PCT 2019: Day 98, Big Lake Youth Camp to Obsidian Limited Entry Area Boundary

All along the mountains of the moon

A small tree tries to grow among lava rocks and cinders

The timing of our stop at Big Lake Youth Camp was unfortunate. We missed out on a couple of meals in the dining hall. Nevertheless, it was a good stop.

Thankfully, the camp didn’t completely shut down during the break for the staff. We were still allowed to camp here and use the building that was provided for thru-hikers.

DateTuesday, August 13, 2019
WeatherMostly sunny with a high temperature near 70
Trail ConditionsTwo climbs of more than 1,000 feet and long traverses over volcanic rock
Today's Miles23.6
Trip Miles1418.1

What’s more fortunate, though, is that the Seventh-day Adventist camp is here at all. A fire in 2011 forced an early end to the camping season. Staff and campers were evacuated as flames closed in on the camp’s boundary.

The immediate area surrounding the camp was still showing signs of the fire today, though some of that was because backfires had been set by firefighters to protect the camp’s buildings.

Frost forms on plants

Last night had been surprisingly cold, but that was partly because we were camped on the shore of Big Lake. The temperature dropped into the 30s.

When I awoke, the shore was covered in a thick fog. Condensation formed drips of water in my tent. It also collected on nearby weeds and bushes, where it became frost.

A frosty morning on the trail

I was packed up and walking to the pavilion just 15 minutes after Bluejay, which I claimed as a small victory. The time interval wasn’t 30 minutes to an hour, as it has usually been the case.

After enjoying some coffee at the pavillion, I returned to the still-frosty trail by 7 a.m.

The first eight-tenths of a mile followed a side trail leading back to the PCT, which took me through more of the burnt area around the camp.

Sun warms the morning

Back on the PCT, the trail began a long but not-difficult climb. This was a thousand-foot climb up the flank of Mt. Washington.

The temperature remained cold for most of the 3.7 miles to the high point of the climb, for which I was grateful. I didn't sweat.

Trees on the side of Mt. Washington

The mountainside was covered in trees, but that was soon to change.

Entering the section of volcanic rocks

By 10 a.m., the character of the trail was dramatically different. It was entering an area covered in volcanic rocks and cinders with few trees.

I had to slow down here because there were so many rocks on the trail. These were rough rocks of all sizes, which I had anticipated when I bought my new shoes while in Portland.

Mt. Washington and burnt trees

The few trees that were able to grow in this area had escaped the fire that nearly torched Big Lake Youth Camp.

Another hiker caught up and as he passed me I said to him, “Welcome to Hell.”

Flat trail offers a break in the rocky terrain

Thankfully, there was a break in the rough, cinder-covered terrain. The trail smoothed out, and for a short distance was flat.

North and Middle sisters come into view

When the trail changed back to volcanic rock, this time there was nothing much else besides rock. I was entering a completely barren moonscape.

There were no living trees to block my view of two of the Three Sisters, three side-by-side volcanoes.

I was only able to see Faith, the north sister, and Hope, the middle sister. It should be no surprise that the south sister was named Charity, but I couldn’t see her because the other two sisters were blocking my view.

All three stood just over 10,000 feet above sea level.

Two trees attempt to grow in the volcanic rock

The ground was completely covered in volcanic rock, but in a few rare cases, I saw attempts at life.

Grass and trees gamefully sprouted in these few small patches within the vast wasteland of rocks.

A break from the rocks

Trees had better luck of survival if they were growing where the lava had not flowed. Infrequent, short stretches of trail like this appeared now and then. When they appeared, they were like walking through an oasis in a large desert.

At the end of one such oasis, the trail reached McKenzie Pass. State Highway 242 crossed the trail here. I found a picnic table by the road, so I stopped for lunch and spread out my tent and quilt to dry them in the sun.

A section hiker named Math Man also stopped here and we chatted about the trail and terrain.

Gnarly tree

After Math Man left, I took a closer look at one of the trees that had failed in its struggle to survive this brutal landscape. A broken, bleached stump was all that remained.

A dead tree among rocks

It seemed remarkable that any trees had been able to grow here. When they died, they stood grey in stark contrast to the dark volcanic rock.

