Newberry Crater staycation

Play like a tourist at this Central Oregon recreation area

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

Published Aug 21, 2013 at 05:00AM

Last week, I took a couple of days off with my three kids, because in these waning days of summer, you have to take advantage before it wanes completely.

We'd decided to go camping, per my daughter Lucy's repeated wishes. I like camping well enough, or used to before I realized how much more I like my bed.

Also, camping requires planning, one of the many things I do poorly. That's why, on Wednesday night, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by guidebooks and the sad beginnings of a supplies checklist. I'd narrowed our destination to a couple of choices in the Ochoco Mountains, and Lucy, 10, sat nearby asking the same question — “Are we gonna have s'mores?” — enough times that I finally heard why she was really asking to go camping.

“Wait. Is the only reason you want to go camping because you want s'mores?”

“Welllll,” she said and laughed.

I was delighted myself. I canceled camping and promised we'd make all the s'mores she could eat at home; anything to skip crawling around the attic looking for camping gear. And I have plans to keep that promise sooner or later.

Day trips are much more my speed. See the sights, inhale fresh forest fire smoke, nourish mosquitoes, maybe get a bit of sunburn, then head home for a proper shower and sleep on a comfy bed. That's how our forebears who developed shelter and indoor plumbing would have wanted it. Who am I to thumb my nose at history?

Take my advice, though, fellow parents. Voting and discussion is not the way to “plan” a day trip with three willful kids. Case in point: Thursday, when we wasted the morning disagreeing on where to go. After lunch, we ended up at Elk Lake's always reliable, often crowded, Sunset Beach, which had been on exactly nobody's wish list.

After a couple of hours of swimming and lazing about the smoky air, my oldest was in desperate need to get home and watch more “Pretty Little Liars” episodes on Netflix.

Friday, I warned/pledged, would go differently. We'd head south to find the natural water slides on Paulina Creek. We ended up doing that and a whole lot more.

From our home in southeast Bend, it was just 30 or so miles to McKay Campground, a lovely spot on the forested flank of the shield-shaped composite volcano that makes up a lot of Newberry National Volcanic Monument. We drove across the small bridge and pulled into the signed day-use parking for the Peter Skene Ogden Trail.

Finding the oasis

That morning, I'd watched a few YouTube videos of people cavorting in Paulina Creek's water slides, and friends who'd been there had given me a vague idea of where they were. Somehow, I thought they were just a half-mile hike upstream from the campground. Boy, was I wrong.

We set out on the trail, and the forested area quickly gives way to a burn area, which means it's pretty hot and dusty. Nevertheless, it's still pretty given the recovering forest and creek paralleling the trail.

After a long, hot 1 1/2-mile slog, we eventually spotted a gaggle of people below us and what looked, for all intents and purposes, like nature's version of a water slide, where water flows over slabs of rock worn smooth by water action. The kids' bad moods quickly evaporated, as did mine.

A family was just leaving the smaller of the two water slides as we came climbed down toward them, and they gave us some advice. The branching trail down to the slides leads directly to the smaller, wider, safer-looking slide, which is perched between large rocky walls maybe 25 feet above a longer, more flumelike slide that looked perfect for cracking tailbones.

We stripped to our bathing suits and kept our sandals on. I cautiously scooted out to the middle of a rock in the stream at the top of the smaller slide. The funny thing about scooting out to the middle of a rock in a cold, swift stream is that, eventually, the rushing current and gravity take over. I didn't know what fate awaited me, but in a few seconds it was over. I slid down, hit the pool at the bottom, was briefly in water over my head, and then popped out wanting to do it all over again.

Instead, I stood in the chest-deep pool and gestured for Lucy to come down the slide. This led to a lot of shouting back and forth, none of us able to hear over the hydraulics.

Turned out they were yelling, “IS IT FUN?”

After my thumbs up failed to prod Lucy or Lilly down the slide, I rejoined them at the top, and took the ride again. They both eventually went down twice each before we were joined by a large group that had been hanging out a little lower on the creek. Turned out they were part of a guided tour group from Paulina Plunge, which offers, for $60, a waterfall mountain bike tour, with stops here and at other falls along the way.

I had to laugh. Earlier that day, my work-bound wife had given me just a smidgen of grief about this outing to the water slide, knowing that I'd be writing about it: “Is it supposed to kind of be a secret?”

Some secret. Another, larger group with the company showed up. There must have been 30 people hanging out around the falls, so we decided to head back toward McKay Campground.

As we walked away, we saw a couple of people trying the bigger slide and immediately regretted not trying it.

The swim seemed to change the tenor of the outing. On the way down, we walked into a cooling breeze, a few clouds tempered the sunshine, and it was mostly downhill. It went so swimmingly I rewarded them (and myself) with lunch at Paulina Resort.

After refueling, we drove up to the top of Paulina Peak, always a hair-raising good time.

Taking a dip

We took in the view of Paulina and East lakes, along with the always amazing obsidian flow. The kids were game for another hike, they said, and so we decided to go for one more adventure: the 1-mile hike around the eastern shore of Paulina Lake to the hot springs.

It's a little bittersweet seeing your daughters grow up, but there are benefits, like their being able to hike without being carried. I remember, viscerally, an autumn trek to the hot springs maybe six, seven years ago. It had taken us a long time to get around to the springs, and right as we started back to the car, Lilly, all of 3 or 4, spilled our last bottle of drinking water.

This time around, it was easy as pie. The fact that the temperature dropped into the low 70s, according to my car's thermometer, helped. So did the pretty level hiking.

The kids took in the sights of Indian paintbrush and dead crawdads, and before we knew it, we'd arrived at one of the beaches, where the hot spring waters are close to the lake. Here, people have dug little pools along the lake, making for a perfect place to soak.

The water level of the lake was low, which meant it was pretty easy to hike right along the lakeshore instead of the main trail, which cuts inland more.

Unfortunately, the first pool we came to had been staked out by some folks who'd beached a rental boat just a couple of feet from it. Two of the three-person party were fishing, and another was beachcombing.

Still, invading their space would have felt awkward, so we hiked another quarter of a mile searching for more pools. We rounded a bend only to spy a couple of elderly nudists climbing into a pool in the distance. The kids wanted to know why the people wouldn't just wear bathing suits. So did I.

Our idyll was further disturbed by the dying of the wind and a sudden onslaught of mosquitoes. We tried to cut inland to the main lakeshore trail, but couldn't immediately find it. We turned back and walked along the lake, and soaked briefly in the first pool despite the boaters.

Minutes after we decided to give up and walk back to the car, we looked back to see the boaters shoving off. We practically ran back to the pool, which was surrounded by stacked rocks and even had a little natural rock ledge in it, perfect for sitting and soaking up to one's waist.

Be warned, there's a lot of algae in these pools, but the setting, and view of Paulina Peak, can't be beat. We even swam in the fairly warm lake to rinse the muck off ourselves.

We were famished by the time we'd walked back to the car, and the sun was a lot lower in the sky, but it had been the consummate staycation day. We drove back out of the campground, checking out the Washington and California license plates along the way, me feeling pretty happy about what we'd accomplished without having to camp.

Newberry is the perfect place to make like a tourist but still sleep in your own bed. Just try to get out the door before lunch.