That Long Last Mile… (Middle Santiam Wilderness) 19-Jul-2017

Visits to Oregon's Wilderness Areas

As we’ve noted in previous posts, we have a project underway to at least visit all of Oregon’s 45 established and open federal wilderness areas that we’d missed visiting in years past. We started this project in January 2016 with 18 wilderness areas remaining and closed out that year with just two left: the Menagerie and the Middle Santiam.

The Middle Santiam Wilderness is a moderate-sized (8,844 acre) wilderness area whose primary human purpose is protection of the Santiam River watershed. Four trails, most of them seldom hiked, provide access to this wilderness: McQuade Creek (USFS #3397), Chimney Peak (USFS #3382), Gordan Peak (USFS #3387), and Swamp Peak (USFS #3401).  The Chimney Peak Trail is the most popular as it provides easy access to the upper Middle Santiam River and, in six miles or so, to Donaca Lake.  The Chimney Peak Trail was our Plan A, although we weren’t sure going in whether we’d hike all the way to the lake or just to the wilderness boundary.  Why we ended-up doing neither is a twisted tale of plans (and karma) temporarily gone awry.

Day 1: Our Karma Flees

We started this day by driving east past Sweet Home, Oregon for 23.3 miles, turned left on to gravel Forest Road (FR) 2041 (Soda Fork) and stayed on that for 12 miles until we could turn right on to FR 646 for another half mile or so of gravel two-track to the trailhead. Judging from the improved quality of these roads, all of the flagging on the trees, and the guys we saw walking around in surveyor’s vests, it looks like they’re finally going to log along FR 2041 up to the wilderness boundary.  Sigh.

But our thoughts on this fell into the chipper as we started down FR 646 and noticed that the tire inflation warning light had come on. With most of the cars we’ve owned or rented, the meaning of this light is ambiguous at best. But with the Tacoma, it’s meaning is crystal clear: kiss good-bye to one of your tires. So, between the time we pulled into the open grassy parking area at the trailhead and my taking of one photo of the trailhead sign,

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
As far as we got on the Chimney Peak Trail

the right passenger side tire had merrily hissed and burbled itself into a visibly flabby, flatulence-free wreck. Oh joy!

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
Flat with flower

Braver souls might have hiked on regardless, returning to the car after a long day on the trail hopefully only having to change one tire and then unconcerned about driving out many miles of gravel road with no spare. Sadly, we are not made of such stern stuff. But, after changing the tire, we did make an effort to drive closer to the wilderness boundary in hopes of a “Hail Mary” play over the boundary line. But no, the one road that got close was heavily overgrown (obviously not part of the latest logging plans) and the others all stopped well short of the boundary.

OK, then – we’d got back to Lebanon, get the tire fixed, and come back the next day.  But, about five miles east of Sweet Home, we came to a long line of stopped traffic.  Eventually a highway worker came by and said that there had been a bad wreck ahead, one that would take at least three hours to clear (later we would learn sadly that it had been a fatal one for a motorcyclist who collided with a logging truck).  Highway 20 is mostly a two-lane road with almost no work-arounds other than one with more backroad driving on gravel with no spare – and also the one now clogged with loaded logging trucks trying to get around the wreck.

So, rather than sit for X hours or risk more gravel driving with logging trucks, we decided to go back and do the Rooster Rock / Menagerie Wilderness hike (post).  That hike was going well until the LovedOne’s dramatic face plant during that hike.  After that, we had to get back to Lebanon, get both her and the tire fixed (thank you, Les Schwab!), and consider our next move.

Day 2: Our Karma Returns

Despite medicinal libations and a hearty dinner, The LovedOne greeted the new day with aches, bruises, and little desire for yet more hiking. But she was game to knit while I made a dash for the boundary, provided I made it a short one. More map reading ensued, which revealed that it was only three miles (out-and-back) to the boundary via the Swamp Peak Trail (USFS #3401).  Getting to the Swamp Peak Trailhead from Lebanon is quite the drive – a pretty one, but long.

From Sweet Home, Oregon, we went east on Highway 20 for four miles, turned left on to paved Forest Road 11 (the Quartzville Scenic Byway), followed that (about half two-lane and half one-lane with pull-outs) past Green Peter Reservoir for 40 miles to a right turn on to gravel FR 1152 (no sign).  After 5 miles on FR 1152, we turned left uphill on to FR 640 (no sign) for a quarter mile to the trailhead, where we were welcomed by a small hiker sign, modified by the usual drooler idiocy.

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
Not feeling the love here at the start of the Swamp Creek Trail

Leaving the LovedOne casting on stitches, I started south along an old road toward the actual trail.  There’s a kiosk and permit box at the start of the road – but no trail sign and no permits.

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
The Swamp Creek Trail starts as an old road

The actual trail starts as a jog to the right where the old road is now blocked by fallen trees. The trail itself did not appear to get much use (or much maintenance) and so alternated between obvious,

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
Along the Swamp Creek Trail

and pretty brushy.

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
Yes, there’s a trail through here

It climbs about 700 feet up from the trailhead, through some serene old forest,

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
Large, old trees along the trail

to the top of the ridge west of Knob Rock where, almost miraculously, I found a Middle Santiam Wilderness sign! Oregon Wilderness hiking project over!  I let out a small, but dignified, cheer at this moment.

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
End of the Oregon Wilderness Project

But I passed on hopping around waving my arms and scaring the wildlife in favor of getting back to The LovedOne patiently knitting away at the trailhead. All told, just 3 miles round-trip with 700 feet of elevation gain. It would be nice to come back – likely with new tires – and do our originally planned hike up to Donaca Lake on the Chimney Peak Trail. But with so many other hikes on our list it’s hard to say whether we will or not.

Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
Trails in the Middle Santiam Wilderness
Middle Santiam Wilderness Oregon
My quick dash to the boundary of the Middle Santiam Wilderness

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