If you have any interest or love for the mighty forces that shape our planet the Newberry National Volcanic Monument has numerous attractions to scratch that itch. From our camping spot just outside the Monument’s borders we are well situated to visit and explore most of the volcanic wonders and revel in Central Oregon’s molten and violent geologic past. On the road right off the highway where we started looking for a camping spot there is a sign mentioning the Lava Cast Forest was 9 miles away and we tucked that bit of information away for a later time.
The first stop in the Monument was our trip up Lava Butte which gave us both a historic and scenic overview of the area. It is there we learned about the eruptions about 7,000 years ago along the fissures which make up the Northwest Rift Zone. Looking across the landscape from atop Lava Butte and many other high vantage points in the area you can easily notice the dark-colored, barren areas that extend about 17 miles between East Lake in Newberry Caldera to the northwest of Lava Butte. In one of those (seemingly) barren areas lies the visual reminders that a portion of a once mighty old-growth forest used to stand on this spot and we wanted to see (for me) and sniff (for the girl) that for ourselves.
On the day we decided to check out the “forest” we headed back to the main road and turned in the direction that little sign mentioned. About a half mile from the highway is an old quarry that is now a spot for locals to shoot (legally) and dump their trash (illegally). Right there the paved road ends and a sign unequivocally states “Rough Road Ahead.” Happily we had earlier aired down our second set of awesome Bridgestone KO2 tires with our Coyote Automatic Deflators since we expected we would be playing in the forest and on relatively unmaintained forest service roads for a couple of weeks. The 15psi was like riding on cushy gumballs and made an easy time of the 9 miles up to the parking area. There were a half-dozen cars already parked but we saw no one there and didn’t see or hear anybody throughout our time (about 45 minutes) on the trail. Once we parked we headed over towards the vault toilet where an informational sign, a map and the envelopes for the $5 day-use fee could be found nearby. The trail is a loop and the map suggested we go a particular direction and so we headed to that trail entrance and began our hike. Having done no research about this place beforehand we had zero idea what to expect. For a couple hundred feet we saw nothing looking like a tree cast or mold, only lava flows and sparse vegetation along the path.
Finally we came to what was obviously the namesake of this area.
We thought they looked very much like a chimney made by a talented old-school stonemason. In fact these tree molds were formed when the thick, oatmeal-consistency, basaltic lava entered this forested area and completely surrounding the trunks of the living trees. As the flow engulfed the base of the trees, steam from the burning wood cooled the molten rock into a solid lava crust around the trunk. Larger trees stood up to the assault while smaller tree completely burnt up and disappeared. Over time the burned and now dead wood rotted away leaving these tree molds. One of the informational signs along the trail mentions these are technically tree molds but that the word “cast” when used in this situation is “inaccurate but more elegant.” The roots of these trees can still be found deeper under the lava flows.
Most of the molds along the trail are vertical but some of the larger ones show that big trees were already laying on the ground when they were engulfed.
If you’ve spent any time hiking in the Pacific Northwest you will have undoubtedly come across large and seemingly healthy trees ripped out of the ground and toppled over. When we find them it seems wind was the culprit (sometimes with a heavy blanketing of snow cover as a contributing factor) taking advantage of a shallow root system and that’s what most likely happened here. Large, mature trees coated in snow loosing their battle against the weight and the wind during an intense winter storm thousands of years ago.
All along the short 1 mile, wheelchair-accessible loop are reminders of the type of forest that once thrived where lava now sits. Ponderosa and lodgepole pines, White fir, and various shrubs and native grasses once thrived before the lava flow covered their habitat. Many of those same species now make a living just outside the flow zone. When those rivers and tendrils of lava scorched and scoured their winding way through the forest thousands of years ago they left trees and other plants standing along the edges of the flow. Even today you can see that life moves slower in the lava zone which is still markedly barren when compared to those areas untouched by it.
That is not to say that life does not find a way. While the going is tough, many species of plants now make a meager living among the lava rocks. After the lava had cooled the first types of plant life to reappear were mosses and lichens. They create a chemical process which breaks down rock into organic soil which then becomes the foundation for more complex plant life to take root. Life is still not easy so only the hardiest and adaptable plants and animals can survive there. A sign along the trail mentioned Serviceberry, Wild currant, Rock penstemon and paintbrush among those species that are well adapted to the arid environment. We were told we might have an opportunity to see or hear a Pika but they are notoriously elusive and we were not lucky on this day.
In several spots during the active eruptions the lava flowed around a forested area and left it untouched either because of luck or elevation. Today that leaves us lush islands of green surrounded by the relatively stark area of the lava flows. Named “kipukas” a Hawaiian word which means an area of land surrounded by lava. The word “puka” means a hole for the plants peeking through the lava. From various vantage points along the trail we could see prime examples of these “Islands of Life” but it is hard to photograph the entirety of one when you are not at a higher elevation and drones are not allowed (or else we would have done that for you).
The kipukas here are the results of older cinder cones surrounded by younger lava flows. The forest thrives on these islands because the soil is more nutrient-rich than the areas more recently (geologically) covered by lava.
Most of the lava casts in this area were once much larger that what you see these days. While wind, water and temperature changes have taken their toll over thousands of years sadly it is humans who have made the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time.
On our hike we noticed several painted rocks “hidden” (poorly) throughout the trail and parking area.
On the backs of them were little notes mentioning these were placed by a group called Prineville Rocks and feel free to keep it or move it to another spot and post to their Facebook group.
Now…Facebook has IMHO just about taken over the crown as “Suckiest Corner of the Internet” so I am decidedly and happily not a member nor am I going to post a link to that hive of scum and villainy. You’re welcome.
What we did do to compromise is move a couple of the rocks within the trail and took that one rock to re-hide elsewhere on our next hike in the area. We’ll post those coordinates on our next post and tag it on Instagram. That’s as good as you’re going to get from us.
Once back at the parking area took a few notes for further research and headed back down to our campsite within the National Forest. We found that the Lava Cast Forest Flow has been radiocarbon dated to between 6,400 and 5,800 years BP (Before Present). That range of ages is probably due to the wood recovered from the tree casts. Larger diameter, older trees would be the most likely to withstand (but obviously not survive) the casting process. That means the wood preserved in the molds (which was radiocarbon dated) could be anything from the core to the bark of the tree, easily a several hundred year age-range. Other flows nearby have similar radiocarbon dates and so all likely erupted concurrently with other volcanic activity along the Northwest Rift Zone.
If you would like to visit the Lava Cast Forest Trail yourselves please remember to bring your acceptable pass or $5 for the day use fee. The trail can be walked in either direction and should take well under an hour for most visitors. There is not a lot of shade out on the trail so be sure to wear a hat or use sunscreen. There is no water at the parking area so be sure to bring your own. There was one bench about halfway along the trail and a few more downed trees with flat areas cut out of them if you need a break.
This is only one of the 22 major and named trails within the Monument (and one of eight in the Easy category) so there are many more opportunities to enjoy the area on foot and learn something interesting along the way.
Have a great time out there.