volcanoAnd today’s theme was: Volcanoes. I knew before this trip that most of the Northwest is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire — a seismically and volcanically active belt on both sides of the ocean. I just didn’t know exactly how active until we headed down to Southern Oregon and back into California today. Our visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho gave us a basic grounding in lava, but those flows were created by a large fissure in the earth not an active exploding cone. Nothing can prepare you for stepping into real Volcano Territory. To give the experience even more authenticity, we’ve drove through massive smoke cover from all those wildfires, as we have practically since we entered Nevada a week ago. Due to the wind currents and inversion layer, we didn’t need to be near a fire to be in smoke. In Nevada, we were breathing Idaho fire smoke. In Idaho, it was Oregon smoke. And as we drove southward, well, there are all those fires in California.

smoke at Newberry Volcanic National Monument

There is a big ridge of volcanic peaks behind these trees. You can’t see them for that big wall of wildfire smoke.

But where exactly were these fires? Two had been right in the parks we wanted to visit. They’d been blazing when I left home, but three official websites — the park sites, the California Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention hadn’t updated their websites or phone messages since August 14th. I know they’re busy, but surely they had one intern they could leave in the office to update things. So I went to unimpeachable sources for information. I popped into every local diner we passed and asked a waitress how things were up ahead. They never steered us wrong.

Even with the assurance of waitresses, it was a nerve-wracking drive. The smoke was thick, bringing visibility down to about 5 miles. Given that this is an area of large volcanic mountains — usually visible from a hundred miles away — it was disconcerting to see nothing but haze until a large mountain popped into view when we were practically at its feet. Well, it scared me. Lucy, by this time, had completely abandoned her co-pilot duties, having decided she didn’t like her doggie seatbelt harness. Besides, she’d gotten the blankets in her crate arranged just so and resented when I kept dragging her out at every vista point for a photo op.

But about that smoke. How dense was it? Well, it was worse than the smoggiest days I remember from the Seventies in Los Angeles, but not as bad as Beijing before they cleaned up the air for the Olympics. (Back a few years before the Games, you could stand on one end of Tiannanmen Square and not see the other end.) No matter what you compared it to, that smoke was scary to drive through.

If you brake for geological markers and National Parks, as I do, you’ll never get from Oregon to California. I had to set limits by promising myself that this trip is just a reconnaissance mission. I’ll be back. Especially to Eastern Oregon which is an incredible state and not what you think it is. Think solid cowboy country with sagbrush covered high plains. I saw more guys in full Western gear actually rounding up cattle than I did in Nevada.

paulina lake, Oregon

Paulina Lake and Newberry lake are volcanic calderas within another caldera. And the park is completely dog-friendly, so we saw all this from an easy hiking trail.

But back to those volcanoes. A good park to hit — especially since it’s one you might otherwise miss — is Newberry National Volcanic Monument in Deschutes National Forest. What you’ll see are lava flows, lave tube caves and two volcanic calderas that have filled in with water and are now lakes. As you drive around the lakes, you are actually driving in another 17 square mile caldera at the summit of a 500 square mile volcano. As amazing as that is, it’s kid stuff compared to our next stop, Crater Lake National Park, but it has two distinct advantages. First of all, it’s a rare National Park or Monument that is completely dog-friendly. Where other parks usually restrict dogs to parking lots and campgrounds, this park lets you take them on every trail as long as they are leashed. And most of the trails are gentle, flat and paved with soft pine needles — which Lucy much appreciated.

obsidian flow, Newberry Volcanic Monument, Oregon

Lucy contemplates just a section of the massive Obsidian Flow. You can take stairs up on top of one of the ridges to see the whole thing, but the corrugated iron steps are too rough for dog’s paws.

The second reason to hit Newberry is the amazing Obsidian fields. A short walk through the woods leads you to three massive ridges of Obsidian and pumice formed when the volcanoes last blew. And by the way, this area is still both seismically and geothermally active. Geologists believe the caldera sits over a shallow magma body only 2 to 5 kilometers deep. It’s more than a little nerve wracking, but there’s nowhere to hide. Because as you continue down Route 97 to California, you keep passing more and more volcanoes.

pumice castle, crater lake

Strong hot winds sometimes moved the smoke for a moment. With an instant of relative clear, I was able to snap the Pumice Castle at Crater Lake.

After Newberry, where we spent much more time than we’d planned, and Crater Lake where we did a victory lap around the caldera on the amazing loop drive, we set out on I-5 into the haze for California. Yes, we went on the Interstate. I know this is supposed to be The Road Less Traveled Tour, and we have been sticking to two lane blacktop most of the way, but this is one beautiful Interstate and part of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. You know, I bet you could see our last destination, Mount Shasta, from the Oregon border. Not today. I could barely see it when we were 20 miles away — and this is one large stratovolcano. Besides, given all the fires, I-5 has become a road less traveled by default. On the last week of summer, the crowds are staying away.

Mount Shasta

It wasn’t until we were almost in the town of Mount Shasta, that we could actually clearly see Mount Shasta through the smoke.

Oh, and if you’ve been following this Road Less Traveled tour, you probably wonder what happened to Mark Twain who was our guiding spirit through the first part of the trip. Once we left Nevada and crossed into Idaho, we shook the dust of Mark Twain off our shoes as I don’t think he got this far north. In addition, I had to abort my original plan to listen to the audiobook version of Roughing It, Twain’s somewhat truthful account of his adventures in the West. Lucy was freaked out a hearing a strange male voice for long periods of time. So we switched to Country Music, which is always the appropriate soundtrack for a Western roadtrip. It’s even better when you “Terrier-ize” the lyrics. Our favorite, of course, Ring of Fire, but the terrier version:

I fell into a burning ring of terriers

I went down down down and the terriers got scarier

And they bark, bark, bark

The ring of terriers

The ring of terriers

Another favorite:

Mamas don’t let your puppies grow up to be terriers

Don’t let ’em dig holes and bark at high pitch

Let ’em be Labradors, Poodles and such

Hey, we can do this for miles. And we have.

Today’s pictures here.

In case you are just joining us, Lucy, my Smooth Fox Terrier, and I have been doing a themed roadtrip — The Road Less Traveled — circling a section of the West on two lane highways and visiting some overlooked sights.

Catch up with posts on the pre-planning here and here and Day One, Day Two, Day Three, Day Four, Day Five.