It is now becoming a rite of passage of winter to take a 4x4 up into the snow to explore some mountain trail or usually inaccessible destination. In the past I have towed a trailer and camped, as I did last year in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and five years ago towing a 24-foot Airstream in these very same Cascade Mountains of central Oregon.
This year I took a Toyota FJ Cruiser, sans-trailer, to one of the mountains I have visited before, Mount Bachelor, some 22 miles from Bend on the eastern side of the Cascades in the high desert. Since it is a long run from Los Angeles I intended to make the "getting there" as much fun as the destination.
In the past five years the FJ has not changed significantly. More of a gradual refinement to better suit market tastes. It was a first class, capable 4x4 then, capable of towing the 4,600-pound Airstream through lots of snow and ice without so much as a hiccup, and remains so today. Toyota offers three FJ Cruiser models; the 4x2 and two 4x4s, one with a six-speed manual transmission and one with a five-speed automatic. I have the latter in the relatively new Army Green livery. It blends in well with the forest but not so much with the snow!
The power plant is a DOHC 4.0L V-6 engine that produces 260hp and 271 lb-ft of peak torque — up a little from the 239hp of five years ago. Though I see FJ Cruisers in Beverly Hills (what the British would call "Chelsea Tractors" — Chelsea is to London what Beverly Hills is to California), be assured that the FJ is a purpose-designed and built vehicle capable of exploring all but the most outrageous of off-road terrain.
I hustled from Los Angeles to Medford, Oregon, where I called on a long-time friend who restores old cars (right now he is building a '47 Ford 4x4 truck on a '74 chassis. Although currently unfinished it will be quite the vehicle for his next show). Time was relatively short for this excursion, so from Medford I headed straight for Crater Lake, one of America's great natural wonders that I had only seen from 30,000-plus feet (usually Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C., Canada), but never from the ground.
At 1,943 feet deep, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States. The lake surface is 6,173 feet above sea level and covers 183,000 acres. It was formed over 7,000 years ago when a 12,000-foot volcano collapsed following a major eruption. Larger and deeper than its geographic neighbor, Lake Tahoe, Crater Lake, in large part due to its lack of close proximity to a large metropolitan area, has managed to avoid Tahoe's commercial development.
John Wesley Hillman, a pioneer mine explorer, first saw the deep blueness of the lake on June 12, 1853. Through the advocacy of William Gladstone Steel, who first visited the lake in 1870, Crater Lake was officially designated a national park on May 22, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the bill into law. It is kind of out-of-the-way, but still attracts about a half a million visitors a year.
I was looking for snow and ice with clear blue skies and stark winter sunshine, not for the rain and fog I found. The rain was continual with the clouds hanging low obscuring the mountain summits. From the Highway 62/Highway 230 junction to the entrance of Crater Lake National Park, the below normal level of snowfall was packed along the roadside, but little on the roads. That changed on the climb to the lake rim and for the first time, four-wheel drive was a safety factor as I drove over some packed ice with a light snow covering. Unfortunately for me, and this trip, the entire lake was hidden by cloud giving zero visibility.
Furthermore, a brief hike to as close to the edge as the Park Rangers would allow, only exposed me to the biting, almost gale force winds, which made the interior of the FJ a welcome igloo. After a cup of hot soup and a chat with a Park Ranger at the Rim Village Café, it became obvious that conditions were not going to change that day, or even the one to follow.
To avoid my disappointment, check with the park's webcam (http://www.nps.gov/crla/photosmultimedia/webcams.htm), or simply call the Park [(541) 594-3000] for current conditions. I have seen winter photos of Crater Lake and have been taken aback with the beauty. I know it must be worth the winter trip but this time I left with my expectations thwarted by the weather and my choice of timing.
The Christmas daylight is quite short at 42.93-degrees latitude, so knowing I needed to make my campground north of Bend before dark — some 110 miles and 2 1/2 hours in ideal driving conditions, I backtracked to Highway 62 then north towards Diamond Lake. The roads were clear but the rain relentless and visibility challenging.
During the summer there is a west loop road around Crater Lake that joins up with Highway 138 to the north near Diamond Lake, but even a snowmobile is not allowed around there in winter. These roads were good and I made good enough time to check out the still open resort on the banks of the frozen Diamond Lake. The winds howled across the vast expanse of ice prompting a hasty retreat to the road and to my nights planned abode.
