Turning back on Pine Mountain was good call

The Bend BulletinMarch 13, 2014 

Outdoors Hiking Pine Mountain

Pine Mountain, as seen from Pine Mountain Observatory. It's one of the last major peaks before Central Oregon flattens into the desert landscape of the East. (AP Photo/ The Bulletin, Mark Morical)

MARK MORICAL — AP

MILLICAN, Ore. -- 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 on a recent 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, I settled on Pine Mountain. I had been there before in the summertime for tandem paragliding, but I had never hiked much there.

Located about 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 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 a half mile until the road made a sharp right turn and began to descend. At that point, I turned left 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.

The almost 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.

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