Pacific Northwest Day 2: OR to CA

The plan for Day 2 Was to go from Eugene to Alturas, California. I was just shy of 8 hours of driving without stops or detours.  

When I arrived at the hotel the night before, it was quite late so I wasn’t really sure what area of Eugene I was in. In the morning as I headed to breakfast, I realized the hotel backed up to the Willamette River. So far on the trip, I had not eaten out at a restaurant. Getting breakfast at the hotel that morning was the first time I requested a “table for 1”. The sun rose in the morning through the smoke which left the sky a hazy pink. It was still surprising to me how much wild fires many miles away could affect the sky.  

I checked out of the hotel after breakfast. The plan was to head to Crater Lake which I’d first heard about in the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It’s about a 2 hour and 30 minute drive from Eugene to Crater Lake and the route is through Deschutes / Williamette National Forest, so not many people around. I drove around Eugene on my way out of town and stopped by the University of Oregon Ducks stadium and Starbucks for caffeine.

    I got about 45 minutes outside of town when my rental car started acting funny. I pulled into a gas station and filled up.   FYI – Oregon is like New Jersey and they pump your gas for you. I didn’t know this and was very surprised when the man came up behind me to pump the gas.   I was hoping that after refueling, the car would be all set but it wasn’t shifting correctly. This was my first real “uh oh” on the trip. I was by myself, with car issues, about to head into the middle of nowhere Oregon. I still had cell service so I found the closest airport with an Avis rental center. It was back in Eugene. So I turned around, drove carefully, and headed back into wildfire air toward Eugene.    

The closer I got to the airport, the less I could see. There were actual particles falling from the sky onto my car. The air was getting worse and it was hard to drive in. I got to the airport and exchanged my rental car for a Chevy Cruze. Although it took about 2 hours out of the day, I’d much rather have a car where I can safely travel than one that may have left me stranded in a forest.      

The road to Crater Lake was beautiful and unpopulated. As I drove further into the forest, there were more an more fire crews and signs warning of the smoke and debris from the fires. I took route 58 that went up through the mountains toward the lake.

On my way, I kept seeing signs for various waterfalls. I’m a sucker for a waterfall (who isn’t) so I decided to stop at Salt Creek Falls. There’s a paved parking lot and you can grab a day pass for $5. There’s a small hike down to the bottom of the falls. It’s about 20 minutes or so and pretty steep toward the bottom.

There are a few other hiking trails that spur off from the Salt Creek Falls area. There’s a few more falls further up the trail that you can take the paths to. I didn’t have much time so I didn’t do any of those hikes, though I’m sure they were beautiful.

I continued on through the forest but at this point it was about lunch time. I had eaten my snacks so decided that the next sign for anything resembling a place to eat, I would stop. I found the Odell Lake Lodge & Resort and pulled off here for lunch. They have an adorable cabin like restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor seating faces the lake and is an incredible view overlooking the lake. I had a burger and fries and a diet coke and couldn’t have been happier.  

After lunch, I left the lodge and continued toward Crater Lake. The smoke in the air thickened again and had a yellowish tint to it. You really couldn’t see too far ahead of you.  

I was hoping that when I got to Crater Lake, somehow the smoke would be cleared. Unfortunately that was not the case. Crater Lake has part of the Pacific Crest Trail that goes through it and part of the trail was shut down. When entering the National Park, there were seas of firefighters cutting trees to prevent wildfires from spreading. There was black debris falling from the burnt wood in the air and a thick cloud of smoke as far as the eye could see.  

There were signs for the Rim Trail and railings to keep you back from the lake, but with the smoke the lake was literally hidden. You couldn’t see a drop of water in the massive lake or really anything for that matter. It appeared like you were looking into an unknown fog. Looking for a lake that you knew was there, but couldn’t see was probably one of the eeriest things I’ve ever experienced.

Although I couldn’t see anything, I drove around the rim trail. Some parts were narrower than others and I saw a few people driving RVs on the road and thought there is no way in heck I’d do that. Some of the road was paved while others was more dirt. It was a bit scary even in a sedan at a few spots. Because of the way Strayed described Crater Lake in her book, I promised myself I would come back someday and enjoy it’s beauty the way she had. 

My guidebook had been correct: my first sight of it [Crater Lake] was one of disbelief… The jagged circle of the lake spread out beneath me in the most unspeakably pure ultramarine blue I’d ever seen… It didn’t matter that all around me there were tourists taking pictures and driving slowly past in their cars. I could feel the lake’s power.  It seemed a shock in the midst of this great land: inviolable, separate and alone, as if it had always been and would always be there, absorbing every color of visible light but blue.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. 

I was driving down the mountain of Crater Lake and almost all of a sudden the sky turned an intense yellow. It was bright, but at the same time still filled with smoke. It was beautiful and odd all at once. It only remained for about 15 minutes or so and then became more dull of color once again.

I continued driving and got through the forest and entered Klamath Falls. Compared to my last few hours, this town had people and stores and coffee (praises!). I refueled on gas and caffeine in town and continued on southeast entering Modoc National Forest.

There continued to be areas of smoke and wildfires as I drove. You can see the different wild fires that were happening across the western states in the photo above. Some were controlled while others were not yet contained.

Deschutes National Forest in Oregon earlier in the day had been mountainous and had tall pine trees and waterfalls whereas Modoc National Forest in California was flat and dry and the “trees” seemed like miles of brush bushes. The landscape began to change and I realized I was through the forest and somewhat close to Alturas.  

I came to an intersection (the first one in hours) and turned left. My GPS said I was only a few miles from Alturas but I couldn’t see anything. Then all of a sudden a few buildings appeared. I drove into town and saw my hotel on the right, but kept driving. The town was so small. There wasn’t anyone on the streets and I didn’t recognize the name of any businesses on the drive through. I drove straight out of town. I considered continuing on and forgoing my reservation that night.  

I pulled over on the side of the road and realized that the next populated town was about two hours from Alturas, so I turned around and sucked it up.  

I drove into the hotel parking lot which was undergoing construction and checked in. I cautiously brought my bags up to my slightly sketchy looking room and locked myself in the room. I hadn’t eaten since lunch so I was quite hungry, but when I looked at options for food nearby, options were very limited. I didn’t want to risk all of the horrible things I thought could happen to me by leaving my hotel room, so I didn’t.   I realized later that evening that many of the volunteer fire fighters were staying at the hotel as well. They had their boots outside their doors and their firetrucks in the overflow parking lot. There really were not many towns within hours, so this was one of the only places to stay. I went to bed pretty early so I could wake up early and get out of Dodge.

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