Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Loop

On August 21st at about 10 in the morning, the moon cast its shadow across northern Oregon. In the weeks leading up to this solar eclipse, several unfortunate events caused the closure of virtually all designated wilderness areas along the PCT in the path of totality. (The excuse was fire danger, but it was most likely due to the hysteria surrounding the apocalyptic amount of visitors Oregon was predicting for the eclipse.) We had originally planned to be somewhere on the PCT, but in a short amount of time we needed to come up with an alternative. With the help of Google Maps, we randomly settled on the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness.

Hike Basics
Distance: 15 to 20 miles, depending on which side trips you take
Elevation: 5000 ft
Red Tape: There are no quotas or parking fees. Permits are not needed but you can register your information at the trailhead.
Other Notes: This loop has plenty to offer – lakes, mountains and a waterfall. It is also relatively uncrowded (unless there happens to be a total solar eclipse overhead). If you find yourself in Eastern Oregon, it’s a pretty nice place to explore.

Directions to Trailhead
We started at the High Lake Rim Trailhead, just up the road from the Roads End Trailhead. From the town of Seneca on Highway 395, head east on 1st Street (NF-16) for approximately 14 miles. Turn left (north) on the unpaved NF-1640 road and follow it 9 miles to the end.

Start at the Roads End Trailhead if you’re hiking clockwise, or go a little further for the High Lake Rim Trailhead if you’re hiking the loop counter-clockwise. Both trailheads are simply shown as the Meadow Fork Trail on Google Maps (which is wrong). Google Map link to trailhead. Note – it’s also possible to reach this trail from the Strawberry Campground (NF-6001) on the north side of the wilderness.

Download file: StrawberryMountain.gpx

Hike Description
The Strawberry Mountain Wilderness is one of Oregon’s lesser visited wilderness areas. It’s several hours from any major populated areas and for most people, there are equally beautiful wilderness areas that are easier to get to. On this particular weekend, with many of those areas closed, Strawberry Mountain probably saw more visitors than it does in a typical year.

The hysteria surrounding the eclipse made us a little nervous, but we didn’t want to miss out. We took some lessons from hiking the PCT: have a loose plan, be flexible, and keep a positive attitude. We packed up our gear, picked a trailhead, and planned for two nights. We took an extra day off work – just in case the gas stations really did run out of gas. It turned out to be an excellent backpacking trip. The crowds weren’t too excessive – only slightly more than a summer weekend in Desolation Wilderness. And everyone was there for the same reason which made the whole trip feel like one giant party.

Trailhead parking – filling up two days before the eclipse.
We arrived at the trailhead at about 1 pm on Saturday, and the parking situation was already approaching full. After a quick shuffling of gear on the tailgate, we started hiking and immediately began searching for a spot to camp for the evening. It became clear when we got to High Lake that we would not find solitude, so we decided to keep walking.

On a whim when we got to the next junction, we descended to Mud Lake. The lake is only a mile and a half off the main loop, but to our surprise, the trail is so rarely used it was actually very difficult to follow.

Little Mud Lake and Mud Lake in the distance.

We clamored over fallen logs and through the burnt forest until we arrived at Mud Lake. Nobody else was there when we arrived! But after we ate dinner, a few quiet neighbors settled in for the night, just before the sun went down.

We knew we were too restless to stay at Mud Lake for more than one night, so the following day, we made our way back to the main loop. We planned to camp somewhere near the base of Strawberry Mountain. Along the trail, we encountered other eclipse seekers every few minutes. By noon, we had reached Strawberry Lake and had already seen over one hundred other people. I stopped counting after one hundred.

Strawberry Lake
We continued up to Strawberry Falls, which is actually pretty spectacular. The photos don’t do this one justice.

Strawberry Falls
After a brief snack at the falls, we continued climbing. We reached our approximate target around noon: a large meadow below Strawberry Mountain. We found a tent site on a dry knob and set up camp.

Looking down to Strawberry Lake behind us.
After eating lunch, we left the packs at camp and climbed Strawberry Mountain (9038′). As we made our way up the trail toward the summit, we saw there were dozens of other hikers camped nearby. Everybody seemed to be pretty relaxed and having a good time. A number of people were at the summit when we reached the top. We didn’t stay too long, but we took in the views before hiking back to our tent. We could actually see our tent from the summit – a tiny speck in the distance.

Back at camp, we relaxed, ate dinner, pulled water out of a tiny stream and fell asleep to the sounds of other campers around us.

The hot sun hit our tent early in the morning, forcing us out of bed pretty quickly. After a breakfast of oatmeal, we packed up and continued along the loop. Dozens of groups were now making their way to the summit of Strawberry Mountain.

We skipped the cutoff for the peak, and headed south towards the parking lot. The trail contours along the side of a ridge for a mile or two. Eventually, we found a promising spot and scrambled up to the top of the ridge. We could faintly make out the large crowd on the summit, and we could see other people sprinkled all along the ridge in various places. Everyone settled in and waited.

Ready for the eclipse.

Shadow of the partial eclipse through the hole in a Cheez-it.
The eclipse itself was pretty amazing. It got very cold and dark. In the moment when the sun fully disappeared behind the moon, we could hear faint cheers from the summit of Strawberry Mountain.

Darkness approaches from the west…

This is how dark it got. (The actual eclipse really couldn’t be captured with an iPhone.)
After the 1 to 2 minutes of totality, we scrambled back to the trail and hiked out to the car. Without feeling rushed, we managed to beat most of the rush out of Malheur National Forest. A ten hour drive got us home, and no, the gas stations did not run out of gas. Eastern Oregon is a little farther than we would typically go for a weekend, but in this case it was definitely worth it.

2 thoughts on “Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Loop”

  1. Great write-up. I did a brief day hike in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness about three years ago. I now live in Ashland in the very southern part of Oregon, but when I want to hike high mountains, I’m more likely to drive just south of the border to the Mount Shasta area or to the Eddy Range, the Trinity Alps, or the Russian Wilderness.

    1. Thanks John. There are a lot of hikes around Ashland that are closer than the 6.5 hour drive it takes to reach the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. We liked Ashland a lot when we stopped there along the PCT. Hoping to visit the Trinity Alps and Marble Mountain Wilderness again in the future – it was very rainy last July when we walked through there. By the way, we really enjoy 100 Classic Hikes in NorCal.

Any thoughts?