Backpacking Oregon: From River Valleys to Mountain Meadows

Backpacking Oregon: From River Valleys to Mountain Meadows

by Douglas Lorain, Becky Ohlsen

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Your Guide to Oregon’s Best Backpacking Trips

Colorful desert canyonlands, stunning wildflower meadows, glacier-clad mountains—find your favorite scenic escape in Oregon. Authors and hiking experts Douglas Lorain and Becky Ohlsen present 26 of the best backpacking opportunities in the country. Explore the various landscapes of the Wallowa Mountains. See the peaks of Mount Hood and the Three Sisters in the High Cascades, as well as the gaping chasm of Hells Canyon. Each carefully crafted itinerary offers geographic diversity, beautiful settings, and attainable daily mileage goals.

This in-depth guide provides all the information backpackers need, including trail highlights, total mileage, elevation gain, days on the trail, shuttle distances, required permits, and more—not to mention professional photographs and detailed maps. Plus, ratings for scenery, solitude, and difficulty help you to find the exact adventure you seek. As an added bonus, the authors include recommendations for 16 additional backpacking trips. Whether you have three days or two weeks, an adventure filled with spectacular sights and superb vistas awaits.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780899977768
Publisher: Wilderness Press
Publication date: 12/11/2018
Series: Backpacking
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 907,600
File size: 29 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Douglas Lorain moved with his family to the Pacific Northwest in 1969, and he has been obsessively hitting the trails of his home region ever since. Spurred by an unquenchable thirst for new trails to explore and a great enthusiasm for backpacking, he has now hiked more than 30,000 miles through every corner of the American Northwest and many thousands more in other western states and Canadian provinces. Despite a history that includes being bitten by a rattlesnake, being shot at by a hunter, being charged by grizzly bears (twice!), and donating gallons of blood to mosquitoes, Lorain claims that he wouldn’t trade one moment of it because he has also been blessed to see some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth. 

His other books for Wilderness Press include Afoot&Afield: Portland/Vancouver, Backpacking Idaho, Backpacking Washington, Backpacking Wyoming, One Best Hike: Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail, One Night Wilderness: Portland, and Top Trails: Olympic National Park&Vicinity.

Lorain is a photographer and recipient of the National Outdoor Book Award. His photographs have appeared in numerous magazines, calendars, and books.

This third edition of Backpacking Oregon was updated and revised by Becky Ohlsen. Ohlsen has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 1995 and is the author of Walking Portland. She also writes travel guidebooks for Lonely Planet, covering Sweden, Oregon, and Washington, among other destinations.

Read an Excerpt


  • RATINGS: Scenery: 10, Solitude: 3, Difficulty 6
  • MILES: 44
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 6,400'
  • DAYS: 4–6
  • MAP: USFS Detroit Ranger District: Willamette National Forest
  • USUALLY OPEN: Mid-July–October
  • BEST: Late July–mid-August
  • PERMITS: Yes, self-issued at trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required at trailheads; limited-entry permits also required for the Pamelia Area (reserve in advance, $10 reservation fee, available at or 877-444-6777).
  • RULES: No fires at Rockpile Lake or Jefferson Park; designated campsites at Wasco Lake and lakes in Jefferson Park
  • CONTACT: Detroit Ranger District, Willamette National Forest, 503-854-3366,


Views and mountain scenery; Jefferson Park—wow!


Permits and access restrictions; long stretches without water; crowds; snowfields; crossing of Russell Creek; mosquitoes (especially in the Olallie Scenic Area) mid-July–mid-August


From I-5, take Exit 228 (about halfway between Salem and Eugene), and head east on OR 34. In 7.9 miles, take a right onto North Second Street, and in 0.1 mile turn right onto US 20. In 67.1 miles, you will find the well-marked Pacific Crest Trailhead at Santiam Pass on your left. 

The north trailhead is reached by taking I-5 to Exit 253 in Salem. Head east on OR 22, and go 48.5 miles to Detroit. Turn left onto Forest Service Road 46, heading northeast from Detroit. Go over a pass after 16 miles, descend north another 7 miles, and then continue another 5.2 miles to the trailhead at the north end of Olallie Lake.

To reach the Breitenbush Lake trailhead (suitable only for four-wheel drive vehicles) from Detroit, take FS 46 northeast. Go 16.5 miles, and turn right onto FS 4220. Go 6.5 miles to reach the trailhead. (You can also reach it via Olallie Lake, but that section of road is notoriously bad.)

