Thursday, July 27, 2017

Visiting the Mount Jefferson Wilderness - Shale Lake

Mount Jefferson above pink heather and Shale Lake along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Willamette National Forest, Cascade Range, Oregon, USA.
Mount Jefferson above pink heather at Shale Lake.
I've been wanting to visit the Mount Jefferson Wilderness for several years now - specifically Jefferson Park, or "Jeff Park" as the locals call it.  Finally this year, my schedule allowed me to plan a visit.

I planned to visit two areas not far apart from one another - the Pamelia Lake area and Jefferson Park.  I originally planned on doing them as a single backpack, but logistics wouldn't work for me as I had a deadline to be back in town by.  So instead, I elected to treat them as separate trips.

The Pamelia Lake region is the most popular backpacking destination in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.  As such, a special Limited Entry permit is required, which can be purchased online at, or picked up at the Detroit Ranger Station. 

I drove down to Detroit, OR and to the TH on Sunday night and slept in my vehicle, planning to get an early start the next day.  I awoke at 5:00 am and was on the trail by 6:00.  My goal was to beat the droves and get a good campsite at Shale Lake for the night.

I arrived at Pamelia Lake in about 45 minutes and took a break to snoop around the campground.  It appeared vacant.  The lake is surrounded by forest and affords limited views.  Basically, it's a place to fish and hangout, and serve as a basecamp for those wanting to daytrip to the high country, such as Grizzly Peak.

I followed the connector trail up to the PCT and turned south for Shale Lake.  The trail climbs mostly through forest, entering sub-alpine country just before the lake.  I arrived to dozens of empty campsites at Shale Lake at 10:00 am.  I had it all to myself for most of the day.  So much for beating the crowds!  Around mid-afternoon, some PCT thru-hikers began arriving and would take a break to absorb the view.  Thru-hikers are prohibited from camping at the lake without the special permit, so all had to move along.  The few campers that did arrive didn't appear until near dinner time.  Most of the campground remained empty during my visit.

I met several thru-hikers as they came by and stopped.  In fact, I was surprised at how many due to how early in the year it was (July).  In each case, I learned they all had one thing in common.  They skipped a section of the trail - most commonly the Sierras, in some cases all of California.

One hiker I really enjoyed meeting and talking with was One Gear (PCT hikers always use nicknames on the trail).  He had a long, 17 mile day that turned into 20+ mile adventure when he got lost and accidentally descended into Hunt's Cove and had to climb out of it off-trail in steep terrain to regain the PCT.  He was beat.

Mount Jefferson reflected in Shale Lake after sunset, Pacific Crest Trail, Mount Jefferson Wilderness, Willamette National Forest, Cascade Range, Oregon, USA.
Mount Jefferson reflected in Shale Lake after sunset.
After setting camp, I wandered south a short distance to an awesome viewpoint overlooking Hunt's Cove.  Hunt's Cove consists of two lakes - Hunt's and Hank's, set in basin of meadows and trees far below.

Thunderstorms were in the forecast, so I was hopeful for some dramatic evening clouds for sunset.  It never happened.  What appeared to be a low level marine layer began sneaking up on the northwest side of the mountain.  Also, the smell of smoke became noticeable in the air.  I began hearing of a new forest fire just over the ridge to the north, it's plume of smoke spotted by several thru-hikers shortly before they arrived.  Speculation was that is was a considerable distance away.

Shale Lake isn't the best photography destination for shooting Mount Jefferson at sunset.  This side of the mountain receives minimal light at sunset in the summer months.  Also, I had hoped for more snow on the mountain.  I found little foreground material to work with as well, focusing on a small patch of heather and other flowers on the shore of the lake.  Fortunately, I was awarded some nice pink skies about 20 minutes after sunset, and the lake finally glassed over to offer a reflection of the mountain.

The next morning I awoke at 5:00 am and was on the trail by 5:45, beating sunrise by several minutes.  I made quick work of the trail and arrived back at my vehicle at 8:00 am.  My eyes burned from the smoke in the air at times.

After a short break, I drove back to Highway 22 and caught the Whitewater Road only a couple miles up.  As I approached the first TH, a sign greeted me on the side of the road - "Fire Ahead, Trail Closed".  My heart sank.  I continued up the road in hopes that it was only for that trailhead.  It was not.  As I approached the Whitewater TH, another sign greeted me stating the same thing.  My trip was done before it even got started.

There are other trails to Jefferson Park and I considered them for a brief moment.  But I realized the amount of smoke in the air likely would compromise photography, as well as the overall experience, and elected to save the visit for another time.

In retrospect, I was very underwhelmed with the Pamelia Lake area.  While it was a fun experience, it is not an area I will likely return to.  I believe the popularity of the area (crowds which I never encountered) are due to its easy access (2 miles from the TH) and being a popular fishing hole.  Just my two cents.

For photographers, I recommend a mid-range telephoto lens for this area.  I brought a couple wide-angle lenses, but they never saw the light of day.  While flowers exist in this area, they are not overly abundant.

Thanks for reading.  I hope to see you on the trail!