Tag Archives: Oregon

Hike Oregon: Matthieu Lakes Trail

26 Oct

The only thing more stunning than the panoramic view of Oregon’s volcanic mountain peaks from the Dee Wright Observatory … is the view of the Sisters that smacks you right in the face as you crest the PCT near South Matthieu Lake.

The observatory sits atop McKenzie Pass in the Cascade Mountains, along Oregon Highway 242 about 15 miles west of Sisters, OR. Overlooking the lava flow that poured from nearby volcanoes thousands of years ago, the observatory was built of lava rock by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

Towering over the lava fields — both eerie and awesome on their own — is one of the most spectacular displays of mountains in Oregon. On one side, the Three Sisters — North, Middle and South — loom. On the other side, Mt. Washington and Three Fingered Jack, among others, sit in the middle distance, while in the far distance, Mt. Hood can be seen on a clear day.

The peaks of Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack and Mt. Jefferson can be seen from the PCT on the way to South Matthieu Lake.

The peaks of Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack and Mt. Jefferson can be seen from the PCT on the way to South Matthieu Lake.

We began our hike on the Pacific Crest Trail that crosses the lava fields. Find that trail by going about 200 yards west of the last observatory parking lot and on the south side of the highway (the PCT does cross the road).

The trail winds across the lava field — amazing in its own right — for about a mile. Shortly after leaving the lava field, the Lava Camp Lake trail meets the PCT. Take a right on the PCT to head to the Matthieu Lakes loop. In a half-mile, you’ll reach the junction of the PCT and the North Matthieu Lake trail. We followed the PCT up to South Matthieu Lake and returned on the North Matthieu Lake trail.

The trail makes a steady but middling climb for about 2 miles, when you’ll see the peaks of Washington-TFJ-Jefferson to the northwest. Soon, you’ll see North Matthieu Lake below. And just a bit further, you’ll clear the trees and face the Sisters. Just a bit further on the trail and left at the next junction will bring you to a stunning view of the North Sister towering over South Matthieu Lake.

Matthieu Lakes Trail, Three Sisters Wilderness

Matthieu Lakes Trail, Three Sisters Wilderness

To reach North Matthieu Lake, backtrack to the junction and follow the North Matthieu Trail to the lake below. After exploring the lake, follow the trail back down the mountain, returning to the start of the Matthieu loop. The trail stays close to the lava flow, and on the October day when we hiked, the trail was occasionally flooded by runoff, but these spots were easily skirted.

Instead of re-crossing the lava field to reach the observatory, we took a right at the PCT-Lava Lake trails junction. It was a short walk to the Lava Camp Lake trail parking lot, and a left turn returns you to Highway 242. We walked the shoulder to return to the observatory parking lot.

It was cloudy the day of our hike, but the sun was burning through the clouds at the same time we were emerging, lining the ridges of the snow-dappled Sisters in bright light.

Getting there: The Dee Wright Observatory is about 15 miles west of Sisters. It’s 22 miles east of the Highway 242/126 intersection — a narrow, winding climb of 4,000 feet or so — or 76 miles east of the Eugene intersection with I-5. Highway 242 is not open all year, and the narrow road is devoid of shoulders over the pass.

Staying there: Several campgrounds can be found on the west side of the McKenzie Pass, most at lower elevations. But we stayed at the Forest Service’s Cold Springs Campground, just 4 miles west of Sisters. It featured pit toilets, water and cost $12 a night. 

Three Sisters from the trail above South Matthieu Lake.

Three Sisters from the trail above South Matthieu Lake.

A trail runner in Oregon striving to be an Oregon trail runner

1 Feb

Running has been a big part of my life for a dozen years or so, but in the past two years, I’ve become hooked on trail running. I love the variety of the trail itself, the challenge of the elements and the beauty of the outdoors.

Until two months ago, Keokuk, Iowa, was my home base. I spent countless hours running the hills along the Mississippi River, and recently, I added the trails at Geode State Park, which offer some fun single-track around a scenic lake. From this training, I was able to run several 50-mile races, including one in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, and a 100-miler, as well as a number of marathons.

But my new home in Lincoln City, Oregon, will take my training to a new level. Today’s run in the Drift Creek Wilderness illustrates the difference in the two locales. A 7-mile trail run around Lake Geode in Iowa resulted in about 875 feet of vertical — 125 feet per mile. Today’s 7.5-mile run on the Horse Creek North Trail was good for 1,700 feet of vertical — 225 feet per mile.

Horse Creek vertical

Horse Creek elevation profile

Geode vertical

Geode Park elevation profile

And while the total vertical is one thing, the sustained ascents and descents are an even bigger difference. The trail around Lake Geode constantly rose and fell, but it was difficult to find a sustained climb of more than a half mile. Contrast that with Horse Creek, which dropped — and subsequently climbed — 1,400 feet in 2.25 unbroken miles.

If you’re training for a mountain trail race, which is my favorite kind of race, you need to prepare for unrelenting climbs or descents.

The first time I ran the 50-miler in Wyoming’s Bighorns, I was unprepared for the vertical. The first 18 miles is a steady downhill, and one climb rose 3,000 feet in about 3 miles. You can’t train in Iowa for those conditions. The following year, I added plenty of repeats on the biggest hills that I could find, but it was still a poor substitute.


So while I explore the many trails of Oregon — and particularly those in the nearby Oregon Coast Range — I’m learning many lessons that will help me become a true mountain trail runner. Today’s lessons included:

  • Being ready with a back-up location. I had planned a run around Olalla Reservoir, owned by the Georgia-Pacific lumber company. But when I arrived, I found the gate was locked and a sign warned off visitors due to a low water level at the reservoir. Uncertain if the prohibition extended to the surrounding trails, I headed off to another location.
  • Following a route on my GPS watch. Last week, I missed two turns while running the trails at Cape Perpetua Scenic Area. This week, I had downloaded the GPX file for the run to my watch. The Horse Creek trail is an out-and-back trail that is easy to follow, but it still gave me a chance to work out the kinks in following a route on my Suunto Ambit2.
  • Embracing the rike. Yes, “rike” — part run, part hike. There’s no way I’m prepared for a 2-mile uphill of 1,400 feet. And frankly, after a 10-week layoff in training, I’m not even ready for an uninterrupted run of 6 or 8 miles in the mountains. But a steady rike keeps me on the trails and extends my distance.

I’ve taken a number of hikes in the surrounding mountains since my arrival in mid-November, but today’s run was just my second true trail run. And all I can say is: Bring on the Oregon mountain trail runs and the lessons that come with them.

For an animation of the run, which also includes some photos along the way, watch this:

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