PRAIRIE CITY — We must have looked weary, because the young girl was immediately encouraging as we encountered her group just a few hundred feet from the summit of Strawberry Mountain.
“It’s not much farther,” she said. “It’s totally worth it. It’s a great view from the top — and there’s lots of butterflies!”
As she and her group continued their descent, my friend and I slogged our way through the loose shale to finally reach the 9,042-foot summit.
She was right about the butterflies. They flew all around us on the rocky summit as we took in panoramic views of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness and the Malheur National Forest in northeast Oregon’s Grant County.
The view from the top was perhaps not as spectacular as the summit of South Sister, or Eagle Cap in the Wallowas, but it offered an intriguing vantage point in a remote part of Oregon. Also, we were the only ones there.
About a 3½-hour drive east from Bend is the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, an isolated area of rugged peaks, glacier-carved valleys and high-mountain lakes that appear seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of the High Desert. The 68,700-acre wilderness area east of John Day is a diverse landscape that includes about 125 miles of trail, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
A friend and I made our annual camping/hiking trip there this past weekend, returning after last visiting the area in 2018.
We drove east through Prineville, the Ochocos and the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. At Prairie City, population 910, we turned off U.S. Highway 26 and onto County Road 60.
The forest road from Prairie City up to Strawberry Campground went from paved, to gravel, to big rocks, but we made it eventually and found an ideal campsite tucked along Strawberry Creek.
After a good night’s sleep, we set out on our first hike, which would take us to Strawberry Lake, Strawberry Falls and Little Strawberry Lake. (Permits are not required for hiking in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness.)
The Strawberry Basin Trail began just a few feet from our tents, and we started out in a steady climb to Strawberry Lake, which is only 1.4 miles from the campground.
Brook trout are stocked in the lake, and we could see many swimming near the shore. After circling to the south side of the clear blue lake, we turned on the trail to Strawberry Falls, a thin veil of water that drops nearly 100 feet over moss-covered boulders.
From there, the trail to Little Strawberry Lake led us on switchbacks to the top of the falls, and then to an increasingly steep trek to Little Strawberry Lake, which was 3.4 miles from our campsite. Little Strawberry Lake sits right at the base of a melted glacier that is now mostly shale along the vertical cliff side, though one tiny patch of snow lingered under rock ledges. The lake is bordered by a bright green meadow, which was layered with pink wildflowers.
According to the Forest Service, glacial ice carved the U-shaped valleys in the Strawberry Mountain Range and formed the rock beds that now hold the seven alpine lakes of the wilderness area.
After swimming and eating lunch at the lake, we made our way back down to the campsite, finishing the trek of about 7 miles.
The next day, we opted for a more challenging hike, deciding to make the summit attempt of Strawberry Mountain, the highest peak in the wilderness area. The trek would be 12 miles round-trip and include about 3,300 feet of elevation gain.
We hiked past Strawberry Lake, and instead of making a left turn toward Strawberry Falls, we continued straight on the Strawberry Mountain Trail.
The trail took us along amazingly picturesque ridgelines where we could look back at the rock-strewn cliffs and peer down on Strawberry Lake.
As we continued climbing, we came to an opening in the trees through which we could clearly see Strawberry Mountain. It appeared it would be a steep grind to make the summit, but we pushed on.
We passed through a lush meadow and then began climbing in earnest as the trail transitioned from dirt to exposed switchbacks along loose rock. We came across three or four other groups that were descending, including the large group with the young hiker who offered words of motivation.
After eating our packed lunches and snapping photos at the top, we began the long descent back to the lake and the campground.
We needed about six hours to complete the hike, a grand tour of the remote and rugged Strawberry Mountain Wilderness.