Off the Trail and up a Peak
There are few places left in Oregon which are as impressive and yet haven’t lost the feeling of being in a wilderness. Diamond Peak remains one of those few special places that always wow’s me in spite of the effort it takes to go there.
The Diamond Peak Wilderness area was established by the USDA Forest Service on February 5, 1957. In 1964, Congress made it part of the National Wilderness preservation system. The 52,337 acre area straddles the Cascade Mountains in both the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests and offers many opportunities for outdoor recreation. Elevation ranges from 4,787 feet to 8,744 feet. Diamond Peak was formed as the entire land mass of the Cascades was undergoing volcanic activity and uplift. Great glaciers carved the large volcanic peak. When they receded, the bulk of the mountain remained, with snowfields near the summit and dozens of small lakes surrounding the peak. Lakes are one to 28 acres in size. As this area gets 60 inches of precipitation on the west side and 40 inches on the east side, this hike isn’t snow free until late in August.
John Diamond first climbed this peak in 1852 and gave it it’s name while trying to find a shortcut route through the cascades. The “Lost Wagon Train of 1853” set off from Pennsylvania towards Diamond’s cut-off the following year. After much trouble in deciding which peak was Diamond Peak, the leaders of the expedition tried to follow his sporadic blazes, arduously hewing a trail through the dense forest. There in mid October, the 1500 staving, desperate pioneers were inspired as they had reached the last leg of their long journey. The forest and topography was much worse than they expected and many abandoned their wagon in order to reach the Willamette Valley.
As we have had some great fall weather, I decided to take advantage when we got one last warm day with little wind. Sunday October 17, 2010 was just one of those days, so, I left town early enough to get to the trailhead by 8:30 am. I’ve climbed this peak several time and have enjoyed coming in from Diamond Rockpile on the southwest side of this wilderness area. I came in from Oakridge and followed the Middle Fork of the Willamette River, past Hills Creek Reservoir (Road 21) then leaving it a couple miles before the Summit Lake junction on Road 2160 to a trailhead on the east side of the road. There is a small sign but no real parking area.
It was a perfect morning and it was just a little frosty when I left the car. Even though it was cold, the steady grade warmed me up quickly. I made a quick stop to get a self-service permit from the box a couple hundred yards up the trail.
The trail begins in a lodgepole forest and climbs steadily for a couple miles until you reach the south shoulder of Diamond Rockpile before dropping down to the valley near Marie Lake. From there is a pretty gentle grade for another mile where you intersect the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). From there you take the PCT north a mile or two until you come to the southerly ridge of Diamond Peak. There is a nice place where you can get a good view to the south off a rock outcrop along the trail. About a hundred yards further north along the PCT you may catch a glimpse of a pink survey ribbon hanging on a tree in a little clearing about 100 feet up a steep slope on the west side of the trail. This marks a route I have used for over 15 years. I marked with ribbon the entire route. You can see old faded bits of ribbon I tied on limbs from years ago.
I should mention that there is no official trail up Diamond Peak so there are many ways to go. One very popular route is to follow a valley and ridge that starts near Marie Lake. You will see occasional evidence of a hikers trail as you climb. Even without a trail, on a clear day, it’s pretty easy to find your way to the top. Coming down is a bit more problematic. Many of the ridges and valleys look a lot alike and it’s easy to miss a landmark. As there is a trail around this peak no matter how you go, you will come to one sooner or later. After one trip when fog moved in, reducing visibility to under 50 feet, the value of my old ribbon trail became very evident. So, ever since then, I have been refreshing it each trip so that you can see from ribbon to ribbon both up and down. I’ve heard rumors that others have found this route and found the ribbon very useful.
Once you leave the trail it’s a steep climb that doesn’t stop until you crest the rim. The lower section is forested but as you climb higher it becomes predominantly loose rock and scree. A good deal of care must be take on the loose rock as a fast tumbling rock can easily injure someone behind the lead person. I’ve seen rocks tumble for a quarter mile or more before hitting a tree and stopping. There have been a number of injuries on this mountain, including spraining an ankle when the footing is poor. Please don’t let that warning deter you as you can safely navigate the slope will a little extra effort.
The higher you get, the better the views of the surroundings. By the time you break what looks like the summit (this is really a lower or false summit) you will be impressed by the view. The false summit is a great place to catch your breath and begin taking it all in. As you will see this is really the rim of an ancient volcano from which the whole east side was blown away. Rock from the explosion was said to have gone well into Idaho! The other thing that will impress you is the vertical streaking of the mulit-colored scree caused by glacial action. Believe what you want, but in the last 10 years almost all the glacier have melted and today you will only see a little bit of snow on the north face of this peak. I am always shocked by how fast this has happened. When you’re up there looking at this peak there is no doubt that the weather is warming up!
After a few minutes to snack and take a lot of pictures, I made my way northerly along the rim. There are some rock outcrops that you can skirt and the trail is pretty clear. It is another quarter mile or more along the narrow ridge to the actual summit. At elevation 8744, it’s a wonderful view in every direction. From there I could see as far as Mt Hood to the north but it was too hazy to see Mt Shasta in California. If you get a good clear day you can see mountains in Idaho and Nevada too! Check out the glacial valleys and the beautiful colors.
I never really get enough time on a summit. Going back down is a good workout too and if you haven’t worked your quads into shape they will whine the next day.
After retracing my path for a few miles, I took a side trip over to see Marie Lake. I can see why it’s a great place for back packers to camp. As my time was running out, I didn’t go back around the toe of Diamond Rockpile and visit Rockpile Lake. I could see glimpses of it from the trail but never did get a really good look. I guess that will give me a nice side trip for the next time I do this climb. By the time I got back to the car, I was getting hungry and ready find something good to eat in Oakridge. It had been a perfect day and a wonderful hike.