Mystery, magic and the Metolius

Mystery, magic and the Metolius
In this July 26, 2012 photo, the head waters of the Metolius River emerge from beneath Black Butte near Sisters, Ore., though geologists say the river is feed from the Cascades. The Metolius Basin has a way of casting a spell on just about everyone who visits. (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Jamie Francis)

CAMP SHERMAN, Ore. (AP) — If Oregon place names had a dictionary, Metolius would be a synonym for magic.

The Metolius Basin has a way of casting a spell on just about everyone who visits.

The basin begins atop Santiam Pass and descends the east side of the Cascades, where thick forests of Douglas firs give way to mature stands of red-bark ponderosa pines.

Closer to the Metolius River, incense cedars perfume the air with the scent of mystery. Or is it magic?

The river's fame as a fly-fishing destination reaches far beyond Oregon. But those who won't wet a fly love the basin for its hiking trails, camping, biking and birding.

Only a dozen miles from Sisters and its visitor amenities, the basin is and will remain underdeveloped. A half-dozen quaint but comfortable small resorts cater to overnight guests, who have just one restaurant and one store to visit upon arrival in the heart of the basin at Camp Sherman.

The only road besides the highway that leaves the basin is a steep, gravel climb east up Green Ridge — so the basin is basically a 100-square mile, dead-end horseshoe.

It's the perfect place to escape traffic on U.S. 20 whizzing by between the Willamette Valley and busier parts of central Oregon.

After many visits to the Metolius Basin over the years, I've come up with this list of favorites.

Camp Sherman: This is the basin's "town" and the location of Camp Sherman Store and Fly Shop (with rental cabin), Kokanee Cafe and four small lodges/resorts. The small store gracefully crams in all the necessities from deli items to camping supplies and fly-fishing gear. The upscale menu of the nearby cafe attracts a line of Lexus SUVs from Black Butte Ranch, five miles south across the Santiam Pass Highway. You see them parked outside during dinner hours.

Wizard Falls Hatchery: One of Oregon's most productive fish hatcheries delivers catchable-size trout and salmon to waters around central Oregon. Only spring chinook, currently being reintroduced into the upper Deschutes Basin, are released into the Metolius River a few steps away. The display ponds, landscaped and natural grounds, plus riverside trails add to the visitor appeal, five miles downstream from Camp Sherman.

Head of Metolius: The signature destination in the basin is two miles south (upstream) from the Camp Sherman Store. In fact, this is one of Oregon's most loved outdoor settings, where the clear and cold Metolius River springs up from underground as though full born in an instant. The distant view of Mount Jefferson through ponderosa pines adds to the bucolic scene.

Head of Jack: The Metolius isn't the only spring in the basin. Several other springs mimic the birth of the famous river. Jack Creek comes out of the ground the same way, although less famously. Its headwaters are an easy one-mile hike upstream from Jack Creek Campground, on the west side of the Metolius Basin in the Deschutes National Forest.

Canyon Creek: The premier mountain hike in the Metolius Basin is one of the most beautiful in the Oregon Cascades. The 4-mile trail from Jack Lake leads through a string of mountain meadows, where a riot of color from blooming wildflowers awaits in midsummer, before ending in front of Three Finger Jack's starkly steep north face and turquoise glacial pool at its base.

Carl Lake: The Cabot Lake Trail in the northwest corner of the Metolius Basin heads 5 miles up past Cabot Lake to Carl Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. The trail has wonderful views to start (because it was burned in the 2003 B&B fire), enters a thick forest and pops out on a beautiful lake setting equal to any in the surrounding north-central Cascades backcountry.

Lower trails: Start out with walkers and their dogs, sprinkle in hikers and joggers, then top it off with lots of fishermen and women. It seems that every visitor to the basin winds up on part of the 15-plus miles of the Metolius River Trail. A favored hiking section is two miles upstream from the hatchery on the west side of the river. Fishing is fly angling, catch-and-release (check state regulations for specifics). Local equestrians ride the 120-mile Metolius-Windigo Trail, which begins in the basin.

Metolius Preserve: The Deschutes Land Trust acquires private land for preservation as it becomes available in the Metolius Basin. The trust welcomes public use on its preserve on five miles of hikable loops. Birding is a major activity, especially in spring when woodpeckers are raising young. The landscape is flat, ideal for spring and fall when higher national forest trails are snow covered.

South of 20: The Metolius Basin is much bigger than just the Metolius River. It starts on the Cascades Crest beneath Mount Washington, on the south side of U.S. 20. The resort and campgrounds on Suttle Lake and the Caldera arts center on Blue Lake are all part of the basin. Lake Creek, which connects Suttle Lake to the Metolius River, could just as easily be the main stem of the Metolius River as the Head of the Metolius.

Road cycling: The Metolius Loops are part of the Oregon Park and Recreation Department's scenic bikeway program. Three loops cover 3.5, 5 and 6.5 miles, plus a 15-mile out-and-back river ride between Camp Sherman and Lower Bridge. This is as easy (and scenic) as road biking gets in the state bikeway program.

Mountain biking: The Metolius has three pods: the Suttle Lake Loop and connecting trails (best for beginners), the converted road system south of Black Butte (for intermediates) and trails atop Green Ridge (for advanced), the eastern divide of the Metolius Basin. Nearby Sisters is more developed as a mountain bike destination, but don't leave the knobby tires at home when you're Metolius bound.

Letterbox: If you haven't tried this "treasure hunt" form of outdoor recreation, there may be no better place to start than in the Metolius Basin. Go to the letterboxing website, learn what it is, then look for locations in Oregon. Zero in on two dozen around Camp Sherman and Sisters. Letterboxing will take you places in the Metolius Basin you wouldn't otherwise find. Info: letterboxing.org.

Winter: If you love the Metolius in summer, try it in winter when crowds are minuscule. A new snowfall beneath red-bark ponderosa pines defies description. Bring snowshoes or cross-country skis for trails and roads. Snow is not sufficiently reliable for developed facilities, like those at Santiam Pass. But when snow happens, you want to be there.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: The Metolius Basin begins on the east side of Santiam Pass. The heart of the basin at Camp Sherman is 150 miles southeast of Portland and 12 miles northwest of Sisters.

Lodging: The basin has some of Oregon's best small resorts in forest settings. The Lodge at Suttle Lake is on the south side of U.S. 20; Lake Creek Lodge is on the approach road to Camp Sherman; Metolius River Lodges, Metolius River Resort, Cold Springs Resort and Camp Sherman RV Park and Motel are clustered around Camp Sherman village; the House on the Metolius is an enclave of private land on both sides of the river, two miles downstream from Camp Sherman; find more information on all at metoliusriver.com.

Camping: Cold Springs and Camp Sherman resorts have RV hookups. Elsewhere, the basin has 16 Deschutes National Forest campgrounds. Riverside is a walk-in camp for tenters; RVers prefer being close to Camp Sherman, with more tenters and fewer RVers the farther downriver you go. Campgrounds are managed by Hoodoo Recreation; hoodoo.com.

The original story can be found on The Oregonian's website.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.