Eighteen months ago I knew basically nothing about central Oregon. I probably had an idea that Bend is an outdoorsy place popular among mountain bikers. But that is about all. Now I love central Oregon. Most of all, I love the pervasive effects of volcanic activity on the landscape. Somehow it never gets old looking around and saying, “see those black cliffs, they’re volcanic. See the red porous rocks on that hillside? They’re volcanic. See that towering volcano? Yep, volcanic.”
And of all of the volcano hikes I’ve done – Cotopaxi, Rainier, Vesuvius… (yes, this is basically the hiker’s version of name dropping), this hike from Three Creek Lake past Tam Rim to Broken Hand was visually the most volcano-like. Before I explain why, let me step back for the whole story.
During the summer while coming up with plans for a weekend trip in Oregon I came across the photo of a beautiful crater lake. The description stated that it was a secret lake in Broken Top’s crater with no official trail. Pretty enticing! I looked at a few maps and found the lake. And I found the lack of trail. I decided it would be a fun excursion – some other time.
A few months later the other time came. While driving up to Johnston Ridge Observatory at Mount Saint Helens, Jaehee and her sisters caught the adventure bug. (It’s hard not to be inspired to get outdoors during the drive toward the blast zone; it’s epic!) At their request I planned the hike to the secret crater lake. Even as the weather report called for cold, rain and low clouds, everyone maintained their commitment to a full day of hiking.
Friday night we made the drive down to Salem and over the Santiam Pass into Sisters. We drove a dozen miles of forest road toward Three Creek Lake and the Tam Rim trailhead until pulling off to a nice dispersed camping spot for the night.
In the morning it was raining lightly. Clouds were heavy, but the ceiling was well above the nearby 10,000′ peaks. We drove to the trailhead, filtered some water and began hiking. As we hiked higher the clouds descended. We reached the top of the rim just in time to catch a breathtaking view of Broken Top being devoured in mist, and a fleeting glimpse of the South Sister’s glaciers. Then the mountains were gone and the rain came.
Not long past Tam Rim the maintained trail ended. The unmaintained trail was well defined, though. Even with low visibility we had no trouble finding it as it first followed the rim, then cut across the plateau and finally took the ridgeline that rises up as it curves south and then west toward the Broken Hand gendarme. By the time we arrived at the base of Broken Hand, visibility was at 20 meters or less. All we could see was the deep red cinder at out feet. According to the map, the lake was at the far side of the gendarme. So we began skirting a tiny ribbon of scoria trail along the north side with Broken Hand rising up on the left and dropping down to the right.
When we made it to the far side, passing one or two knuckle-clenching spots on the way, we stood just a short, steep scramble above the crater lake, staring straight at Broken Top’s broken top. But we couldn’t see it. Not even a shadow.
We didn’t see the lake. But it wasn’t a disappointment, and that is the beauty of outdoor recreation; the journey in and of itself is reward enough. We had plenty of incredible, expansive views earlier in the hike. And while in the clouds, we got to focus on the miles of ash and scoria under out feet that made every step a vivid reminder, unlike any other hike I’ve done, that we were indeed traversing a landscape completed forged by volcanic forces. As an added bonus, there were a handful of times when the clouds cleared to reveal the awesome scenery surrounding us just long enough to grab our attention before fading back out of sight.