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Scramble up Union Peak is worth the effort

The mountain In Crater Lake National Park once held a fire lookout, but no signs remain
Photo by Lee JuilleratDiana Barrick aims her camera to the southwest from the summit of Union Peak.
Photo by Lee JuilleratThe hike up Union Peak starts off easy and gradual, and ends in a hand-over-hand scramble for the last 800 feet.

When sitting atop Union Peak, it’s hard to imagine it was used as a lookout.

Why? Because there’s no easy way to the summit.

A dirt road used to go to the area where the scramble the top of Union Peak, the remnants of a once-upon-a-time volcano, begins. There’s no easy way up. From a saddle that offers a dramatic view of the gigantic rock pile that is Union Peak, it’s about three-quarters of a mile to its summit, a steep, sometimes hand-over-hand climb with more than three dozen switchbacks.

Despite the challenges, from the 1930s to the 1950s Union Peak was periodically used as a forest fire lookout. Just how developed the lookout was, or wasn’t, is fuzzy. The Oregon Lookouts website cites several 1929 memorandums between National Park Service officials and then-Crater Lake National Park Superintendent E.P. Leavitt discussing the pros and cons of erecting a 12-by-12 or 14-by-14-foot lookout and cites a 1950 newspaper story reporting that “the park staff has manned a secondary fire lookout on Union Peak.”

During a recent hike and climb, friends and I were on the lookout for signs of Union Peak’s historic lookout. We saw none.

But from the summit we were treated to a 360-degree view that includes Llao Rock and other mountains that surround Crater Lake, along with Mount Thielsen, Mount McLoughlin and Mount Shasta. Southward views exposed the northern section of the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area and its seemingly endless acres scarred by forest fires, including 2017’s Blanket Creek fire. On previous climbs I was rewarded with the sight of elk grazing below in open meadows.

Located in the southwest corner of Crater Lake National Park, Union Peak is visible from sections on West Rim Drive, rising above the surrounding forest lands like tip of a massive, pointy triangle. It’s not the park’s highest mountain — Mount Scott claims that honor at 8,929-feet — but Union Peak is the oldest.

According to geologists, Union Peak is an inner-core remnant of a shield volcano that developed anywhere from seven to two million years ago, making it substantially older than the mountain that was Mount Mazama. It’s estimated that nearly two million years ago, during the Pleistocene or Ice Age, the mountain was shaped by repeated glacial erosion, creating its ragged, needle-like shape.

The first known summit climbers included Chauncey Nye, H. Abbott, S. Smith, H. Brandin, James Leyman and J.W. Sessions, who reached the top Oct. 21, 1862. Because of the Civil War and because most of the group sympathized with the Union cause, it was named Union Peak.

Historically, the area surrounding the peak was part of the seasonal hunting and gathering territory for Klamath Indians and the Southern Molala and Upland Takelma tribes.

The hike to the viewpoint where the summit appears is pure pleasure. It follows the Pacific Crest Trail south from a well-marked trailhead near the park’s South Entrance — about a mile past the entrance if coming from the Klamath Basin or about a mile before the entrance if coming from the Rogue Valley.

The trail goes through lush stands of lodgepole pine and mountain hemlock that screen out views of Union Peak. In less than three miles, at a signed junction, the Union Peak Trail leaves the PCT, angling west. The trail passes through more forests before reaching the saddle, where the peak seems to suddenly materialize.

When we finally took a peek of its steep-side profile, Union Peak was imposing. At an elevation of about 7,709 feet, the mountain magically erupts above the landscape “about” 7,709 feet high, because sources differ. Some variously peg Union Peak’s summit at 7,709 while others report 7,596, 7,092, 7,510 and 7,174 feet. Likewise, various sources indicate the round-trip hike to the summit and back is 9.6, 10, 10.5 or 11 miles.

What is indisputable is the final three-quarters-of-a-mile ascent to Union Peak’s summit is a steep, sometimes hand-over-hand, 800-foot climb that includes at least three dozen switchbacks. Challenging, yes, but worth the effort — even without finding evidence of the peek-a-boo lookout.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.