We didn't know it, but the route we were following through some of Lava Beds National Monument's little-traveled backcountry wasn't just any old abandoned road.
It was a road originally built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who lived and worked at Lava Beds National Monument from 1933 to 1942.
During the pre-World War II years, more than 1,000 young men were stationed at Lava Beds, with about 130 at any one time on six-month assignments. The C's were part of the New Deal program launched by President Franklin Roosevelt following the Great Depression, originally for unemployed, unmarried men age 18 to 25.
The route follows the historic Powerline Road, built by CCC crews during the late 1930s as an administrative access road and used as a service road to install and maintain power and telephone lines that supplied electricity to the Schonchin Butte fire lookout and electricity and communication to park headquarters.
Construction of a telephone line from the park's north boundary to the Indian Well Ranger Station, now the park headquarters, began in May 1935 by members of the CCC Company 1989. According to a park report, the line was "so located from the monument highway that it is not conspicuous. It is contemplated to paint the poles along this line to give additional concealment to its location.”
To help build the line, a service road was built from the CCC camp at Gillem's Camp to Indian Well. During the 1930s, CCC crews worked on additional telephone and electricity lines. In 1939, a year after the telephone line was extended, "A good trail parallel to (the) line is being constructed to enable us to transport materials, this will serve as a future maintenance trail.” Based on reports, 32 poles were installed. By 1939, two park personnel had telephones at their park homes and a nine-mile long line provided electricity.
There was a downside. The sight of the overhead lines led a regional landscape architect to express "some dismay with them because they were above ground, meaning that, in his words, 'these poles and wires are the first object seen as one enters [the monument], and are among the most conspicuous of structures in the area.' ”
Still, the Powerline Road was used to service the power line from the mid-1930s until the mid-1980s, when underground power lines were installed. After that, according to park records, the road fell into disuse.
We didn't know details of that history when we started our hike started near the Black Crater parking lot. A short distance away we followed an abandoned but still visible road. Stubs of sawed-off power poles that looked remarkably out of place provided evidence of the road that was.
Bill Van Moorhem, a member of the Klamath Basin Outdoor Group, led our small group on what hikers with GPS devices measured as 7½ miles one way. It's an easy walk, with only occasional grade changes. In areas where the route reaches junctions or becomes faint, it's recommended hikers search for and follow two-tire-track wide sections. As Van Moorhem suggested, we also kept an eye on landmarks, especially Schonchin Butte and Cinder Butte. Schonchin Butte is notable for its proximity and because it has a lookout on top, while Cinder Butte is notable because it has snow when other buttes are bare. Because the trail frequently changes direction, Schonchin especially frequently seemingly changes direction.
It was a welcome sunny day, so the robust lava formations, sagebrush fields and nearby lava flows contrasted beautifully with a blue sky enlivened by billowing clouds. The route also travels alongside backcountry caves, some marked with rock cairns. Some entrances have tight squeezes large enough for people willing to squirm and wriggle while others seemed a bit more negotiable.
The old road was mostly evident. At one junction about two-thirds along the way, a tall rock cairn marked the spot where Van Moorhem took a wrong turn during a years-ago previous hike. The seemingly obvious route, as he learned, is the wrong way.
Lava Beds managers have discussed future uses of the road, from creating it as a designated trail to eliminating evidence of the old road. It had been considered for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places but, according to Chief of Resources Management Jessica Reid, park officials decided other areas are more deserving.
A re-vegetation project was done near the route's north end in 2014 by Youth Conservation Corps crews. A year later a larger project was conducted on the backside of Harden Butte to make the section more of a route and eliminate its use as a road.
"It's a non-trail trail," Reid said of the route, which she emphasizes is not maintained or signed and is not shown on park maps. People planning to hike the route should request information from the park's visitor center. During summer months high temperatures are a concern, and it's recommended to have two vehicles for a one-way trip.
The Powerline Trail is a non-trail trail, but it's also a pleasant walk through history.
— Reach Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.