GPS TRAILHEAD COORDINATES: (Santiam Pass) N44° 25.365' W121° 51.307' (Olallie Lake) N44° 51.467' W121° 46.396' (Breitenbush Lake) N44° 45.888' W121° 47.126'


The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) traces the entire mountainous backbone of Oregon. Along the way it visits most of the scenic highlights of the Cascade Range. Most hikers rank the section through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness as the best part of the PCT’s route through Oregon, and it would be difficult to argue with them. The trail stays high for most of its length here, providing memorable vistas at nearly every turn. Continuing the trip north through the Olallie Scenic Area adds even more lovely meadows and lakes. Hiking this additional section also eliminates the need to drive the very poor road to the Breitenbush Lake trailhead.


From the large trailhead parking lot at Santiam Pass, follow a short spur trail east to a junction with the PCT and turn left. Climb gradually through forest for 1.5 miles, passing a few stagnant ponds, to a junction with the Oregon Skyline Trail. Keep right and climb more steadily along the southern ridge of Three-Fingered Jack. The woods become more open and the scenery improves as you climb, but the views of Three-Fingered Jack remain limited until you round a ridge and, rather suddenly, the trees break for a full frontal view of this craggy mountain. The trail crosses a talus slope and probably a few lingering snowfields as it traverses the west and north faces of this peak.

TIP: Shortly after a small pass north of the peak, look back for a final close-up view of Three-Fingered Jack’s northeast cliffs.

The PCT then descends through forest and recovering burn areas to a junction at Minto Pass. Several designated camps are at Wasco Lake a short distance southeast of the pass.

TIP: A highly scenic alternate cross-country route to Wasco Lake drops steeply from the pass north of Three-Fingered Jack to spectacular Canyon Creek Meadows. These meadows have a terrific view of Three-Fingered Jack and support a riot of wildflowers in late July. Visit this popular spot on a weekday, and be extra careful not to trample the flowers. To exit the meadows, hike the access trail to the northeast. Keep left at a fork (now paralleling Canyon Creek) and reach a small waterfall near a trail junction. Turn left (north) for another 0.7 mile to Wasco Lake.

Continuing north from Minto Pass on the PCT, slowly climb a heavily burned ridge and cross an open slope with fine vistas south back to jagged Three-Fingered Jack. Round a ridge and then reach the bowl holding Rockpile Lake. Fires are prohibited here. This small lake marks the beginning of an extended ridge walk, featuring more great scenery. The only significant drawback to this terrific stretch is a lack of water.

Only 1.4 miles north of Rockpile Lake is an open pass beside the reddish-colored summit of South Cinder Peak.

TIP: Don’t miss the easy scramble to the top of this cinder cone for an excellent viewpoint.

The PCT continues its scenic route in and out of trees as it leads north toward the sharp spire of Mount Jefferson.

TIP: At a small meadow, shortly after rounding the west side of North Cinder Peak, the trail passes an unseen shallow pond on the right, with water and a few camps. This is the only reliable trailside water between Rockpile and Shale Lakes—a total distance of 8.8 miles.

Not far beyond the pond is the first of several dramatic clifftop overlooks of Mount Jefferson and the diverse volcanic landscape below. This display of volcanism includes cinder cones, lava flows, and a basalt-rimmed mesa called The Table. Only the Three Sisters area showcases a more interesting and scenic variety of the volcanic forces that shaped this landscape.

The trail drops a bit to the west and reaches a junction. Turn right (sticking with the PCT) and hike along the western side of the impressively rugged Cathedral Rocks. Next on the list of wonders is a partially forested plateau supporting several small lakes, of which only Coyote, Shale, and Mud Hole Lakes are near the trail.

TIP: These lakes are the jumping-off point for excellent cross-country explorations to Goat Peak, to The Table, and, for the truly ambitious, up the long, steep south ridge of Mount Jefferson. Strong scramblers can get all the way to a point a little below the summit, where a dangerously exposed traverse stops those not equipped with climbing gear.

The PCT gradually descends from the lovely high country on a series of long switchbacks to a junction with a trail coming up from popular Pamelia Lake. Nearby is a sweeping view up the steep canyon of Milk Creek to the top of Mount Jefferson. You step across Milk Creek and gradually climb to a junction with the little-used Woodpecker Ridge Trail. Continue on the PCT, which passes a small, narrow lake with an unattractive campsite as it makes its way across the northwest side of Mount Jefferson.

