In years passed Mia and I have rented a house someplace for annual long our vacation (lately it has been the Methow Valley/North Cascades) but this year was a bit different.
We also like to take vacation, if possible, after Labor Day (or late May before school is out). Traveling after summer break for families, and being D.I.N.K.S. ourselves, vacations to popular locales after Labor Day tend to be a bit quieter, less families and prices tend to drop which is always a bonus.
Last year because of COVID we skipped our annual trip to Winthrop, WA. This year with several large wildfires in the area, one of them being literally on the perimeter of the property we rent, we decided it was again best to avoid the area. Instead we opted for a week of traveling with Clifford the Big Red Van. This would be our longest trip in the van since acquiring it late last year. We’ve had a decent amount of weekend trips so now for the big test to see how a week long adventure would go.
With the mobility of #vanlife we concocted a plan that took in a variety of Pacific Northwest geography or in the cool kid vernacular of today’s speech……”Zones”. The first few days we’d be up near Mount Rainier, then take a scenic drive down into eastern Oregon to visit the Strawberry Wilderness outside of Prairie City and finally spend a bit of time in our favorite area of the Deschutes National Forest.
Days 1 & 2 – Home to Mount Rainier
We got somewhat of a later start than planned leaving home to head up to Silver Springs CG. Being Monday of Labor Day we opted to avoid the drive through Portland and up I-5 and instead dropped down Cornelius Pass to Highway 30 and picked up I-5 just outside of Longview, WA. It’s a pleasant drive, if not the fastest in the world, but we’re on vacation and trying to maintain a chill attitude.
The first thing we did after parking at our campsite was take a long walk around the whole campground. It was nice to stretch the legs after the drive and of course get Codi to take care of business. Silver Springs runs right through the campground, it is early in the salmon spawning season but the spring was packed with Chinook salmon. In some parts of the water the salmon were so thickly packed it felt like you could have just reached in and plucked one out. We spent maybe 10-15 minutes just watching them work their way upstream.
The campground itself is extremely well shaded. It has been one of the nicer campgrounds we’ve visited in quite a long time. There was a mix of pit and flush toilets. We happened to be camped not far from one of two flushing bathroom buildings. Yup, it is the small things in life that matter. Flushable toilet and hot running water.
For Tuesday we had picked a hike on the eastern side of Chinook Pass. All I can say is what a difference. The campground was cool, shaded and clear sky. As soon as we came over the pass and to the PCT parking lot temps had jumped into the low 70’s and it was SMOKY! Not kinda smoky but wicked smoky. It smelled like a massive campfire. We had pretty much suspected this would be the case given the rather massive 100,000+ acre Schneider Springs wildfire not far from Yakima.
The conditions did not deter us from the Sheep Lake/Sourdough Gap hike we had planned. I don’t think Codi was super psyched with how warm it was nor the smell of smoke. We’ve come to the conclusion after this week that our avid little hiker has finally gone over the hill. He did well on all the hikes we did but the pep and enthusiasm we have seen in previous years has definitely waned. He’s good for about 4-5 miles of moderate terrain. Codi is approaching eleven years old now and he definitely prefers temps under 60 degrees for any sort of long walk.
The hike itself to Sheep Lake is quite easy. I think it was barely 1.6 miles of gentle uphill before we hit the lake. The next 1.5 miles up to Sourdough Gap was where a majority of the elevation gain for this hike took place.
Being an out and back hike meant Codi got to swim in Sheep Lake twice. He’s definitely liquid cooled like a two stroke engine.
By the time we returned to the campsite the smoke had crept over the pass and was settling into the valley on our side now. A breeze picked up later in the day to help clear things out again but the pervasive campfire smell continued to linger.
Day 3 – Driving to Dayville, Oregon
Wednesday started off rather casual. Checkout time from the campground wasn’t until noon so we took our sweet time making breakfast, walking around more, watching the salmon some more and finally doing a quick clean out and repack of Clifford.
Upon leaving we headed back over Chinook Pass following route 410 all the way into Yakima. This brought us right by the Schneider Springs fire. At one point we could see large flames up in the hillside and a helicopter doing water drops on the fire.
I like to avoid taking major highways as much as possible when we’re on trips like this. We followed route 22 out of Yakima and were quite surprised by the tiny town of Prosser, WA filled with lots of nationally distributed wineries.
From there we spent a short distance on the highway and dropped down into Pendleton, OR to follow route 395 south to Mount Vernon. The first 20-30 miles of 395 is kind of boring with just rolling hills and farms. As you approach Battle Mountain though the trees reappear and for the next 60+ miles the drive is quite scenic.
The history of Battle Mountain is a bit disturbing. Click on this link to read about it. Aside from its dark past it made for a convenient place to walk the dog for a bit and stretch our legs too.
Since not properly showering since early Monday we opted for a mid trip overnight stay at the Fish House Inn in Dayville, OR. We won’t lie, it was awesome to have a hot shower and a couple rooms to roam for one night compared to living out of the van.
