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.

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Hello to Nice Weather on the Little Si Trail (North Bend, WA)


There’s nothing like the promise of a beautiful day, after an extended period of wet weather, to stimulate the desire to do something outdoors. Last Friday was such a day. We decided to hike on the Little Si Trail near North Bend, which strangely we’d never done for all the years we’d been living in western Washington.

The trail is very popular among locals who appreciate that it’s open year round. At 1,400ft, it isn’t very high, easily dwarfed by the peak next to it, Mount Si at 3,900ft and open only 7 months out of the year. Popularity is further bolstered by the trail’s moderately difficult designation, while Mount Si’s is rated as difficult. Still, the hike is not like a walk in the woods, rising about 1,100ft above the trailhead and the most strenuous parts being at the beginning and end of its 2.2-mile length over relatively steep, rocky surfaces.

littlesi - 3

The biggest challenge for my wife and me was our lack of conditioning. By the end of the hike, my legs and knees were aching, back and butt seeking cushion and the rest of my body craving ice cold beer.

Almost the entire length ventures through beautiful forest, dominated by Douglas fir and western red cedar, and tall big-leaf maples clothed in thick mats of bright green moss.

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littlesi - 8

Impressive also are occasional glimpses of gigantic boulders, some in spectacular heaps, some huge and monolithic, covered in mosses and ferns.

littlesi - 5

littlesi - 9

As with any mountain trail, the surface is uneven not only from rocks but exposed tree roots that are easy to kick, especially by tired legs.

littlesi - 6

Clearings at the summit reveal Mount Si and the broad Snoqualmie Valley below.

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At the summit, you can rest to your heart’s content on the bare rock exposures and bask in the sunshine on a clear day or shiver when the winds blow. It took us four hours to make the round trip, including rest at the top. If we’d been any younger or in better shape, it surely would’ve taken less time.

Hiking the Easy Trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN


Hurricane Joaquin was whipping up chaos along the lower Atlantic coast. As of last week, forecasts predicted heavy rainstorms, including inundation of the Great Smokies where we were headed. Plans we had for hiking around the Gatlinburg area of Tennessee hung in the balance as we contemplated our next move from the relative calm of Nashville. Suddenly, the prediction for Gatlinburg improved—occasional showers. We decided to go ahead with the original plan.

My wife’s cousin and her husband, whom I’ll collectively call JnJ, met us in Gatlinburg. Wonderful for us because, having taken many a hike in the Smokies, they took us to several of their favorite spots.

Clingmans Dome

At 6643ft, the highest point in the Smokies (and Tennessee) is Clingmans Dome. You can hike to it as part of the Appalachian Trail or from other trails within the park. For most people, it’s a “mere” half-mile from a parking lot. JnJ warned us that it’s not a sure bet to get a clear view of the surrounding area from Clingmans, which frequently is shrouded in the blue mist or fog for which the Smokies are famous. The afternoon that we went was no exception. The mist got heavier as we climbed higher. That wasn’t the only obstacle. I quickly got winded along the way, because of the high altitude and punishing grade (average 13%). The 45-foot observation tower at the summit is reached by a curving ramp that describes a giant arc. It straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Unfortunately, what surely is visible is the severe ecological damage done to Fraser firs by a non-native insect (balsam woolly adelgid). It’s hard to miss the trees’ ghostly remains.

Observation tower, Clingman's Dome

Observation tower, Clingmans Dome

On the way down, there was enough of a clearing through the fog for a brilliant sunset, framed by the distant mountains and clouds.

Sunset, Clingmans Dome trail

Sunset, Clingmans Dome trail

Laurel Falls Trail

The most popular hike in the park is the Laurel Falls Trail. It’s so popular that the chance of finding a parking space in the trailhead lot will be almost impossible if you don’t arrive by mid-morning. Paved though uneven over its 1¼-mile distance, the trail is accessible for most anyone. Along the way, the last of the season’s wildflowers were in bloom— purple asters and gentians. The big payoff is arguably the park’s most beautiful waterfall, Laurel Falls. Lots of other people were already there when we arrived. Like us, they were admiring the upper part of the falls. The waters tumble over a broad rocky terrace into a wide pool that, on the other side of a foot bridge, drains over a ledge to become the fall’s lower portion.

