At the crossroads of the Mt. Hood, Deschutes, and Willamette National Forests sits the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. It’s a spectacular corner of the wilds, with sub-alpine forests, meadowed slopes, and sparkling lakes all sitting under the shadow of Mt. Jefferson, the second-tallest mountain in Oregon (after Mt. Hood, also in the Cascade Range). Many consider it the most scenic hiking area in Oregon, and it’s beloved by folks all over the state as a terrific place for stargazing, birdwatching, and mountain climbing.
The tradeoff that comes with exploring high-elevation areas like these, however, it that snow and ice sit on the mountain slopes sometimes as late as July. So open camping season for most trails and campsites runs from Memorial Day through October 31st. But even during these high summer months, it’s smart to come prepared for capricious mountain weather and unexpected conditions.
But when you do make it out, I’d recommend visiting Jefferson Park, a beautiful swath of alpine meadows, clear water tarns, and stately old-growth woodlands. This area is open to winter adventurers, as well, but I think it’s best appreciated in summer when the wildflowers are in bloom. Camping spots are limited, so reserve your site early.
The hike starts at the Whitewater Trailhead, about 10 miles east of Detroit Lake. From there it's a 12-mile jaunt through the wilderness on a very well-maintained trail. There are only two junctions to watch out for. The first is about a mile in, at which you'll take the Whitewater Creek Trail. And the other is at the 4-and-a-half-mile mark, at which you’ll take a left fork onto the PCT towards the mountain. From there the trail leads out to Jefferson Park. There is also one creek crossing around the 4-mile point to wade or ford, depending on the water level.
Once the trail hits the meadow the terrain flattens out, making for wonderful walks among the lakes. When the wildflowers are in bloom, and with Mt. Jefferson looming benevolently above, the whole area looks like something out of an 18th century oil painting. You can stick to the meadows and bliss out, or find a junction to the Pacific Crest Trail and keep on hiking around.
Campsites are designated around the lakes, and while it may be tempting to pitch a tent in the middle of a flower-filled meadow, remember that alpine vegetation is very sensitive and can take years or decades to recover. So enjoy your spots by the lake, be ready to apply ample bug spray, and maybe stay awake to soak in the star-rich skies.
For safety, please remember that camping on a mountain comes with unpredictable elements, including sudden cold snaps and thunderstorms. Come prepared for a chilly start and end to the day even in the peak of summer. Check with the Willamette NF Detroit Ranger Station for current weather conditions: 503-854-336.