Central Oregon winter hiking: Pine Mountain

Mark Morical
Published Feb 26, 2014 at 12:11AM / Updated Feb 26, 2014 at 07:49AM

MILLICAN —

The decision was not quite like turning back 250 feet short of the summit of Mount Everest — but I still believe it was the right choice.

Exhausted from tromping through 6 to 8 inches of snow last Thursday at Pine Mountain, I decided to return the way I had come just 0.3 miles and 250 vertical feet away from the top of the 6,405-foot Central Oregon peak.

I could have continued on toward the top, but with the wind howling and dark, foreboding clouds passing over head, I lacked the mental fortitude to push on. I did not care if I reached the top. I just wanted the warmth of my car.

Searching for dry places to hike east of Bend last week, I settled on Pine Mountain. I had been there before in the summertime for tandem paragliding, but I had never hiked much there.

Located some 30 miles southeast of Bend, Pine Mountain would have to be relatively snow-free, right? Well, since the peak is well above 6,000 feet in elevation, that was a pretty clueless assumption on my part.

Still, I was able to hike fairly easily through the packed white stuff in my snow boots, which luckily I had thrown into the car at the last minute. And the snow seemed to add to the adventure of what is already a fairly adventuresome hike — no established trail exists except for the first short ascent from the Pine Mountain Observatory. Off-trail hiking skills are a must on this trip, snow or not.

To reach the area, I drove southeast from Bend on U.S. Highway 20 for 26 miles before making a right at the sign for the observatory in Millican. Forest Road 2017 wound between peaks and ponderosa pines for 8.2 miles before I parked at the observatory, which is open Friday and Saturday nights during the summer for stargazing.

Following directions I found on cascadehikingadventures.com, I climbed a small knoll behind the observatory’s telescopes, then descended toward another forest road. I stayed on that road for about half a mile until the road made a sharp right turn and began to descend. At that point, I turned left (northeast) into the woods and followed a saddle toward a modest climb that would take me to the pinnacle of a craggy peak.

As I trudged through the snow up the steep climb, I mistakenly believed I was headed for the summit of Pine Mountain. When I reached the “top,” I saw the actual summit looming to the west. I knew from the directions I carried that it was only 0.3 miles away, but at that point, it might as well have been 3 miles away.

From where I stood, I could see that the ridgeline dropped into a saddle before the final climb to the actual top. As the fierce wind roared and I snapped some photos, I made the easy decision to head back.

Besides, I had plenty of sensational views from the perch of the false summit. To the north and east was nothing but sagebrush and rolling dry hills. Pine Mountain seems to launch straight up from the desert on its north side, so from where I stood I had a view almost straight down. The peak is one of the last major mountains before Central Oregon merges into the mostly flat desert landscape of southeast Oregon.

To the south and west, the gray clouds streamed over rolling treed hills and snow began to slowly fall.

One bonus of hiking through the snow is that you can follow your footprints back the way you came. This made the return slightly easier, as I did not have to step through as much snow.

I also noticed some other footprints — smaller than mine, and fresh — likely a coyote or a fox. I was not alone.

After following my own tracks back down the ridge, along the forest road, and up and over the knoll back down to the observatory, I was happy to be back in the car, out of the snow and wind.

The nearly 4-mile hike, considered relatively easy sans the snow, had taken me more than two hours.

A return trip is in order this spring or summer — when wiser hikers climb Pine Mountain.

—Reporter: 541-383-0318 or mmorical@bendbulletin.com

Mark Morical / The Bulletin The view from the knoll above the Pine Mountain Observatory.
Mark Morical / The Bulletin A view of the High Desert from near the top of Pine Mountain.
Mark Morical / The Bulletin Pine Mountain, as seen from the Pine Mountain Observatory.