Now you confront a potential problem—the crossing of Russell Creek. As with most glacial streams, this creek’s volume increases significantly on hot summer afternoons due to the melting of snow and glacial ice above. Try to cross in the morning, and expect a cold, possibly dangerous crossing—made worse by the brown glacial water obscuring possible footholds.

Not long after the crossing is a junction with the overly popular Whitewater Trail from the west. Keep right and follow the crowds to Jefferson Park, a nationally famous spot that should be seen by every Oregon outdoors lover. It is the perfect blend of alpine meadows, scattered trees, wildflowers, and lakes. Overlooking this scene is the snowy crown of Mount Jefferson. Camping near lakes is restricted to designated sites, and fires are prohibited. 

Once you manage to drag yourself away from this paradise, the PCT climbs through more great scenery to the top of Park Ridge. Allow plenty of extra time here to gaze in amazement upon what many believe to be the best view in Oregon. The scene back down across the lovely expanse of Jefferson Park and sweeping up to the top of Mount Jefferson is impossible to describe. 

To continue your trip, hike (or slide) down the huge semipermanent snowfield on the north side of Park Ridge. Relocate the trail and tour a scenic area of ponds, small trees, and heather meadows. Your route goes through a low pass and then turns northeast across a slope with views of prominent Pyramid Butte. Leave the wilderness and reach the trailhead near Breitenbush Lake on dirt FS 4220—an alternate stopping point for those with less time for hiking and a vehicle they don’t mind driving up this rough road. 

The recommended exit point lies another 6 miles to the north at Olallie Lake. The route is continuously beautiful, if not as grandly scenic as the areas you’ve already seen. Go north around a shallow lake surrounded by meadows, wildflowers, and heather and then lose elevation past two quick junctions with trails from the east. Look for a short side path to the left up Ruddy Hill—well worth the 15-minute detour. The trail gradually descends to good camps beside shallow Upper Lake, backed by a scenic rockslide, and continues to Cigar Lake, with its nearby ponds, meadows, and huckleberries. Continue north 0.5 mile to a four-way junction. Here you keep straight on the PCT for a final 1.4 scenic miles to the northern trailhead at Olallie Lake. 

WARNING: The lakes and ponds of the Olallie Scenic Area support a voracious population of mosquitoes. If you visit in July or early August, come prepared with a head net, insect repellent, and a willingness to do some swatting. 

NOTE: For loop lovers, the best option here is to follow the PCT to Milk Creek; take a day or two for a side trip to Jefferson Park; then return via the forested Oregon Skyline Trail past Pamelia Lake, Marion Lake, and Eight Lakes Basin.



  • Day 1: Wasco Lake: 10.6 miles / 1,900' elevation gain
  • Day 2: Shale Lake: 12.2 miles / 1,500' elevation gain
  • Day 3: Jefferson Park: 9.9 miles / 1,800' elevation gain
  • Day 4: Upper Lake: 9.5 miles / 1,100' elevation gain
  • Day 5: Out: 2.2 miles / 100' elevation gain

Table of Contents


Map Legend

Featured Trips Summary Chart


  • A Word About the Third Edition


  • How to Use This Guide
  • Wild Areas of Oregon
  • Safety Notice
  • General Tips on Backpacking in Oregon
  • Overview Map of Featured Trips


  • Klamath and Siskiyou Mountains
    • Rogue River Trail
    • Siskiyou–Boundary Trail
  • Western “Old” Cascades
    • Bull of the Woods Loop
  • High Cascades: North
    • Timberline Trail Loop
    • Mount Jefferson Wilderness Traverse
    • Three Sisters Loop
    • Separation Creek Loop
    • Mink Lake Area
  • High Cascades: South
    • Diamond Peak Loop
    • North Umpqua–Mount Thielsen Trails
    • North Umpqua Trail
    • Sky Lakes Traverse
  • Blue Mountains
    • Strawberry Mountains Traverse
    • Elkhorn Crest Trail
  • Wallowa Mountains
    • Minam River Loop
    • Bear Creek Loop
    • Lostine–Minam Loop
    • Wallowa River Loop
    • Southern Wallowas Traverse
    • East Eagle–Imnaha Loop
  • Hells Canyon
    • Hells Canyon Western Rim “Summit” Trail
    • Snake River Trail
    • Hells Canyon Bench “High” Trail
  • Southeast Oregon Mountains
    • Steens Mountain Gorges Loop
    • Desert Trail: Pueblo Mountains Section
  • Owyhee Country
    • Honeycombs Loop

Other Backpacking Options


About the Authors

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From the Publisher

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