Explore All Of Oregon: Hiking the Newberry Caldera

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Big Obsidian Flow
Walking the trail through volcanic glass

I had to board my cat for a few days due to work being done on my home, so I decided to take off to Newberry National Volcanic Monument. More than half of Oregon is public land, and that is one of many sections wanted to explore. On my last trip to the Deschutes, I’d seen a basic brochure for someplace called Big Obsidian Flow. The brochure looked to have been made on an old copy machine and I had a hard time making out the images. The place had a cool name and I knew next to nothing about it: a perfect recipe for an adventure.

Heading out to the volcano

Car Hop
I had no idea what I was doing. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Taking State Route 26 out was a fascinating drive. In a few hours I went from city to suburbia to the giant dense forests on the south side of Mt. Hood and through near desert scrublands. It’s a bit of a rough drive as there are no services for a long stretch and barely anywhere to pull over. When you can, there are lots of no trespassing signs. Since that stretch runs through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, I don’t bend the rules. I did eventually stop in a town and get a drink at a Sonic Car Hop. A few of these exist in Oregon, but I’ve never used one.

I stayed in an RV in someone’s yard that I’d arranged to rent. In the morning, I got up and followed my directions to Obsidian Flow. However, I wound up at Lava Cast Forest with no idea how to get to my intended hike. I followed a few trails in the woods in case I was suppose do walk out to it. I eventually gave up and explored Lava Cast instead. The road in that part of the National Monument was rough. I had to drive at just ten miles takes an hour, any faster and it was like driving on a rumble strip. Those roads are not a great place to lose your way. I do drive a small and light car, but even the big pick up trucks were driving at a crawl.

National Forest Road in Oregon
On my way back out, deer were grazing on the flowers in the middle of the road. I am still amazed that this is a real road that I drove. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Lava Cast Forest turned out to an old lava field with scattered ‘tree casts’. The lava had flowed around the trees leaving deep holes in the lava. New trees and scattered wildflowers grow in the lava rocks.

Lava Cast Forest Oregon
The path through the lava field. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

I had planned to hike Lava Cast Forest while at Newberry National Volcanic Monument if I had time. The area was unlike any I’d every seen. I passed a few nice hours there looking out over the strange landscapes.

“You used the Google, didn’t you?”

After Lava Cast Forest I went to the visitor’s center to ask for directions. When I told the ranger at the station where I’d gone and she said, “You used the Google didn’t you?” and I hung my head in shame. After all my years exploring Oregon, I should know better than to trust Google, Apple or Waze for directions in Oregon. There was literally no way to get to where I was going from the roads I’d been on.

Armed with correct information and a paper map, I headed out to my destination at last. Fortunately, the drive into that part of the caldera is easy and smooth. There are two lakes in the caldera, along with various hikes and campgrounds. Eventually, I saw the turn and drove down a road to see the flow rising above the tree line.

Big Obsidian Flow rising above the treeline
Big Obsidian Flow rising above the treeline at Newberry National Volcanic Monument. I’d finally found it. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Big Obsidian Flow is a giant mass of volcanic glass with a hiking path winding through it. the flow is made of both obsidian and pumice. There was pumice dust in the air and more was kicked up as I started one the path. There is a staircase that goes up through the steepest part and deposits you on top of the highest part of the flow. Thankfully, it started to rain, which pulled some of the abrasive dust from the air and shined up the obsidian a bit.

The strange landscape of Big Obsidian Flow.
The strange landscape of Big Obsidian Flow. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Those dark peaks of obsidian were dull and gray when I first arrived. The haze from dust floating around made taking pictures difficult. I’d never been so glad to have passing showers on my hike.

Wide view of Big Obsidian Flow
Looking out over Big Obsidian Flow from the trail. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

Tips for Newberry National Volcanic Monument

How to take better pictures than I did!

The glare at that altitude is major challenge. My eyes would adjust to the light and not realize how bright it was until I tried to look at my phone or camera screen.

  • Polarizers and/or ND filters are good to have. Not only do they cut back on the light, but they can also keep pumice dust off of your lens.
  • Bring brushes to clean your gear. Keep in mind wet forms of cleaning can make particles stick to surfaces. When those particles are pumice, that is a recipe for damaged gear.
  • Avoid changing lenses. I rarely lens swap when landscape shooting in Oregon due to the conditions, whether it’s waterfall mist, rain, salt or volcanic glass particles in the air. You can protect the outward face part of your lens with a filter, it’s harder to protect the interior element or your camera’s sensor. Also, the construction of some lenses can let particles into the inner workings.
  • If you have other accessories to protect gear, like custom rain bags, consider bringing them.
  • Keep an eye on the weather. Don’t risk getting caught in hail or a thunderstorm, but places like Obsidian Flow photograph much better wet. The rain changed how things look a lot, pulling the haze from the air and darkening and shining the obsidian.
  • You cannot go off trail, which limits compositions. Like with National Parks, at National Monuments drones are not allowed. Both wide angle lenses and long range zooms have their merits.
Wildflowers in lava rocks
Wildflowers in the rocks of Lava Cast Forest at Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Don’t forget to look to the small details. Photo by Dawn Hewitt.

There is lots I didn’t do at Newberry National Volcanic Monument. I couldn’t go in the bat caves because I was wearing gear that had recently been in another cave. If you plan to visit the caves, be aware of the efforts to stop cross contaminating caves and pack accordingly. I will next time!

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