Blue passes by on the trail

Late in the afternoon, a few hikers began to pass me. One of them was Blue, the thru-hiker who had taken photos of Polecat and me during our first days in Washington.

When Blue saw me he asked if he could take my photo again. This time, instead of a portrait, he wanted me to walk on the trail away from him. Then he asked me to turn around and walk toward him so he could get multiple shots. He later published one of these photos on his website.

South Matthieu Lake

By the time I reached South Matthieu Lake at 4:25 p.m., the volcanic cinders and rocks temporarily smoothed to a section containing a few more trees and other vegetation. I stopped at the lake for a short break and to filter some water.

The lake was named for Francis Xavier Matthieu, a nearby resident and area pioneer who lived to the age of 101. Some historians say he was influential in the vote taken to determine whether Oregon became a U.S. or Canadian territory.

More lava rock ahead

The trail became rugged again after the lake. It began to cross a series of short ups and downs. These varied between 400 and 600 feet of elevation change, with some being especially steep.

Looking back from Yapoah Crater

On one of the climbs, which was up the flank of Yapoah Crater, I turned back to see the trail I had walked today. I could see Mt. Washington, which I passed this morning. Beyond that, I could also see Three-fingered Jack and Mt. Jefferson. Off farther in the distance, I could faintly see the peak of Mt. Hood.

This view also gave me a better idea of how much lava had flowed over this part of Oregon.

A grassy meadow

For a brief stretch of trail, the terrain was flat as it cut through a grassy meadow. This was the only time today that I saw a large patch of grass. Another trail, the Scott Trail, connected with the PCT here.

While walking through the meadow I received a text message from Sunkist on my Garmin InReach. She told me she had talked to a ranger and learned there was plenty of camping available just beyond the limited entry area, which we had known was ahead. Sunkist said they would camp there and said water was available nearby at Obsidian Falls.

“Okay, thanks,” I replied. “The lava rocks have slowed me down, but I’ll get there eventually,” I replied.

I was glad to get this message because we had been a little unsure where we would stop for tonight. We knew we couldn’t camp inside the limited entry area, but weren’t sure on which side of it would be best for camping. Our trail guide didn't provide much helpful information about that.

The trail ahead goes up a cinder cone

When I reached the end of the meadow, I could see where the trail went up the side of a cinder cone. Beyond it was North Sister, now just a little more than 2.5 miles away.

A view at dusk

The trail continued its up-and-down path, but I didn’t tire much. It was probably a good thing I had taken a long break for a late lunch and to dry out my gear at McKenzie Pass.

Still, the time was getting late. At 8 p.m., I only had about 20 minutes of sunlight remaining before sundown.

Obsidian rocks on the trail

The limited entry area Sunkist mentioned was another area in this part of Oregon that had been given special protection. It was becoming too popular with backpackers. Much of the ground was covered in obsidian rocks, which were like glass shards. They had been formed by molten rock that quickly cooled.

I would have liked to stop to take better photos and look at the rocks, but I had to keep going because I was losing daylight.

Obsidian Falls

By the time I reached Obsidian Falls, the time was almost 8:30 p.m. and little daylight remained. I decided I still had enough water with me from South Matthieu Lake and didn’t need to stop to filter more, so continued to the campsite.

It was located just outside the southern boundary of the Obsidian Limited Entry Area and I had only four-tenths of a mile more to go to get there.

The last sun of the day

The sun was gone when I arrived at the campsite. Bluejay and Sunkist were already in their tents. I needed my headlamp to find a spot nearby to pitch mine.

Sunkist had made arrangements with a trail angel friend to pick us up tomorrow at Elk Lake. He would then take us into the town of Bend, where we planned to take a zero day.

Elk Lake was 18.9 miles away, not counting the side trail leading to the lake. That meant we’d need to get an early start tomorrow.

I vowed to not repeat what happened yesterday morning when I fell asleep while trying to get an early start. Then I set my alarm.

Mountains of the moon, Electra, mountains of the moon
All along the, all along the mountains of the moon
Heigh ho, the carrion crow, folderol-de-riddle
Heigh ho, the carrion crow, bow and bend to me
Bend to me


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.