Wild aster

Purple aster

Purple gentian

Gentian

Fall color

Fall color

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls

Little River Trail

The best was saved for last. Another of JnJ’s favorite hikes is the Little River Trail, near the Elkmont campground. It first passes by long-vacated resort cottages. Because of their deterioration, they’re currently off limits to the public. The Park Service plans to restore them at some point.

Shuttered cottage near the Little River Trail parking lot

Shuttered cottage near the Little River Trail parking lot

The trail parallels the Little River for roughly 5.5 miles. The course is flat and wide over quite a distance, making for an extremely easy walk. Because of the sheer number of boulders in the river, there is an endless number of whitewater activity, pools and mini-waterfalls. We saw two men fly-fishing in the river. Even if peak wildflower season had long gone, the trail was gorgeous nonetheless, passing through magnificent stands of hardwood trees, the silence only interrupted by babbling river sounds and our own conversations.

A wide gravel path parallels Little River

A wide gravel path parallels Little River

Filtered light in this or any forest is mysterious, almost mystical. There is a solitude and quiet here removed from the bustle of nearby Gatlinburg.

Hardwood forest

Forest mystery and beauty

Poplars

Poplar canopy

We made it to Huskey Branch Falls before turning back. The vantage point in the image below required clambering uphill from the trail over very slippery rocks. I lost my footing partway up and have lacerations on my arm as reward.

falls

Huskey Branch Falls

 

The Hiking Trails and Wildflowers Around Sun Mountain Lodge (Winthrop, WA)


The first time my wife and I stayed at Sun Mountain Lodge over a decade ago, there were abundant wildflowers on the trails nearby. In spots, they were so profuse that the ground was covered with them. It was an experience that stayed in my memory, one only matched by the wildflower displays on the Big Quilcene trail in Olympic National Forest and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Over a month ago, I planned our current arrival for an estimated peak flower display in mid-May, a few weeks earlier than normal because of this winter’s low snowpack and unseasonably warm weather recently. When we arrived on Monday afternoon, I was a little let down when the receptionist informed me that the flowers had blossomed earlier and the best show was behind us. Not to worry though because there was still plenty to see.

The lodge maintains an extensive network of trails, approximately 40 miles in total, with the help of the Forest Service and other organizations. A free handout of the trail system is available at the front desk, the Activities Center and here. If you plan on taking any of these, the Activities Center is a good source of information, where the staff will tell you where the best wildflower viewing is on any given day.

The Kraule Trail is splendid for breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys that conjure up European alpine scenery.

alpine scenery

Because of the relative shade along this trail, I was informed that there would be a better chance to see flowers that haven’t yet begun to disappear, unlike Sunnyside Trail that is mostly exposed to full sun.  The yellow, showy arrowleaf balsamroots were already dying down almost everywhere, but there were plenty of lupines to admire. Aside from these two which comprise the most prolific flowers, there were many less conspicuous, more sparsely scattered ones that revealed themselves if you looked closely.

We took Sunnyside early next morning to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Almost right away, a vast field of meadow death camas greeted us alongside a stand of birch trees.

Meadow death camas

Meadow death camas

Sunnyside and the parallel View Ridge Trail afford the best view of Patterson Lake. The trail continues for a distance with very few stands of trees, although as we got closer to the Hough Homestead (where outdoor breakfasts or dinners are held during horseback tours), the tree cover population thickened and along with it, scores of dive-bombing mosquitoes. These pests are commonplace in the forested areas here, so repellent or tenacity is advisable. Repellent can be purchased at the Activities Center.

