lime-y (☆☆).

As we were on the Oregon coast, what better opportunity than to smother ourselves with fried razor clams. I had read that Roseanna’s Cafe (Yelp: 3.5/5.0; TripAdvisor: 4.0/5.0) in Oceanside served a wonderful version, but alas it’s not on the regular menu, served only on occasion. The day of our visit was not one of them. So, we contented ourselves with beef and barley soup, a spectacular version marred only by over-saltiness (☆☆☆½). Even more spectacular was marionberry cobbler (☆☆☆☆). The marionberry is another of Oregon’s great contributions to the food world. The pie was still warm, the crust flaky and the vanilla ice cream likely Tillamook’s. You would hardly notice Roseanna’s as you’re driving along narrow Pacific Avenue, just as you wouldn’t realize what a very popular place this is until you step inside. As a bonus, you get a good look at Three Arch Rocks from any table by the window.

No visit to Tillamook County would be complete without a taste of ice cream at the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Tons of people had this is mind last Wednesday (August 5)—likely every day—when two separate lines form to get samples of 31 flavors. Recently, Tillamook introduced a line of ice creams, sold only in half-gallon sizes, that features locally grown fruit, such as Oregon Strawberry and Oregon Blueberry Patch. For my money though, I’m a big fan of their Marionberry Pie with its bits of pie crust and Oregon Black Cherry. At the factory, you could gorge yourself on a sampler called Tillamook Ice Cream Adventure, which offers a scoop of every ice cream they make, amounting to 31 scoops. Our sights were a little lower, opting for the 5 Scoop Sampler Dish. We chose Cinnamon HorchataCoffee Almond FudgeOregon Blueberry PatchWild Mountain Blackberry and an outstanding Oregon Hazelnut & Salted Caramel. Not to worry—each scoop is the size of a golf ball.

5 Scoop Sampler Dish

5 Scoop Sampler Dish