Stock landscape and outdoor adventure photos from Oregon, Washington, and the Pacific Northwest

Broken Top Photo Adventure: Oh Dear (Deer), Another Photographic Failure.

Landscape photography is an unpredictable adventure.  Sometimes, everything goes as planned and other times, nothing does.  This story is about the latter.

It was late summer in Central Oregon, and while the flowers in many of our lower meadows had already burned up, I knew that I could still find some huge stands of monkey flowers in the higher elevation meadows on the north side of Broken Top Mountain. I had been to the meadows a few years earlier, but had problems nailing the focus on this dramatically vertical shot. Armed with a new camera and a wider angle lens, I figured I could go back and perfect the photo if I was given a second chance.

Monkey flower bloom on the north side of Broken Top Mountain in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area

Monkey flower bloom on the north side of Broken Top Mountain in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area

I carefully studied my topography map, and calculated that the quickest way into the meadows would be to find the streams running out of Broken Top Glacier somewhere near the Park Meadow trailhead and then follow them cross-country until I got above the tree line. Based on the sun’s recent positioning, I also figured that I should be able to get some decent evening and morning light, and therefore, I planned on hiking into the meadows in the late evening and setting up camp so that I would be there for sunset and sunrise.

I drove up to the Three Creeks Area, and as I steered my Jeep onto the narrow, rutted road leading into the Park Meadow trailhead, I found three backpackers hugging the side of the road. Knowing that it was a long way to the trailhead (and guessing that they must be from out of town), I stopped and asked them if they wanted a lift. They were somewhat surprised to hear that they weren’t actually on the trail yet, so they happily climbed in. On the drive to the trailhead, I learned that they were here visiting for a few days from Idaho, and that they had read somewhere that Park Meadow was a nice hike. I tried to be polite, but I also felt somewhat compelled to explain to them that the Park Meadow trail is perhaps one of my least favorites in all of Oregon. While the meadow itself is beautiful, the approach is absolutely horrible. Hikers are basically stuck in the woods on a deep, dusty, horse-trodden trail for 4 viewless miles until they finally reach the meadow—which this late in the year probably wasn’t even going to have flowers.

I reviewed several other trail options with them during the drive, and explained that I had found a new way into some different meadows which were equally pretty. I invited them to tag along with me if they wanted, but I also warned them that the route would be almost entirely off trail and that I wasn’t actually 100 percent sure where I was going. They quickly weighed their options and decided that since they only had one day of their vacation remaining, a dusty viewless hike was probably going to be better than getting lost in the wilderness with some stranger. I can’t really blame them for that.

Backcountry photo of Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Mountains (South Sister, Middle Sister, and North Sister).

Backcountry photo of Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Mountains (South Sister, Middle Sister, and North Sister).

The Idahoans and I wished each other luck and then we parted ways at the parking area. I was still thinking about what a nice conversation I had with them when my views opened up from the back side of Broken Top all the way across to the Three Sisters Mountains. I had walked less than a half-mile, and I was already getting good views confirming that I had indeed made the right choice. In another mile or so, I found the stream that I was looking for and began my cross-country trek up to the meadows.

The stream was much prettier than expected. There were Indian paintbrush and monkey flowers flanking both sides of the stream and although this was not my primary destination, I knew that the scene was just too beautiful to pass up. I swung my backpack around, unloaded my tripod, and then tip toed across the water to a large collection of flowers situated in the middle of one of the upstream forks.

Indian Paintbrush bloom along a cascading stream in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Indian Paintbrush bloom along a cascading stream in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Recognizing that the sun was dropping low on the horizon, I snapped a few quick pictures and then started hiking briskly up toward the meadows. When I arrived in the meadow, I saw the same large stands of monkey flowers that I had found on my last visit. I hurried over to them so that I could get my camera set up before the light faded, but unfortunately, the closer that I got to them, the more confusing the whole scene became. The stands of monkey flowers were at least 3 feet across, but all of their blooms were gone. I just stared at them for awhile, dazed and wondering why in the world someone would pick all of the flowers from the bushes when it finally dawned on me that I wasn’t the first one to find the flowers. Deer had obviously gotten to the stands before me and they had eaten every last bloom off of my precious bushes. I searched around the area and found a few small stands of flowers that the deer had apparently left behind for a midnight snack so I did the best I could with the scene and then started adjusting my plans.

Sunset photo from the north side of Broken Top Mountain in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Sunset photo from the north side of Broken Top Mountain in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Knowing that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to spend the night in this area, I decided that I would hike across the high alpine meadows and then drop down into Golden Lake, which is a somewhat secret spot located above the Park Meadow area. The hike was longer than I remembered and by the time that I started my descent into the meadows around Golden Lake, the sun had already sank into the ocean on the backside of the mountains. I set up my tent in the pitch black darkness and quickly fell asleep, exhausted and somewhat frustrated that the day had not worked out as planned—but also hopeful that when the morning arrived, I would be able to shoot Broken Top mountain reflecting in a calm Golden Lake.

The next morning, I awoke with a chill. I stepped outside into the below zero temperature and shivered over to the lake’s shore only to find that my reflection picture was not going to happen either. The lake’s surface had frozen solid over night. Determined to find something worthy of shooting, I worked my way down the lake’s outlet stream to a spot that has been reliably good to me in the past, but again, I found that the normally abundant monkey flowers were mostly missing.

Photo of Broken Top Mountain near Golden Lake in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

Photo of Broken Top Mountain near Golden Lake in Central Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

The light that morning wasn’t really as good as I wanted either, so I went back to camp, swallowed a few cups of coffee, and then started working my way back to the Jeep via the dreaded Park Meadow trail. The hike out was at least as bad as I remembered and by the time I reached the parking area, I began to wonder whether I had sufficiently described the disappointing nature of the trail to the backpackers that I met on my way in. Then, as I approached my vehicle, I could see something scrawled into the dust on my back window. As I got closer, I could see that it was the panhandle shape of Idaho and that it had a huge smiley face in the middle of it with a note that read “We had a wonderful time. Thanks for all of your help.”

That’s when I remembered just how lucky we are to live in Central Oregon. We have so many wonderful hiking options here that even some of the places that don’t rank among our favorites will still be considered beautiful by people who live in other areas of the country. I climbed smilingly into my vehicle and then realized that actually, I had managed to have a pretty good time too. I didn’t get the money shot that I was hoping for, but I was lucky enough to spend another night in the mountains and that’s nothing to complain about—even if it requires a hike down the Park Meadow trail.

Posted by Troy McMullin

NOTE: After my trip, the road leading to the original Park Meadow trailhead was closed. Hikers are now required to park along Three Creeks Road and walk down the rough, dusty road to the old trailhead. The new trailhead location adds about 2.5 miles of suffering to what is already a very arduous hike, and I suspect this decision will significantly reduce the number of people willing to hike on this trail (or ever recommend to anyone else). If you’re not happy about the new trailhead location, I strongly urge you to contact the Forest Service and let them know how you feel.

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  1. Joshua Bury

    Boy you’re right about the Park Meadow trail. One of my favorite trips in Central Oregon starts at Three Creek Lake, spend the first night on the South side of Broken Top, past Green Lake and spend the second night at Golden Lake, and then hike out via the dreaded Park Meadow trail in the third day. Some of the best scenery in all of Oregon on that loop but the hike out on day three is tedious at best… Glad you had a great time despite the lack of cooperation from Mother Nature!

    Sep 07, 2009 @ 11:14 am

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