If you have never heard the word "Yurt," I recommend that sometime you jump in the deep end, so to speak, and spend a winter's night in one. I stayed at the Tumalo National Park where there are parking spaces for RVs, spaces for tents, and Pacific Yurts. The Pacific Yurt is a modern adaptation of the ancient shelter used by Central Asian nomads. Though generally classified as a tent, the yurt is much stronger and weather-tight. It is a circular structure that consists of a durable fabric cover, over a wood frame that includes a normal looking framed door. Spending a night in one is a great experience; warm and cozy, even romantic (obviously an understanding partner helps with the latter — high maintenance, five-star partners might question your winter judgment).
Five years ago the entire county of Deschutes was knee deep in snow. This Christmas the snow sports people were not so blessed. Although I needed the 4x4 to safely get through the packed ice to the top of the mountain parking lot, chains were not necessary and I was getting a little disappointed with my choice of vacation time!
This not withstanding I spent a wonderful hour with the Red Hat group of sled dogs and their very friendly handlers. They offer sled rides through forests surrounding the ski slopes of Mount Bachelor — something right out of the Iditarod. In fact, I was told that more than one of their lead dogs had Iditarod experience. The $85 cost (for adults) will get you a very unique one-hour experience, cuddled up under a blanket as an enthusiastic team of dogs mush its way over the snow at quite impressive speeds.
I had no sooner finished my dog experience when the rain that had been falling steadily for over an hour turned to snow. It was time to find some trails, so I headed away from the main road and onto Highway 45 towards Sunrise and Lapine.
The main road, Highway 46, to the west of Mount Bachelor was closed for the winter, even to off-roaders and 4x4s, no matter if they were equipped with caterpillar tracks! So the road to Cascade Lakes and the Three Sisters Wilderness area lay under virgin snow and ice. Either side of the road to Sunrise there are many trails and tracks that the FJ can explore with impunity, so I did. Rest assured that you are the only vehicle around and take normal safety precautions in case something untoward might happen. Cell phone coverage is spotty, if not sparse, so do not rely on calling out the troops if you get stuck.
There is a certain aspect of winter exploration, and that can be an uncertainty of whether you will get through or have to reverse out of an untenable situation. Some of these trails have been cleared for snowmobile use, some have not and reversing back to a place to turn around is not uncommon. I like to adopt a Zen attitude to these situations — they are what they are. Some things even an FJ, unless it is equipped with a chain saw, has to ace as being impassable.
The other aspect of trail exploration in the snow is one of meditation. No news, no radio, no music, no distractions — just the test of the terrain vs. the FJ and ones own comfort level of dealing with the unknown. I like being this isolated even just for a while. It tends to focus ones mind on what is immediate.
After several excursions along trails that presented only a modest test for the FJ, I took the road to Crane Prairie Reservoir via Highway 40. It started out as clear asphalt with a narrow, two-lane road but quickly deteriorated into rutted packed ice and later covered with fresh snow as I encountered the same snowstorm that was now covering the entire Mount Bachelor area. With visibility worsening both with the snowstorm and the oncoming end of daylight, I fast appreciated that the better part of valor would be a discretionary retreat and I backtracked to the main highway and north towards Mt. Bachelor and then on to Bend.
On my last day the sun came out. Only for a short while but it gave me a glimpse of sparkle on the snow and ice. Just enough sun and time to take a few photos and to let me explore on foot some otherwise inaccessible parts of the Deschutes River that ran behind my yurt in Tumalo National Park.
During the summer there are many opportunities for four-wheeling and great ways to communicate with nature, away from the maddening crowd, as I like to jest. I value the opportunities that vehicles like the FJ offer to an otherwise city dweller. It is even more impressive when visiting areas like central Oregon where off-roading is still recognized as a valid pastime.
Other areas I would explore in the summer that are closed in the winter are the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, the trails around the Three Sisters mountains, and if you are so inclined, spelunking, also called caving, in the lava tubes at Skeleton Cave, Arnold Ice Caves, or Lava River Cave.
Throughout the 2,500 miles I put on the FJ during this trip I averaged 19.9 mpg, which is up 10 percent over the equivalent for the FJ of five years ago (and with more horsepower). I like that kind of progress. With sales in the USA around 14,000 units a year, the FJ has earned a loyal following simply because it does what it is supposed to do without whining. As far as looks go, it is polarizing — it is a love it or hate it opinion with very little in between.
If I were to award a trophy for the most macho looking vehicle on the road today it would be to Toyota's FJ Cruiser. However I do have one major suggestion/question for Toyota, although I imagine it will be rhetorical: Why not offer the FJ with a turbo-diesel motor to maintain the power/torque, but give much better highway gas mileage?