PRAIRIE CITY — The Strawberry Mountain Wilderness is a place that, for many Oregonians, sits just beyond reach.
Many have heard of it, some dream of traveling there, yet surprisingly, few make the five-hour trip over the mountains and through the desert to John Day and Prairie City.
"The Strawberries are really a diamond in the rough, if you'll excuse the cliché," said Daniel Soupir, wilderness trails coordinator for Malheur National Forest. "It's still a pretty unknown place. Most people that come out here actually miss it."
That, as a man once said, is their misfortune.
Wrapped in craggy peaks and glacier-carved valleys, this 69,350-acre wilderness is home to blue lakes, pine forests and alpine meadows speckled with — you guessed it — wild strawberries.
Mountain goats roam the high country, and nine different streams begin here, their headwaters tumbling down waterfalls and creeks, from the summit of 9,038-foot Strawberry Mountain to the sunbaked desert below.
In early July, the Outdoors Gal (my girlfriend) and I backpacked over high mountain passes and down into glacial valleys during a wild and beautiful 14.5-mile loop that lasted three days. It began, as all Eastern Oregon trips must, in the early morning hours.
DAY 1 — A long day (High Lake Trailhead to Slide Lake, 4.6 miles, difficult)
The temperature was expected to reach 102 degrees in John Day the day we arrived, but high on a crest of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, our problem was snow.
After backpacking in from High Lake Trailhead, we climbed over an 8,100-foot ridgeline to find a steep, treacherous snowfield covering the trail and offering an exciting way to break our legs.
The day had begun at 6 a.m. in Salem — on the other side of the state — with coffee, cinnamon rolls and quiche from The Beanery, just enough to keep us filled up for the five-hour drive.
After lunch in John Day, we headed south toward the Strawberry Mountains. We decided to begin our loop at High Lake Trailhead — as opposed to Strawberry Campground — because it makes the journey shorter and easier.
From the trailhead, we passed beautiful, cliff-walled High Lake at mile 1.2 and continued onto a high ridgeline where we ran into the snow. (According to Daniel Soupir, the wilderness trails coordinator for Malheur National Forest, the snow usually stops being a problem by mid-July.)
To get around it, we picked our way down a steep rockfall into the Slide Lake Basin, using my handheld GPS and a Forest Service map to navigate.
It wasn't easy with full packs, but we arrived at the lake just before the sky started to darken. Thick clouds of mosquitoes provided company during dinner, and we were happy to watch the first day of our journey disappear into starlight.
DAY 2 — Whoa ... (Slide Lake to Strawberry Lake, 3.4 miles, easy)
After a long first day, the Outdoors Gal and I decided to spend our only full day in the wilderness focusing on relaxation.
We set out from camp early, and after a mere 2.7 miles came across a sight that turns even the most eloquent speakers into monosyllabic cavemen (or caveladies).
"Whoa," I said.
"Un-huh," said the Outdoors Gal.
Strawberry Lake shimmers wide and blue, surrounded on both sides by rugged mountain peaks and glassy rivers that roll into the 36-acre body of water. On the western shoreline, we found a camping spot alongside a creek overlooking the lake.
I spent the morning fly-fishing. The stocked lake offers brook trout (which I caught) and rainbow trout (not so much), while the Outdoors Gal spent the morning reading and napping in a wildflower meadow along the shoreline.
Now we're talking.
As the afternoon heated up, we left our campsite and day-hiked into the most scenic area of the wilderness.
Forty-foot Strawberry Falls was a mile up the trail, frothing and foaming in the sunlight. Just beyond, a half-mile spur brought us to yet another "whoa." Wrapped in silver cliffs and filled with emerald water, Little Strawberry Lake is even more spectacular than its larger brother. An afternoon spent swimming in its frozen water and warming up in the sunshine was about as close to pure relaxation as it gets.
In the evening, after a dinner of pasta and pesto, a soft summer rain swept across the mountains, leaving behind the smell of fresh pine and a rainbow stretching above the lake.
I've been blessed with some good days during my years of Oregon exploration, but that second day in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness is one that'll stick.
DAY 3 — The sprint home (Strawberry Lake to High Lake Trailhead, 6.5 miles, difficult)
All good things must end, of course, and we woke up ready for the journey home.
The final day was most difficult in terms of physical exertion, as the trail back to our car required climbing 2,080 feet up the mountain pass below Strawberry Mountain. We encountered more snow near the 8,300-foot saddle, and, painful though it was, passed up the opportunity to climb to the summit of 9,038-foot namesake of the wilderness. (A 1-mile trail climbs 900 feet in one mile to the summit).
Instead, we followed the trail and an old road out of the official wilderness to Road 1640, which connects to High Lake Trailhead.
As we reached the truck and prepared to leave, I couldn't help wishing we had one more day.