Friday, September 4, 2009

Strawberry Lakes, Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, Oregon

Distance: 7.0 mi (11.3 km) roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 5790 - 6940 ft (1765 - 2115 m)
Season: mid-May to early November


The Strawberry Mountain Wilderness is located in a remote area of the Blue Mountains of Northcentral Oregon in Malhuer National Forest. The wilderness protects 69,350 acres of montane and subalpine forest and alpine meadows in an island surrounded by a sea of desert. The name sake of this wilderness, Strawberry Mountain stands tall at over the are at over 9,000 feet.

In addition to this being an oasis of cool mountain air in a hot arid region of the Pacific Northwest, it is also a haven for an extraordinary diversity of conifers in such as small area. No where else have I counted so many conifer species on one trail before.
While climbing to the summit of this lofty peak is a worthy excursion, if you are looking for something a little less stenuous and relaxing, then the Strawberry Lakes are where to go. The entire northern section of the mountain was burned in a large fire in 2002, although it did not affect the basin where this trail is.

Access to the trailhead begins from the town of Prairie City. The road leading out of town will be paved for some distance through cattle ranches before turning in a dirt road. This well graded road will leave the ranches and enter the national forest where the forest of ponderosa pine begins to be replaced by Douglas fir and white fir. At the very end of the road is a campground and the trailhead.

The trail starts in a nice stand of firs and slowly follows the contours of the basin as it heads up toward Strawberry Lake, which you will encounter after 1.2 miles. This tarn lake provides wonderful views of the glacial headwall at the back of the basin, which are even more beautiful if the cliffs still have snow on them in early summer.
From here the trail goes completely around the lake, so you can choose whether to go left or right. Either route will connect with the main trail to the back of the basin. Although, it is probably easier to figure things out if you started on the westside on the way in and took the eastside of the lake on the way out.

After Strawberry Lake, the trail slowly climbs through the forest for about 1 mile before coming up to Strawberry Falls, which I estimate to be about 50 feet high. The trail will switchback up the slope from the base of the falls and then over a log bridge across the top of it. Shortly thereafter the trail will come to an intersection. To the right, the trail continues on its way to the summit of Strawberry Mountain (which ends up being 13 mile roundtrip for this route).

Instead, stay left and follow the trail 0.6 mi to Little Strawberry Lake, located at the back of the basin at the foot of the glacial headwall cliffs. This last section of the trail is located in subalpine forest and just before reaching the upper lake, there are openings in the canopy showing the rocky cliffs above. Where there are some large boulders to the right, there are some nice spots to head over for a picnic. If you do a short climb up the talus slope, magnificent views open up of the entire Strawberry Basin, the lakes, the summit of Strawberry Mountain, and the desert landscape below.



If you find there are mosquitoes at the upper lake (which there were not when we were there), this area at the base of the cliffs would probably be a good place to enjoy lunch away from other people and skeeters.


To return to your car, just retrace your route back, but do the otherside of the lake to make a nice little detour.

So, how about that list of conifers? I have never seen twelve conifer species on one trail before. That is due to the climb in elevation, protection of shade in this closed basin, and aridity of the region in general.

Lower Montane: Western juniper, ponderosa pine, Rocky mountain Douglas fir
Mixed-conifer zone: western white pine, white fir-grand fir hybrids, lodgepole pine, common juniper
Subalpine zone: Subalpine fir, western larch, Engelmann spruce, and whitebark pine

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