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NEWBERRY NATIONAL VOLCANIC MONUMENT — Sure, you can drive all the way to the top of Paulina Peak — but that would seem to suck half the fun out of a trip to this geologic wonderland.

At 7,984 feet, Paulina Peak towers over Newberry Crater east of La Pine, making the craggy peak one of the most recognizable landmarks of the monument — and the first stop for me on a trip there last week.

A gravel road leads to the summit for those who want to drive, but for more adventurous and able-bodied hikers, a singletrack trail of about 2 miles cuts its way nearly 1,500 feet up to the top. The trail features sprawling, dramatic views of the caldera along the way before leading hikers to the 360-degree panorama at the summit.

The hiking trail up ­Paulina Peak is sometimes an afterthought because of the option to drive or ride a bike up the gravel road to the summit. But the trail should not be overlooked, as it offers hikers a close-up glimpse at this area and evidence of its violent volcanic past.

About a one-hour drive southeast of Bend, ­Newberry also makes for an ideal destination in the early fall, especially this year when wildfires have closed many of the trails west of Bend in the popular Three Sisters Wilderness. But check the weather before you go, as earlier this week the Newberry area actually received some unseasonable snowfall and more snow was forecast for Wednesday night.

After parking at the trailhead of the Paulina Peak Trail last week, I was welcomed by clear blue skies, which have been somewhat of a rarity this late summer in Central Oregon.

The trail starts in the trees and rises steeply through the forest. Just when hikers might wonder what they got themselves into, the path levels out as it rises above the tree line. About a mile into the hike, the trail parallels a steep drop-off, where hikers can take in bird’s-eye views of Paulina Lake and East Lake, and the Big Obsidian Flow.

A cool feature of the ­Paulina Peak Trail is the myriad trails that peel off from the main trail and give explorers a chance to wander amid rock outcroppings and viewpoints along the way to the summit.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Newberry was built into the shape of a broad shield by repeated eruptions over 400,000 years. About 75,000 years ago, a massive explosion and collapse event created a large volcanic depression — or caldera — at its summit. Newberry last erupted about 1,300 years ago, and geologically recent lava flows indicate that it could reawaken at any time. The USGS is closely monitoring the volcano for signs of unrest.

When I reached the summit, I joined a few other hikers — but mostly drivers who had parked their cars at the top — taking in the views. Explorers can find a small outcropping that offers outstanding views of the Big Obsidian Flow and Paulina and East lakes.

The two lakes were formed from snowmelt, rainwater and hot springs in the Newberry Crater after the collapse of Mount Newberry, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Big Obsidian Flow is a huge mass of gray lava rock formed about 1,300 years ago when the Paulina Lake ash flow from the last eruption at Newberry spread from near the south caldera wall to Paulina Lake. Big Obsidian is the youngest lava flow in Oregon, according to the USGS.

The trip back down ­Paulina Peak Trail was much faster than the trip up, as I quickly worked my down the steep sections toward the trailhead. The 4½-mile hike required about 2½ hours, including time for photos and wandering off the main trail.

Just a mile or so farther up Forest Road 21 from the Paulina Peak road is a parking area and trailhead for the Big Obsidian Flow, which was my next destination.

The interpretive trail at Big Obsidian, a 0.8-mile loop, winds through the pumice and shiny black obsidian rocks of the lava flow. The trail is not steep or challenging, but it is quite rocky in spots, so hikers should watch their footing. The variety of volcanic rocks and beauty of the obsidian make the trail a worthy stop on a trip to Newberry.

After the short hike through Big Obsidian, I had just enough energy left for another relatively short trek.

Paulina Creek Falls is one of the first sites visitors come to when they enter the Newberry caldera. Two waterfalls, both about 80 feet high, tumble spectacularly over a cliff just downstream from Paulina Lake. Several more waterfalls are located downstream along the Peter Skene Ogden National Scenic Trail, which runs for 6 miles from Paulina Creek Falls to ­McKay Crossing.

Hikers can also trek down to a lower viewpoint of ­Paulina Creek Falls. Now too exhausted for the trip along Peter Skene Ogden, I elected to take the short switchback trail down to the lower viewpoint, where hikers can stand on a series of boulders and look up at the surging falls.

After climbing back up the trail, I was pretty beat after hiking a total of 7 miles, including the challenging Paulina Peak.

Newberry Crater makes for the perfect early-fall hiking getaway, and Paulina Peak, Big Obsidian Flow and Paulina Creek Falls are three must-see features of this scenic national monument.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,