CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK — Back in the early 1970s, I caught a glimpse of Union Peak on the way to Crater Lake.
I can't say it was the first time, because Oregon's singular national park was a regular stop on family outings. But on this late spring day, I recall a magnificent spire of mountain jutting up from the forest.
I wondered what kind of equipment it would take to reach the summit. Turns out nothing but the usual day-hike fare, solid shoes, water and a bit of desire.
The last component, of course, is the most critical in reaching the 7,698-foot summit.
The brochure handed out at the Crater Lake entry gate lists six strenuous hikes inside the national park: Two in the caldera, two overlooking the lake, and two summits. Of the six, Union Peak has the greatest elevation gain, 1,600 feet, surpassing the 1,250-foot ascent to Mount Scott's 8,929-foot summit.
From afar the peak looks challenging, near the base it appears impossible, sans climbing talent. The trick, however, is to keep following the path, allowing the trail to reveal itself — especially when you think it's run its course. Once you arrive, it's time to picnic and test the limits of your iPhone camera.
There are no excuses why four-plus decades passed before I finally made the trek, along with my wife, Melissa. Suffice to say, I merely took other paths on my off time.
For most Rogue Valley residents, the route to the trailhead is familiar, passing Prospect and Union Creek, veering to the right when Highways 62 and 230 divide. You just need to be aware when it's time to pull off. Normally, you turn right into a Pacific Crest Trail trailhead parking area about a mile before the Annie Springs south park entrance. This summer, much of the park infrastructure is torn up and under repair. Thankfully, there is parking across the road from the trailhead for about five or six cars.
As we were pulling our packs and water out of the trunk, another car pulled in behind us and two Canadian thru-hikers exited. They still seemed shaken from electrical storms that had sprayed lightning in the Cascades a few days earlier.
"Oh, yes," the woman added. "The mosquitoes are thick."
In deference to the triple-digit Rogue Valley heat, I had elected to wear short sleeves. A month earlier we had hiked from Fourmile Lake to the Mount McLoughlin trailhead and managed to fend off the mosquitoes with spray and long sleeves, but we had given most of our spray to ill-prepared PCT thru-hikers that day. We applied most of the remaining spray but left some in reserve for the return trip.
Heading south on the PCT from Highway 62 is akin to driving on a freeway. It's classified as single track, but a cross-country team could run it in a fairly tight pack.
We passed a half-dozen thru-hikers, mostly young women, a couple of them wearing netting to fend off the blood-suckers. But the only time we were severely harassed was if we stopped. Given the long winter, significant piles of snow remained as we journeyed during the final Saturday in July.
There's not a lot elevation change for the first 2½ miles until reaching the Union Peak Trail, which branches off through a meadow to the west. As a result, even at our plodding pace, we arrived at the junction in less than an hour.
To that point our only contact with the Blanket Creek fire had been passing by the firefighters' camp at Stewart State Park near Lost Creek Lake. Although we were a safe distance from the fire northeast of Prospect, the smoke — both from the lightning-caused timber blaze and a man-made backfire — blotted out any southward views and eventually filtered north to the point of obscuring the Crater Lake rim.
Otherwise, you couldn't ask for a more serene setting.
After leaving the PCT the trail gradually twists up a ridge extending east from the peak. After about a quarter of a mile you break out of the lodgepole pine forest. To your right is drainage feeding Union Creek, which is still flowing at an amazing level as it nears the Rogue River just below the gorge. On the left is a broad swath of timberland, through which Red Blanket Creek pours toward its confluence with the Rogue near Prospect.
Five minutes later, we were at a point where it's a long ways down to the glacial wreckage and intimidatingly high to the top.
We pressed on, clamoring over a maze of boulders — some the size of small houses. The task is made easier thanks to the efforts of trail builders from decades long past. Emerging from the boulders, where the trail is marked by cairns, we reached the backside of the peak. The first and longest of many switchbacks loomed and we twice crossed a red cinder field appearing like a red velvet cake with dabs of white frosting.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of the hike was crossing a 20-yard patch of ice midway through the cinders, where a slip probably wouldn't necessarily be lethal, but it would ruin the next few weeks.
Leaving the cinders behind, you're now on the south flank and the serious climbing begins. We took it slow. We were in no hurry. We had water and food, and the smoke made it seem like we were climbing out of a campfire that hadn't quite been drowned out.
With about 150 feet to go, we dropped our backpacks, put a water bottle in our pockets and slithered up the trail that disappeared and reappeared after scrambling over a rock. Trekking poles provided balance where you don't want to stumble backwards 1,000 feet.
Years ago Melissa and I were met by a veritable river of monarchs flowing down the Mount McLoughlin slopes. While were often accompanied by clusters of monarchs en route to Union Peak, once we neared the old volcano, dragonflies began buzzing overhead. Many dragonflies. And at the summit, they seemed to welcome their visitors, dancing on the wind like bats.
Taking in the hazy view, I made a mental note to come back when the air is clearer in a couple of months.
Union Peak served as a fire lookout from the 1930s to the 1950s. Unlike Mount McLoughlin, where there is clear evidence of the fire lookout at the summit, there is little to betray official activity on top of Union Peak, except for two U.S. Geological Survey markers.
The descent and return on the 10-mile round-trip was fairly rapid. At times we saw what appear to be the remains of old logging or Forest Service roads.
A mining party, including Chauncey Nye, James Leyman, Joseph Bowers, Hiram Abbott, S.H. Smith and John W. Sessions set eyes on the peak in the early 1860s, and later U.S. Army soldiers scaled what by then was known as Union Peak in honor of the Northern states during the Civil War.
— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.