The calendar said June, but it was snowing like it was January.
“It looks like the sun is trying to break through,” Bernie said hopefully.
Hmmm, wasn’t that the same thing Anita had said a half-hour earlier.
We were sitting in Anita Matys’ car watching as gusting snow covered her windshield and slowly accumulated on the ground outside. We just sat, waiting and wondering, the windshield wipers periodically restoring our view and, thankfully, the heater warming the car. Parked in front of us at the Glass Mountain trailhead was a pickup truck with three more hopeful hikers, but there was no sign of movement as they, likewise, sat waiting and wondering. It’s not supposed to snow in mid-June, but it was.
After another 15 minutes the trio from the pickup emerged, huddling while strapping on daypacks as the snow fell. We zipped up our jackets and tugged on hats. Bernie Kero and Anita, who obviously had planned ahead, yanked rain pants over their hiking pants. Within minutes, six of us were on the trail, headed into a moon-like landscape made even more alien by the swirling snow.
Glass Mountain, located south of Lava Beds National Monument and Medicine Lake, is an otherworldly place even on sunny days. Covering 4,210 acres, Glass Mountain is designated as a Special Interest Area because of its unique geological features, including glassy dacite and rhyolitic obsidian that flowed from the same vent simultaneously without mixing. According to geological reports, Glass Mountain “exhibits the results of multi-stage volcanic activity so recent that there has been no modification by weathering, erosion or vegetative cover.”
The mountain’s name, logically, stems from its smooth, black, glass-like obsidian created by the Medicine Lake Volcano, the largest volcano by volume in the Cascade Range. A shield volcano rising 3,900 feet above the Modoc Plateau to an elevation of 7,795 feet, it was formed by lava flows from several small, gentle eruptions. Medicine Lake, just a short drive from the trail, fills the caldera in the summit area of the volcano and is a summertime destination for fishing, camping, hiking, boating and swimming.
It was a few days short of summer’s official beginning, but snow wasn’t what we were expecting. No one wanted to drive away without at least a quick hike, so, heads down and determined, we started along the trail. Only a short distance down what is an old road, the trail forked off in multiple directions, mostly to dead ends, some eventually hooking up with sections of more abandoned roads. Some detours ended at overlooks, others where rocks had been piled by bulldozers.
Glass Mountain’s obsidian is hidden in plain sight, sometimes in large blocks, sometimes in broken sections. Obsidian, sometimes called volcanic glass and usually black, is an igneous rock formed when molten rock cools quickly. Because it fractures easily, it was used by Indians for knives and arrowheads, and by some surgeons for scalpel blades.
In his books, “Ancient Tribes of the Klamath Country” and “Ancient Modocs of California and Oregon” the late Carrol Howe described Glass Mountain’s obsidian cliff as more than two miles long and, in places, more than 300 feet deep. According to Howe, it was a “workshop” for early Indian tribes, who chipped off obsidian and carried it to their home territories.
“Evidence indicates that the arrow makers and traders sat around the base of the cliff to chip large flakes or spalls from the glassy stone,” Howe writes in “Ancient Tribes.” “These they shaped into large, crude blades called ‘blanks.’ In this form the material was easy to transport and ready for further shaping into tools or weapons.”
Dan Munger, geologist for the Bureau of Land Management’s California state office, said Glass Mountain obsidian was traded “all over the West to other tribes,” noting obsidian has “unique signatures” that allow geologists to determine where was collected.
Although estimates vary, Munger said the formation of Glass Mountain and the Medicine Lake Highlands began 17 million years ago, with the most recent lava flows less than 900 years ago. Studies indicate the rhyolite and dacite obsidian flow erupted just outside the eastern caldera rim and flowed down the steep eastern flank of the Medicine Lake Volcano.
But there’s another reason Munger believes Glass Mountain and the Medicine Lake Highlands merit interest.
“The most interesting thing is it is an active volcano. It could turn out to be another Kilauea anytime,” he said, referring to the ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island. “It’s got the potential.”
Maybe that’s a good reason to make the return visit sooner than later. That’s assuming it’s not snowing.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.
IF YOU GO
From Klamath Falls, drive south on Highway 39-139 (the highway changes from 39 to 139 at the Oregon-California state line) about 48 miles to the Tionesta turnoff. From there drive 19 miles on Forest Road 97 to a well signed turnoff for Glass Mountain and Medicine Lake, then continue three miles to an obvious trailhead.