Hiking Oregon's Bull Of The Woods Wilderness

If overpowering stillness is your thing, try the old-growth forests in Oregon's Bull of the Woods Wilderness.
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If overpowering stillness is your thing, try the old-growth forests in Oregon's Bull of the Woods Wilderness.

When you need a little peace of mind, there's nothing better than a backcountry trek. But on my first hike in Oregon's Bull of the Woods Wilderness, I started feeling slightly schizophrenic when I found myself alternately wanting to shout with exuberance, then whisper.

My shout-out-loud side was inspired by mountaintop views that stretch all the way from the Three Sisters in central Oregon to Mt. Rainier in central Washington, with nearby Mts. Hood and Jefferson scraping the sky. My silent side came out in the overpowering stillness of the wilderness's old-growth forest. Add steep ridges, summer wildflowers galore, nearly a dozen trout-filled lakes, and three clear-water rivers, and this 35,000-acre Cascade Range wilderness has something to satisfy all of your moods.

Though Bull of the Woods is relatively close to Portland, it's one of the Cascades' best-kept secrets. An interconnecting trail system allows you to create various loops, most of which eventually lead you to the site of the abandoned Bull of the Woods Fire Lookout, where the view may prompt you to let loose a shout or two.

For an old-growth drainage tour, Bagby Hot Springs Trail is hard to beat, but in good weather it bustles with backpackers and bathers. During the summer, I prefer the quieter Pansy Lake Trail, which puts you on a fast track to the heart of the wilderness. After a humbling encounter with the forest's large-diameter, centuries-old hemlocks and Douglas firs, the route climbs east past Dickey Lake, then gains a ridgeline with access to the high country. From Bull of the Woods peak, various trail options allow hikes as long as a 40-mile loop poking into the most remote wilderness recesses.

As summer progresses, July rhododendron blooms give way to the creamy floral stalks of beargrass. Thunderstorms scrub the air clean. And deep in the old-growth quiet of the Cascades, a few hikers can usually be found wandering around, getting in touch with their silent side.

EXPEDITION PLANNER: Bull of the Woods Wilderness, Oregon

DRIVE TIME: The wilderness is a little more than an hour (70 miles) southeast of Portland.

THE WAY: From Estacada, drive 25 miles southeast on OR 224 to the junction of Forest Service Roads (FR) 46 and 57. Follow FR 46 south for 3.4 miles and turn right onto FR 63. Continue to FR 6340, then to a signed trailhead on FR 6341. The required Northwest Forest Pass ($5 for a day pass, $30 for the year) is available at the Estacada Ranger Station (see Contact below).

TRAILS: Bull of the Woods Wilderness contains some 75 miles of trail, with numerous route options. For a good weekend loop, start on the Pansy Lake Trail, hike over Bull of the Woods summit, then combine the Welcome Lakes and Mother Lode Trails to return to the trailhead (about 20 miles total).

ELEVATION: The wilderness ranges between 2,400 and 5,700 feet.

CAN'T MISS: A clear-day view from any summit in the wilderness.

CROWD CONTROL: Avoid Twin Lakes and the Bagby Hot Springs area, both of which receive heavy use.

SEASON: Lower elevations can be hiked from late spring through late fall, but prime time in the Cascades high country is July through September.

GUIDES: Hiking Oregon's Central Cascades, by Bruce Grubbs (Falcon Publishing, 800-725-8303; www.bookstore.com; $16.95). A Forest Service

Bull of the Woods Wilderness/Salmon-

Huckleberry Wilderness topo map ($3) is available from the Estacada Ranger District (see Contact below).

WALK SOFTLY: Bull of the Woods is in such pristine condition that one local ranger suggested it might be best to keep it a secret. Help preserve the wilderness by not making new fire rings or campsites and keeping all impact to a minimum.

CONTACT: Estacada Ranger District, Mt. Hood National Forest, (503) 630-6861; www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood.