Starting June 22, Bryce and I spent 5 days backpacking in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. It was one of those perfect weeks for weather, crowds, bugs, but a bit early for flowers. The Strawberry Mountain Wilderness is an island in the high plains of Eastern Oregon surrounding Strawberry Mountain which climbs to over 9000 feet. We accessed the wilderness via Prairie City with great meals in and out at 1188 in John Day. From the Strawberry Lake Campground we planned on spending the first night at Strawberry Lake which is only 1.2 mile in. If this area was anywhere but in the middle of nowhere it would be overwhelmed by hikers and campers. But it is 3.5 hours from Bend or Boise and 6 hours from Portland. The lake itself is pristine and there is fairly good fishing.
We got to the lake in late afternoon and just missed getting the primo campsite on a grassy beach next to an inlet stream. However, we took the campsite at the south end of the lake and immediately caught our Brook Trout dinner. Our plan was to do the loop starting with Slide Lake, however, Brook, decided that she did not want to carry her backpack and just took off to avoid her duty. Well, if you have followed Brook’s backpacking over the last few years you know that we have had some similar issues. Brook is complicated and this trip was her test for the 2020 season, and she failed. Of course she was not lost but she wasted half of our day as we had to look for her. The outcome was to spend another night at Strawberry Lake and do a day hike up to Strawberry Falls and Little Strawberry Lake.
Bryce decided to haul his float tube up to Strawberry Lake since it was not that far and it did turn out to be a nice recreational option. Bryce had some success fishing from it, but we also just used it to cool off in the lake.
Strawberry Falls and Little Strawberry Lake are must see. About a 1.5 mile hike further with some climb which set into to motion a gradual daily routine to get in better shape and acclimate to the altitude.
Hike to Strawberry Falls & Little Strawberry Lake
Strawberry Lake is at about 6200 feet but we would eventually top out at over 9000 at the end of the week by taking daily hikes.
The purpose of this wilderness get-a-way was to explore the Strawberry Mountain area but also to get in shape for the 2020 backpacking season. What I quickly realized was that it was about acclimating to elevation since I live at 300 feet. Each day I could feel my body adapt to an extra 1000 feet. I am so glad I did this since it should set me up well for the Timberline Trail around Mt Hood in another week.
We ended up camping at a different spot on Strawberry lake on our second night. It was on the east side of the lake with a much nicer view of the lake and stars. Our plan was to backpack to Slide Lake or further and still keep the loop option open to us by circling back to Strawberry Lake. However, I still had my eye on that great grassy beach campsite on the SW side of the lake. We decided that if that site opened up before we left for Slide Lake we would go take it over and then just day hike to Slide Lake. That is exactly what happened which set us up for camping the rest of the week at Strawberry Lake and just doing day hikes. This is not my normal strategy but in the case for this wilderness I now feel that it was the most attractive option.
Hike to Slide Lake
The hike to Slide Lake pushed most of the 1000′ vertical at the beginning and it was probably the steepest climbing we did all week, so the heart was pumping but it hurt so good.
Slide Lake is beautiful with a hike that provides views to the East with a view point of Prairie City providing a cell signal. From this point on the trail flattens out with occasional small snow fields.
You can hike around the lake which offered us some nice fishing holes. Hiking back to our primo campsite on Strawberry Lake made for a very complete day.
We were feeling really good about our exercise progress so we went to sleep that 3rd night hoping to hike to the summit of Strawberry Mountain on our last full day.
The hike from Strawberry Lake to the summit of Strawberry Mountain would require about 9 miles and a 2800 vertical climb. We got to pass by the falls again and then up into the meadows below the ridge-line over to the final summit ascent. The problem was getting to the ridge-line which was guarded by an imposing wall of snow. It probably would have been wise to have our ice axes but our drive to get to the summit gave us the motivation to take it on. We were careful and the snow was more firm in our ascent which helped a lot. Coming back down would present some new options.
Once on the ridge-line you traverse over to the north side at about 8700′ and your pumping heart is telling you that you may have come far enough, but you do need to finish the climb to the summit at 9038′.
After communicating with our families thanks to cell service on top we began our return to Strawberry Lake knowing that it would be so much easier going down, however, we still had the snow ridge to contend with. Bryce decided to glissade down it.
The glissade did look like fun but I opted for the conventional descent. The hike back to Strawberry Lake was an awesome end to a great week of hiking in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. One last night on our primo campsite just enjoying the beauty of this place.