Little known fact: Dayville Mercantile is one of Oregon’s oldest general stores! We didn’t stop in (next time!) as we walked around town (doesn’t take long to cover the whole place).
Day 4 – Strawberry Wilderness
The next couple days were probably the highlight of our trip for me.
On a side note, we saw lots of Greater Idaho signs in this part of the state. I can totally get why the residents of Oregon out here have virtually no connection with the political leanings of the state. The population density of Oregon basically follows the I-5 corridor. So a bunch of liberal hipsters living in PDX and the surrounding metro area control the political fortunes of the rest of the state. I can flat out tell you that I empathize with the more rural parts of this state. I’m happier away from the city than I am living in it. It’s for sure one of the reasons we choose Forest Grove to live in.
The drive south out of Prairie City to the trailhead starts out paved, turns to gravel and then the last few miles gets quite steep and bumpy (that’s being kind). I guess Clifford handled it well since I caught up to a Jeep CJ on the way up.
Strawberry Campground is at the end of the road and next to the day use parking for the Strawberry Basin trail. There are not many sites and all are first come first served. For van or trailer parking there are not many suitably flat sites. Not surprised that there was only one other site taken when we initially arrived. So we backed up into site 6 which was suitable for Clifford.
The forecast for the late afternoon called for rain and possible thunder showers. While I was very happy to be seeing the potential for the first rain in months, I was not keen to be out walking in the woods (at 7,000′) should lightning storms come rolling on through.
This hike can be broken up into three stages really. Barely a mile and a half to Strawberry Lake, another almost mile to Strawberry Falls and finally barely another mile to Little Strawberry Lake.
The lake sits at 6,263 feet. Given the time of year for us and the very warm temperatures all summer long we had very little concern about snow. Because apparently snow can linger up here until mid August. The top of Strawberry Mountain sits a smidge over 9,000′ in elevation.
It took very little time to hike up to the falls next. Well worth it if you ask me.
The next, and final, part of our hike was to go up to Little Strawberry Lake. We almost made it too. I’d wager we were maybe 200 yards from the lake we when were stopped by four mountain goats. They were not aggressive with us and they really didn’t seem to care we were nearby (probably because they knew they were tougher than us). With them grazing right along the trail though and us having Codi we didn’t feel comfortable trying to pass them.
In all my years that we’ve been hiking and/or biking I have come across bear, moose, too many deer to count, pheasants, wild turkeys, a ferret, marmot…basically you name it. This however was my first time being this close to a mountain goat. So cool to see and man are they a lot bigger than I would have imagined.
When we finally got back to camp there were two more sites taken. So a total of four sites out of nine (maybe 8?). The site directly across from us had another Airstream Basecamp that had me wondering how well it did on that last mile of road up to the campground.
The last mile or so back to our site had us both a bit worried. The wind was starting to gust and we could see dark, nasty looking clouds coming in. It rained a little bit and we had one really good flash of lightning and a tremendous crack of thunder too. All in all we made it back to the van relatively dry though. There was one or two heavier downpours overnight but no more thunder or lightning that we can recall.
Day 5 – Rainy drive to Sisters
The weather for Friday morning was remarkably decent given the forecast and overnight rains. It was cool and cloudy but I was able to cook breakfast outside at the stove and stay dry. It wasn’t until we started to descend back to Prairie City and head west on 26 that the rain started. It rained on and off all the way back to Sisters. It was an actual joy to see! As mentioned earlier we hadn’t seen any rain since some time in June and the fire conditions have been extreme for months now. To get even this short reprieve was glorious.
We made good time back to Sisters and Sisters Coffee was a mandatory stop before trying to find a campsite for one more night. After spending the past 5 days in campgrounds or small rural towns the crowds in Sisters were kind of a shock to the system. I may have uttered at one point something along the lines of “oh joy….people” with more than a hint of sarcastic loathing.
We hadn’t reserved any campsite in the area for the night and were hoping to play it by ear. We ended up heading straight for South Shore Campground, the same place we stayed a few weeks ago, as our first option. We lucked out and got a site that was vacant for one night. Everything else was booked for the weekend. Of course the next morning when walking Codi I noticed about 25% of the sites that were supposed to have Friday night campers were vacant!
Day 6 – Headed Home
It was definitely the coolest morning of our trip on Saturday morning. I’d wager low 40’s when we first got up. I had to pull out the long pants and puffer for this one.
After another stop at Sisters Coffee (hey what can we say? We like it!) we were on the road for home. It was a great week out and I am already longing for another trip like this one. We will have to temper our expectations for hikes with Codi as he enters the geriatric years. Neither of us can bring ourselves to kennel him and go off adventuring. He’s a member of our family and bringing him along is mandatory.
Thanks for reading. It was nice to sit down and type out this trip. Brings a smile to my face just thinking about how great this was. All the pictures are posted here.