First off, it seems useful to review where we are here. This is not the Little Cowhorn Mountain topped with a lookout and located on the Willamette National Forest at the end of a one mile trail. This Cowhorn – what some also, for extra confusion, call Cowhorn Butte – is on the Deschutes National Forest (in the Oregon Cascades Recreational Area) a few miles southwest of Crescent Lake. Back before this Cowhorn’s cow-horn shaped summit spine fell over in a 1911 storm (some storm!), it was called Little Cowhorn to distinguish it from Mount Thielsen, which was then called Big Cowhorn. The hike to this Cowhorn Mountain’s 7,664-foot summit is along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) starting north from Windigo Pass, which is reached via Forest Road (FR) 60 (a good gravel road) off State Highway 138 about six miles north of Diamond Lake.
The last time we did this hike in October it was overcast and cold, with a strong wind blowing squall lines of stinging snow granules across the trail and summit. Visibility came and went, but any hope for big views mostly went. This October it was the polar opposite – tourism bureau grade Fall weather – sunny, clear, and crisp, with only a light breeze. Thus it seemed like the perfect moment to do this short, but fun, hike/scramble to Cowhorn’s summit. This hike is along the PCT and we found a huge cache of trail magic water at the trailhead!
The PCT itself was in superb condition all the way, as it climbs gradually through a forest,
past an overlook of the Windigo Lakes (reachable via a short cross-country scramble),
to a first view of Cowhorn from an opening in the forest about two miles from the trailhead.
After ogling Cowhorn, I looked down and saw this tiny (6-inch tall) tree starting its climb to the sky from a similarly tiny crack in a very large rock. Life persists…
A little further along, we came to another viewpoint, this one letting us look at Cowhorn’s west ridge – the one we would be following to the summit.
About two weeks ago, the Cascades had gotten their first snowfall of the season and the PCT in this area was covered in a foot or more of fresh snow, which made for difficult hiking. Some of this snow was still around but had melted back to little more than decoration for the trail.
Four miles from the trailhead, we left the PCT (there’s a small cairn marking the spot) and followed a reasonably obvious use trail through the woods and up loose dirt to the false summit.
Past the false summit, we crossed a hogsback of deep red cinders,
and walked up to the base of the summit pinnacle.
In summer, this final bit of scrambling is high 2nd Class at best. The snow cover pushed the climbing difficulty up a touch but there was plenty of solid stuff to hang on to and with careful foot placement it wasn’t particularly hard.
The summit is the eroded remnant of a much larger stratovolcano. The layered gray andesite is riddled with vertical dikes of black lava that was squeezed into fractures as the volcano rose.
Unlike the last time we did this, today the BIG VIEW was on full and continuous display.
It was very, very pleasant on the summit – sunny, warmish, almost no breeze. So we sat and snacked and took in the views. But then it was time to head back – motivated by a deep desire to get pie at Beckie’s in Union Creek. Going down was slower than going up, owing to the slippery snow.
But, soon, we were back on dirt,
and going south on the PCT.
A short (8.8 miles roundtrip; 1,800 feet of elevation gain) hike with a neat scramble finish and HUGE VIEWS (if you get the weather right) all around. Almost as good as Mount McLouglin but without 4,000 feet of gain! We ended-up having dinner at Beckie’s and took pieces of pie home for dessert. So many calories but soooo good…