I still can't decide which is the more captivating: the stiff climb to Jefferson Park inside the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness Area or the broad alpine valley or the "park" itself. Consider the hike up. Stands of Oregon-lush mountain hemlock, cedar, and massive Douglas fir and ponderosa pine crowd the trail for long stretches. Suddenly you burst into a blinding, barren landscape of dark, sharp-edged lava frozen in weird, contorted shapes. Then it's back into the forest tunnel, and back again onto a lava flow.
When your eyes adjust to the bright light, you see the source of these finger-shaped volcanic intrusions: ice-capped Mt. Jefferson. Not to be outdone, Jefferson Park features broad meadows and a half-dozen lakes at the foot of the 10,497-foot giant, Oregon's second highest peak. Two of the mountain's five glaciers, Russell to the west and Jefferson Park to the east, are in plain view. Like I said, it's a tough choice.
For climbers gripped with summit fever, Jefferson Park and the surrounding wilderness are just a pleasant backdrop to the real work at hand. That's too bad, because anyone content with a great trail system winding through spectacular alpine scenery will get their fill here.
Jefferson Park is a gateway to more than 160 miles of interconnecting trails, including a wonderful stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail that travels for 36 miles north-south through the wilderness area. Follow the PCT north and in three to four days you'll arrive at Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. Head south from Jefferson Park and you'll gain access to Pamelia Lake (6.5 miles), Marion Lake (17.5 miles), and the beautiful Eight Lakes Basin (23 miles), which lies just west of 7,841-foot Three Fingered Jack. All three of these heavily wooded lake regions offer great views of the surrounding peaks.
QUICK TAKE: Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, OR
DRIVE TIME: Mt. Jefferson Wilderness is about 100 miles (2 hours) south of Portland.
THE WAY: From Portland, take I-5 south to Salem, then OR 22 east to Detroit where you have a choice of either taking County Road 46 east about 10 miles to National Forest Road 4685, or continuing on OR 22 for an additional 10 miles to Whitewater Road (FR 2243, the turnoff is on the left), which you follow for 7.5 miles.
TRAILS: From the end of the Whitewater Road, it's about 5 miles of wooded trail to Jefferson Park. The South Breitenbush route is 6.2 miles with more elevation gain, and the PCT from Breitenbush Lake is 5.7 miles but requires a longer drive in. Other hiking options include the Hunts and Hanks Lake area (known as Hunts Cove), which is 4 miles beyond Pamelia Lake and makes a good two-day trip. Access is via the Pamelia Lake Trail No. 3439 off road 109, 13 miles south of Detroit.
ELEVATION: Jefferson Park sits at about 5,800 feet. The lowest elevation in the wilderness is about 3,000 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Breitenbush Hot Springs for a post-hike soak. It's located just off County Road 46, east of Detroit. It's privately run, and drop-ins are allowed only at certain times, so check in advance.
CROWD CONTROL: South Breitenbush Trail is the least busy of the access routes to Jefferson Park. Camp away from the lakes for prime-time privacy. Go midweek or in the off-season for real solitude.
MAPS: The best map is the Mount Jefferson Wilderness Map published by Geo-Graphics. It's available for $6.95 from the Detroit Ranger Station at the address below. Another good hiker-oriented map is Jefferson Wilderness Area ($3.30, Green Trails Maps, 206-546-6277).
PIT STOP: At the Cedars in Detroit, pancakes are still called flapjacks.
WALK SOFTLY: Campfires are not allowed in Jefferson Park. Lakeside camping is only at designated spots.
MORE INFORMATION: Detroit Ranger Station, Willamette National Forest, HC 73, Box 320, Mill City, OR 97360; (503) 854-3366. Heavy visitation has caused a limited-use permit system to be instituted at Pamelia Lake. Though free, permits must be obtained at the Detroit Ranger Station. All other hiking and camping permits are free and are available at the trailhead. Parking, however, is not free. Trail-Park passes cost $3 a day or $25 for a calendar year and are available from any of the regional Forest Service offices.