Patterson Lake

Patterson Lake

After reaching the Homestead, we turned around and took Yellow Jacket Trail back to the lodge. Without question, this was our favorite; it had more profuse wildflowers than any other trail. Not only were the balsamroots and lupines abundant, not to mention Indian paintbrushes, but we came across small gems like the rare and tiny calypso orchid, no more than 2-3″ tall, and old man’s whiskers, which look like tiny upside-down tulips.

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Yellow Jacket connects to Rodeo Trail that skirts the edge of Beaver Pond.

Beaver Pond

Beaver Pond

We’ve never taken any of the more challenging trails, but doubtless that the ones at higher elevation, such as Thompson Ridge Road that rises to 3,600ft, would have their own treasures.

The following is a gallery of some of the flowers we saw on all the trails combined.

Forest to Sea—Brookings to Mendocino


We had hoped to time our arrival to Brookings when the Easter lily fields would be in bloom. At least, that was what we were expecting after reading about the farms. Left to their own devices, they would naturally bloom in July. You’re probably wondering like I did, isn’t Easter-time their time to flower? It turns out that there is a labor-intensive science to forcing them to produce on Easter, which occurs annually on different dates. The bottom line is that we (or anyone else) wouldn’t ever see fields covered in white. Brookings and Harbor (across the Chetco River) grow 90 percent of the Easter lily crop in the U.S., the result of perfect conditions for bulb growing. We drove along Oceanside Drive where the farms are located. Eventually, we noticed the characteristic silver green foliage planted in neat rows. On closer look, there were the multiple leaves growing from each stalk.

Easter lily farm in Harbor, OR

Easter lily farm in Harbor, OR

Redwood trees were already in abundance here in southwestern Oregon. It was a short drive to the California state line.

Our next hope was that we would see the California Rose Bay Rhododendrons in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park that were flowering relatively abundantly when we drove through here on June 10, 2009. There was nothing. Instead, the roadside was flush with lilies of a different kind—tiger lilies.

Tiger lilies in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Tiger lilies in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Damnation Creek Trail is the best in Del Norte, one that leads all the way to the Pacific Ocean if you want to negotiate the final very steep, strenuous, exposed root portion to the coast (we didn’t). Short of that, the trail still goes past old growth forest, some of them showing evidence of severe burn from lightning strikes. On the trail, we came across members of a photography workshop led by Issaquah photographer Darrell Gulin. It always seems a coincidence that people you sometimes meet along the way are from your own neck of the woods.

Old growth redwood, Damnation Creek Trail, Del Norte State Park

Old growth redwood, Damnation Creek Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

For lunch, we stopped in Arcata at Hole in the Wall (590 G St, 707.822.7407), a sandwich shop in a little shack on a parking lot that is very popular among the locals. There was no seating inside, but there were a few tables and bench chairs outside. We enjoyed a muffaletta (☆☆☆), the special of the day, filled with Genoa and Italian salames, prosciutto, Provolone and Mozzarella cheeses, olive spread and roasted red bell pepper, simply dressed with oil and red vinegar, salt and pepper. All of HITW’s sandwiches are enormous, so splitting one was essential, all washed down with an intriguing tangerine wheet beer (☆☆☆), made by Lost Coast Brewery in nearby Eureka.

Tangerine beer

muffaletta

After this morning’s inland drive through California, we headed back to the coast on a winding, tortuous road, starting where California Highway 1 begins in the north at Leggett on US 101. A mere twenty miles took over an hour, despite what my GPS estimated (it assumed an incredulous 55mph on this stretch!). Memo to self: avoid this road next time. The change in scenery was dramatic from the thickly forested redwood empire to the beautiful coastal waters of northern California, with its own sea stacks to rival Oregon’s and treed with cypress and eucalyptus.

We arrived at our destination, Mendocino, in the late afternoon.

Brookings to Mendocino

Brookings to Mendocino (Google Maps)

Hiking in the Cougar Mountain Regional Park (WA)


The greater Seattle area—as a matter of fact, the entire western Pacific Northwest—has been basking in sunshine since late last week, and is expected to continue to do so through the next. I can’t ever recall sunny skies with temperatures in the 70s-80s this early in May and for such an extended period. The inevitable rains will come as a big disappointment. What better way to celebrate the sunshine than to go outside. My wife and I decided to go for a hike.

