Blue Pool, Skylight Caves, and a Dash of Bend
We left late Friday night after my shift at work. I wanted to get on the road as soon as possible, even after just coming off a 7 hour shift, so I basically showered, we stopped for some grub, and headed north on I-5. It’s funny, even so late at night we saw truckers and travelers; if New York is the city that never sleeps, I-5 is the freeway that never sleeps.
Our destination was Talent, OR. We would be staying with Kiva’s mom, who has always been generous to us. We arrived around 1 a.m. and basically passed out in the guest room. I know, day one was pretty boring, but it’s the true start of our trip.
We had breakfast at Punky’s in Medford. Kiva’s mom treated us to food and stories of the house she was renovating in Mt. Shasta, while we sipped hot coffee and ate our eggs. This diner always struck me as being an anachronism – a quaint and old fashioned place where old vets and their wives went to eat. It was nice.
We continued north until Eugene, located in the heart of Oregon. We stopped for the essentials: food, fuel, and more coffee, before turning eastward on Highway 126, sometimes called the McKenzie Highway. It follows the meandering and beautiful McKenzie River, and we saw many pullouts where people could put their boats in the water, swim, or go fishing. The river, I suspect provides ample sumsmer recreation for locals. We passed through small towns, until finally turning on the road to the trailhead for the Blue Pool.
The first thing we noticed was the cars. We weren’t to the parking area yet, and yet we could see cars parked all the way out here. Not a good sign. We didn’t realize just how popular this location was. From the pictures we saw, it seemed like a small, undiscovered forest secret. In actuality, it was a large popular destination for locals and outsiders.
We hiked in and saw a diverse array of people on the trail. Families where young daughters wore flip flops and only carried a towel, hardcore backpackers with heavy, external frame backpacks, hiking boots, and headbands drenched with sweat, and mountain bikers headed in the opposite direction. The total McKenzie River Trail is 26 miles long, and we learned was a haven for mountain bikers. We would be hiking on it for roughly 2.1 miles until we arrived at our destination. Like the Highway we drove on, the trail followed the River, and covered our shoes in a fine layer of dust.
When we arrived, we were at the top edge of a bowl with maybe 40 foot cliff sides. The pool beneath us was as it had been advertised: crystal clear and we could make out the rock outlines and fallen logs at the bottom, and iridescently blue. We noticed, however, that although there were people all around its edges, no one was in the water. We hiked around the edge, passing an unofficial parking lot for mountain bikes, and found a trail that led to the base of the water.
Even though we had just completed the hike and were hot and sweaty, the water temperature deterred us. People would jump in, just for a moment before swimming out and drying off in the sun. (It should be noted that after some research, I found out that although it is a popular destination to jump into the water, it can be dangerous and should only be done with caution.) We put our hands and feet in, and enjoyed the view.
After someone scaled the rocky walls and jumped in, they would be greeted with a smattering of applause. Still, we didn’t feel any pressure to jump in. That being said, I knew I had to. I was hot from the hike, a little bummed by the sheer amount of people, and stubbornly make myself jump in almost every body of water I visit. I walked to a small inlet, took a breath, and did an awkward dive into the water.
Although I couldn’t have been in longer than a few moments, I won’t forget the sensation. Similar to when I’ve gone skydiving, there is a second where my brain panics; it just assumes we are dead and sends electrical impulses throughout my body to try to reanimate my body and I feel a shock. After that one second, however, my brain settles down and I can just enjoy. I opened my eyes, saw under the water and across the pool, and swam out a small distance before resurfacing. I have no doubt that my emergence from the pool was not a sexy, wet-mermaid type of exit, instead it was probably more of a wet dog struggling to climb out on sharp rocks. I stood in the sun and Kiva grabbed my towel, and I slowly gained feelings in my limbs again.
After we had suitably dried off and warmed up, we decided to call it. We donned our shoes again, and followed the trail back to the parking lot. As the afternoon sun was beginning to wain, the trail was less populous.
We had a decent amount of sunlight left, and made an impulsive decision to follow the Highway east. We’ve gone in this direction before, stopping at Koosah and Sahalie Falls, but we had a different destination in mind this time: Skylight caves.
We had heard about these caves via Instagram. We followed the windy highway along the low mountains interspersed with sharp peaks (I mis-identified one as Mt. Thielsen. In actuality, we were passing by the Three Sisters) until we had enough cell service to do some research. What we found was that the cave lie deep in U.S. Forest land, and that it would not be easy to find. One piece of advice we found that I will pass on: Google Maps does not know where it is. So, we used a combination of blogs and online maps (that didn’t work once we lost data), and did our best to find it.
It was not an easy trek. Although there exists some decent directions (“Follow 1099 for 5.5 miles, then turn left on 126, then right on FS 2069, etc.), it turns out that the unlabeled roads far outnumber the labeled roads. We passed by private property, and then entered a forest road that looked like it had fallen into disrepair. Tall bushes surrounded the road, too often scratching our car and making horrible screeching noises. The land was dry and the roads were powdered dust. I couldn’t exactly describe how we found the cave (if I had to try, I would say we pinpointed where it might have been, and then used Google Maps because it showed Forest Roads so we could make educated guesses and dead reckoning), but somehow we found it. It is nothing more than a small parking area and a sign, and then you see the ladder sticking out of the ground and into the earth.
