Distance: 19 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 2500 feet
Around 3000 years ago, a lava flow created what is now Clear Lake in Oregon, and the petrified forest within the lake. I have been to Clear Lake many times, but never thought much about where this lava flow came from. When I read that it erupted from the nearby Sand Mountain, I decided to take a hike through history from Clear Lake up to its creator. To make it even cooler and more historic, I found that among the trails that would take me there was the old Santiam Wagon Road. It is now little more than a well defined trail in most places, but in some areas you can see the road defined enough to imagine the wagons travelling along it a hundred years ago.
|North End of Clear Lake|
I did not know exactly how long this hike would be, but I knew it would be a long day hike. Not so much a day hike as an "All day" hike. This gives you the perfect reason to stay the night at Clear Lake Resort the night before your hike, so you can get an early start without having to wake up early. Alternatively, you might drive in early and start out at the McKenzie River Trailhead and shave a couple miles off the hike. There is a small marked lot next to the highway close to the wagon road info sign for McKenzie River Trailhead.
|Hike Route Overlay in Dark Green|
Starting out from the Clear Lake resort, head north on the Clear Lake trail which follows the perimeter of the lake until you reach the junction with the McKenzie River Trail near the north edge of the lake. Turn away from the lake and bridge and continue north on the McKenzie River Trail towards the McKenzie River Trailhead. You will cross a wooden bridge over a lava flow creek bed and then be near the trailhead parking lot. From here you can turn East towards the Santiam Wagon Road information sign. From here you will continue East travelling several miles on this old wagon trail.
There are wooden post mile markers along the wagon road, and not long after the first mile marker, you will enter an area of old forest where all the trees wear wisps of green lichen evenly spaced on their trunks like so many goatees. As you continue on and get past the second mile marker, you have gained some elevation and the landscape starts to change a bit. The trail gets sandy in places, and you will come across a few camp sites, some of which appear to be large flat areas that might have been fine places to park a few wagons and camp for the night long ago.
I did not notice any mile markers after the second, but many miles later, the trail gets even sandier and it becomes helpful to hike off the trail to the side, and you will see the larger part of Sand Mountain rising up to your right. You can also start to see some of the oddities of this area like many trees that seem to be confused and have started growing sideways. The trail continues until you are almost past Sand Mountain, then the Old Wagon Road ends and you are turned out onto a dirt road. Continuing on south east on this dirt road, you reach a gate and sign for the Sand Mountain interest area entrance. Here you turn right and pass around the gate to continue up the road to Sand Mountain.
After you get around to the back of the hill, you reach the old Sand Mountain trailhead and the road ends. The first part of this trail up to the lookout tower is actually an old road that is just not used anymore, but soon you leave that road in favor of a trail to take you the final climb. This last few hundred feet up to the tower is really the only steep part of the whole hike despite the significant elevation gain. After just a little hard work on the steep trail you pass a little outhouse and approach the lookout tower. Enjoy the views of various mountains on this windy peak, recharge, and maybe have a chat with the Sand Mountain Society or Forest Service Volunteer staffing the lookout.
|Start of trail to lookout|
If it's clear enough, you should even be able to see a small sliver of Clear Lake off to the West, and you can imagine the trip the lava must have taken to flow all those miles dam up the river and create the lake. The most spectacular views are off to the East and North however as you take in Three Finger Jack, Black Butte, Big Lake, and Mount Washington. There is more information about the relationship between Clear Lake and Sand Mountain to be found in this post.