There are many urban hiking trails on the Eastside (a general area east of Lake Washington which separates it from Seattle), but none more unspoiled and wild than the 3,100-acre Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, which is bordered by the cities of Bellevue, Issaquah and Newcastle and by Squak Mountain. The nice thing is that the park is about 15 minutes away from our house. There are 47 miles of hiking trails which feature wetlands, streams and forests. It would be easy to get lost in this vast maze were it not for the efforts of King County with the help of the Issaquah Alps Trail Club to signpost the 50 designated trails. We hiked almost 4 hours through mature second-growth forest, crossing several streams in the process and admiring the awakening of spring. The wildflower show included the western trillium, Pacific bleeding heart, western spring beauty, salmonberry, wild strawberry and Oregon grape. I didn’t realize until today that the Pacific bleeding heart was so abundant in the wild; they were everywhere. It was fascinating also to look at the fiddleheads of the sworn ferns as they were in the process of unwinding, forming curious hairpin shapes.

Besides deer and raccoons, Cougar Mountain is also a haven for black bears, bobcats and, of course, cougars. We didn’t come across any, not really sure what we’d have done if we did.

There will be more hikes for us here in the future. We’ve barely tapped the extensive, interconnecting trail system.

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Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail (Honolulu, HI)


makapuu

To walk off the big breakfast (Rainbow Drive-In and Leonard’s) we had this Easter morning, we took the bus to Ka Iwi State Scenic Shoreline to hike the 3/4-mile trail to Makapu’u Summit. We were told about this hike by a couple we met at the Eat the Streets event. The bus doesn’t drop you off directly at the parking lot but at Sea Life Park, about a half-mile past to the northwest. As we were walking along Kalanianaole Highway to the trailhead, to our left were spectacular views of the beaches, rugged shoreline and islets out at sea. This being Hawaii, the waters were beautiful combinations of deep blue and turquoise.

Makapu’u Head is a remnant of an enormous caldera that partially collapsed into the sea about 1.8 million years ago and is the eastern end of the Ko’olau mountain range that is really the rim of the surviving caldera. The hike itself, a climb of over 450 feet in elevation over a paved surface, was nice on a cloudless day that was hot enough to make me a shade darker. This is a fairly easy hike, though some preparation is advisable; there are no water and toilet facilities on the trail or parking lot. On this Easter Sunday, there were lots of people on the trail, including families with children. It’s my understanding that some locals make this hike a regular routine. The vegetation along the way was interesting, suggestive of a dry, hot and windswept environment with succulents and cacti unexpectedly growing here. We missed the peak cactus flowering season as the blossoms were already spent. A good view of the lighthouse, still in operation by the U.S. Coast Guard, can be had from several vantage points. When we reached the summit, there were sweeping, spectacular views of the ocean and of southeastern Oahu. The wind up here is always strong, enough so that my wife had to remove her wide-brimmed sun hat that would have sailed away. This is also a prime spot for watching migrating humpback whales. We weren’t so lucky. A hiker we talked to told us friends on the day before had seen an entire pod.

The lighthouse is still operational and off-limits to the public

The lighthouse is still operational and off-limits to the public

Rather than returning to Sea Life to catch the bus, we walked in the opposite direction along the highway to another bus top at the Hawaii Kai Golf Course, which turned out to be about the same distance from the trailhead but our tired legs and hunger made it seem further away. Cold beers and a tasty kalua pork taco salad at the restaurant renewed our energy before boarding the bus back to Waikiki.

Along the trail, you can see the highway and Koko Head

Along the trail, you can see the highway. Hawaii Kai Golf Course appears in front of Koko Crater.

Kalua pork taco salad

Kalua pork taco salad at Hawaii Kai Golf Course

Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail
Ka Iwi State Scenic Shoreline
Kalanianaole Hwy
Honolulu, HI 96825
 

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