Home / Destinations / From Low to High: The PCT from Breitenbush Lake to Park Butte By Paul Gerald

From Low to High: The PCT from Breitenbush Lake to Park Butte By Paul Gerald

If variety and solitude are markers of a great hike, the PCT south of Breitenbush Lake certainly qualifies as great.
If variety and solitude are markers of a great hike, the PCT south of Breitenbush Lake certainly qualifies as great.

I suppose if I were to design a perfect hike, I would want to be remote, uncrowded, reasonably difficult, varied in scenery, and mysterious. And it would save the payoff for a dramatic moment at the end. For a perfect hiking day, I would want threatening weather, to add adventure, and I would actually hope for some personal baggage or something to drive me out there, give me something to let go of on the trail.

All these things were in place as I bounced my Nissan Sentra up the heinous and legendary road to Breitenbush Lake in the Oregon Cascades.

Anybody who’s driven it will shudder at the thought of it, remember that it takes about an hour to cover seven miles, and then say, “Man, you must have had a good reason to go up there!” Then again, if they’ve walked the Pacific Crest Trail from the lake to Park Ridge, and seen that view of Mount Jefferson, they wouldn’t have to ask why I was going up there.

Throw in gathering clouds and an imminent relationship breakup, and it was just about the perfect hiking day.

A hike that starts at the low, peaceful Breitenbush Lake builds to a dramatic conclusion in the Cascade high country.
A hike that starts at the low, peaceful Breitenbush Lake builds to a dramatic conclusion in the Cascade high country.

Breitenbush Lake is actually on an Indian reservation, and while you can camp there (for free) you can’t swim in, fish, or walk around the lake. What you can do is jump on the Pacific Crest Trail headed south and immediately walk through some of the flower mountain meadows of your dreams. And then into a catastrophic burn.

We’re not talking about a fire that went through; we’re talking about the explosive death of a forest, leaving nothing but ash and charcoal. Yet even here is the mystery; distinct lines appear at your feet and on distant ridges, lines that separate bright green from ashen gray. Put it down to the hard work of firefighters, or perhaps the vagaries of wind. On such factors do these trails depend.

We may think of fires (and foul weather) as being “bad,” but in fact there’s beauty in all forms of nature.
We may think of fires (and foul weather) as being “bad,” but in fact there’s beauty in all forms of nature.

As I started climbing in earnest, the storm began to build. It was cold, windy, and getting wetter. I just hung my head and trudged on. It was one of those moments in hiking when there’s nothing to do but put in the miles. I had a PCT guidebook to research, but I also had some things to think through. A relationship had just ended, and not of my accord. The fact that she was right meant nothing at the time; I was alone, and cold, and wet, and the hill in front of me was looming ever steeper.

I passed a rock slide with a sweeping view to the north, of craggy volcanic remains, of forested ridges jigsawed by clearcuts, of deep valleys that probably no one ever visits. I was the only person on the trail. My car was the only one in the lot.

Sometimes we just need to sit and contemplate, and a hike like this allows us to do so.
Sometimes we just need to sit and contemplate, and a hike like this allows us to do so.

A wall of wet wind lashed me in the face, and I briefly lost my will to walk. It all seemed pointless: won’t see anything anyway, and it’s not even fun. I actually caught myself moping like a little kid, at which point I decided to just sit down until I felt like moving on. I found a rock which I called the Slab of Despair and just sat down in the external and internal muck.

Letting my mind go silent, and letting go of the mope for a moment, I looked around. I was alone in the mountains, a trail at my feet, a meadow with lilies around me, a row of trees beyond that, and all the might of nature rolling through. Without the mental layer of suffering, I realized my surroundings were awesomely beautiful: the clouds whipping through, the trees glowing with moisture, the flowers bending in the breeze, the only sound being the wind. The energy of being up there by myself, at the edge of comfort, perhaps even at the edge of safety, made the whole scene come alive in glory. I got and started walking again.

The upper parts of this hike, even when the clouds are in, are dramatic, beautiful, and lonesome.
The upper parts of this hike, even when the clouds are in, are dramatic, beautiful, and lonesome.

About two miles up, the woods started to open up and I hit a snow patch – this in September, and pushing 6,000 feet. As I checked some animal tracks on it, I noticed my shadow. It took a second to register, but then it did: the sun is coming out! I looked up and saw, above the ridge up the trail, the snowy top of Mount Jefferson. A half mile later, the blue hole above growing ever bigger, I came into a fantastic bowl of grass, snow, and rock – and there was a perfect little campsite next to a perfect little pond.

The last half mile was over rock and snow, above the trees, my spirit soaring and legs getting stronger. I had reached that magical point were I was gaining strength from the struggles, so much lighter for what I had left behind, and drawing energy from the hill. I was almost running. In fact, I was so focused on placing my feet and feeling the simplicity of it all that I didn’t notice when I had topped out on the ridge, now in the full sunshine, and what I saw almost knocked me back down.

A great hike rewards you with awesome views like this one, but also a sense of internal calm and resolution.
A great hike rewards you with awesome views like this one, but also a sense of internal calm and resolution.

The view of Mount Jefferson from Park Butte on the PCT is about as magical, and iconic, as these things get in Oregon. It’s a pile of rock and ice, with a bed of meadows and trees and lakes at its feet – an area called Jefferson Park which I knew would be filled with people, many of them headed this way for a day hike from camp.

But I had the satisfaction of having come up the back the way, the hard way, and through hell to get here. And I hadn’t seen anybody coming up, just as I’d see nobody going down. I was right where I was supposed to be, doing what I was put here to do. And I couldn’t wait to tell people about it so they could come here, too.

For full details on this 7-mile out-and-back hike, see my book Day and Section Hikes on the Oregon PCT, especially the 2012 second edition. In fact, you can buy a signed copy straight from me at http://paulgerald.com/books/list/day-and-section-hikes-oregon-pct.

PCT 2E Cover

About Paul Gerald

PAUL GERALD grew up in Memphis, went to school in Texas, worked for some newspapers, freelanced, cooked on fishing boats in Alaska, had many other jobs, and moved to Portland in 1996, mostly because there were mountains nearby. He has written four books for Keen Communications: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Portland, Day and Section Hikes on Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail, Best in Tent Camping: Oregon, and Peaceful Places: Portland. He also wrote Breakfast in Bridgetown: The Definitive Guide to Portland’s Favorite Meal, which he published as Bacon and Eggs Press. His online homes are paulgerald.com and breakfastinbridgetown.com.

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4 comments

  1. I love this hike for all the same reasons you have in your story.

  2. Beautifully written trail description. Makes me wish I were closer to the PCT. (Of course, just about any description of the PCT makes me wish I were closer.) What’s the stone structure in the second photo? Is that a shelter of some kind?

  3. Sounds like a great hike. I often find that hiking helps me clear my mind and help me gain perspective. The PCT would be very high on my list of dream walks to do, maybe one day.

  4. Very well written! I really enjoyed this.

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