In stark contrast to the Blue Pool, we were alone out here. The cave was ours to explore with the fading light. We followed the ladder down to a small opening, and from there off to the infamous cavern. The pictures we had seen revealed three openings in the roof, thus leading to the name of Skylight Cave. On our way, using our flashlights through the narrow lava tube, we accidentally exposed a poor bat, who probably was blinded and frantically flew in the other direction. Although we had recently been to Lava Beds, and have visited Pluto Caves and Subway Caves, it was my first time seeing a bat.
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I want to believe. . . . We definitely got lost finding this place. New blog post titled "Everything Was Dusty" coming soon, stay tuned. . . . #exploregon #pnw #letsgetlost #caving #sisters #oregon #nationalforest #undergound #pnwonderland #oregonnw #oregonexplored #earth #camping #hiking #xfiles #exploremore #greatoutdoors #optoutside #travelstoke #campvibes #keepitwild #getoutstayout
We stood and gazed, took a few photos (nothing like the spectacular photos we had seen where beams of light illuminate the space, but still got a few photos). After awhile, we sensed it was time to go. It was oddly quiet, just Kiva, I, and the bat somewhere in the darkness. We climbed out, and saw the sun hung low on the horizon. The skies were brilliant purple hues, and although it would have been nice to enjoy the sunset, we knew we had to find a place to camp.
It turns out, getting out was even more difficult than getting in. We ended up driving in a literal circle once, finding a few dead ends, and going off-map regularly. My poor car took a bit of a thrashing from the grasping arms of the bushes, but I’m hoping nothing that won’t wax off.
Finally, after there was but minutes of sunset left, we found the main road. The plan was to camp near Bend, OR, so we continued east. Through the quaint and cute town of sisters, and eventually coming to Bend. Our troubles were not over yet. We had passed a lot of road warriors looking cars (homemade chop jobs that looked ready for the apocalypse) and so we figured there must be some kind of convention/event. That being said, nearly every campsite was full. Even the unofficial campsites on forest land seemed to have people (we even found one man sitting by the side of the road, sans car or tent. That seemed eerie, like something off the Twilight Zone. We were getting desperate as the sun had long since disappeared, and began to call hotels. They were all full, save for one room in one hotel that was priced a little too high. Finally, basically after exploring one forest road after another, we found a small, sandy meadow that would suffice. We were too tired to pitch a tent (and the idea of covering it, too, with does was a turn off) so we unfurled our mattress in the back of the car, unrolled our sleeping bags, used wet wipes for hobo baths, swatted a few mosquitoes and tried to sleep. I did leave the car once to, *ahem* leave some liquid nitrogen on some thirsty looking plants (take a leak) and I noticed the night sky. Although the night had been a long one, the stars above were gorgeous. We were far from light pollution here, and the stars beamed above us reassuringly and bright. It was humbling, too. For all our earthly problems, in the skies lie histories and events far grander than us. The stars remind us how small we are, and how trivial our problems.
We slept, a little cramped and cold, but weary and grateful for it.
The first thing we desired was a shower. We headed into Bend, and found a public pool that was pretty cheap to get into. We brought clean clothes (careful not to touch the car that now wore a fine layer of brown dust) and rented some towels, and were happy to take long showers that felt luxurious compared to our night. We even used the hot tub for a bit; hey, when in Rome, right? Afterwards, feeling clean and refreshed, we were going to take on a little bit of Bend before leaving.
First: coffee. We headed to Backporch Coffee Roasters, knowing nothing more than the fact it got good reviews. We had to wait in line, but once we got our drinks it was well worth it. I had a rosemary and goat cheese scone, and Kiva got a cheese bagel (apparently it was the last because everyone in line jokingly booed at her for taking it). It was good, and allowed us some time to rest.
Our next stop was the climbing gym in Bend. We’ve been doing some basic bouldering in the gym in Redding, and I am happy to say we are maybe one step above beginners. Or at least I am. I can do maybe V2s or V3s, and that is about it. One nice thing about this gym was the sheer height. We were able to rent harnesses and use some of the auto belay equipment, meaning we could solo climb the maybe 50 foot walls (that’s my estimate, and to be fair I am awful with distances). The point is, we had to use more endurance than we were used to, but thanks to our harnesses we could take more risk. There is ample space for anyone here of all levels, and we had a good, chalky time.
Before leaving, we decided to visit the Mill District. Three large smokestacks make it visible throughout the city. What we found was, in addition to the history of the area being an essential part in the towns lumber industry, today it appears to be an essential part in the retail industry. A collection of large stores, a bit like an outdoor mall, complete with a food court, specialty stores, and teenagers hanging out. The only place we visited was REI, and we walked along all the things we couldn’t afford but could dream of. I like looking at ultralight sleeping bags, backpacking gear, and artisinal coffee pouches (just add water!). Before leaving, we stopped at a Hawaiian place to grab some grub before the drive south. It was surprisingly good, despite the fact we got meals difficult to eat while driving (chicken teriyaki with rice and chicken katsu burger with sauce).
As we had to be back the next day, we headed back (after getting coffee and fuel, naturally). 97 is a lonely, beautiful, desolate, aggravating, mesmerizing, and apparently road-rage inducing thoroughfare. There were more than a few drivers who drove excessively fast. I took a nap at one point, and when I woke up the landscape looked exactly the same.
834 miles. When we got home, that’s how far we traveled over the span of 2 days and a few hours. We traveled from packed, freezing cold pools to hot tubs and satisfyingly warm showers, from dusty forests and underground caves to hip coffeeshops and brightly colored climbing gyms. It was a long trip but well worth it.
Until next time, never stop exploring.