Thirty-six Hours of Adventure: A Sea of Green

The morning was gray, and the damp Oregon cold soaked through my sweatshirt as my girlfriend and I loaded the last bags into the Land Cruiser. It had taken months of changed timelines and rearranged travel plans to get our hands on this Maltec camper, but it had all finally come together. The plan was to reach some of the state’s more remote mountain hot springs by driving in as far as possible, then leaving the Cruiser as a base camp, and traveling the rest of the way by snowshoe. The forecasts looked good, and there were now only a few pre-trip inspections standing between us and one heck of a good weekend. I was eager to get on the road, but safety inspections come first. I started with the routine fluid checks, as my back was flaring up after my recent back surgery, and I wanted to delay laying on the concrete as long as possible. Everything looked good though, so I stiffly maneuvered myself below the vehicle to look over the suspension and driveline. It all checked out. We did one final pass over the camp gear Toby from Scheel-Mann USA had loaned us, locked the rear door, and headed for the countryside.

As soon as we escaped the noise and smog of Portland I had to pull over to take in the surroundings. The air smelled fresh, like mountains just after a rain, and everything from the fields to the forested hills in the distance were a brilliant shade of green. I breathed in deeply, and then let my stress pour out. This was why I loved Oregon. For someone who had lived in plains and deserts his entire life, the lush and fertile lands of the Pacific Northwest were a surreal and heavenly place, and I intended to explore as much of them as I could over the following two days. With that limited time frame in mind, my girlfriend and I hopped back in the truck, fired up the small diesel, and listened to its happy thrum as we continued toward the mountains.

Beneath the Watery Veil

Our first destination was Silver Falls State Park, a serene slice of Oregon filled with quiet valleys, soothing creeks, and rumbling waterfalls. The road leading in was a perfect balance of smooth winding tarmac with tight bends and small bridges. I couldn’t help but roll on the throttle as we entered the turns, shifting through the gears before transitioning into the next corner. The Maltec’s prowess on the pavement was surprising. I knew of course that it’s carbon fiber shell, low center of gravity, and race truck heritage should have given it favorable handling, but I hadn’t expected this. The lack of electronics combined with the solid mechanical throw of each shift felt more like a sporty sedan than a fully functional camper, and I was loving it.

Our rather idyllic drive continued as the surrounding forest became ever more dense until we eventually located our stop, a small parking lot near a hiking trail. As we parked alongside the water, the Land Cruiser became a camper once more. We changed into our hiking boots in the comfort of the truck’s insulated shell, and then set out for Tunnel Falls, the highlight of the day.

Tunnel Falls is set back in a misty valley amidst creeping vines, thick gnarled trees, and vibrant beds of green moss. As you’d expect from the name, the ground beneath the falls has been tunneled out, so visitors willing to make the muddy trek can sneak behind its roaring curtain for a rare perspective of this natural wonder. It took only a brief hike down a trail worth hiking on its own merits to reach our goal. The sun poured through the clouds above, setting the thundering water aglow as it hammered on the rocks and remains of trees below. As is usually the case, the photos online hadn’t done it justice. I sat beside my girlfriend in awe of this place for some time, until at last we were forced to leave in search of camp.

Fortunately, the park had one last parting gift for us: a golden sunset from the vantage of a peak far above the valley floor. My girlfriend and I slung our legs over the mossy stone wall and watched as the last rays of warmth vanished beyond the horizon, setting a chill in the air. It was going to be a very cold night. Loading back into the Maltec, I flipped on the heated Scheel-Mann seats, soaking us in warmth and comfort as we rambled down dirt roads toward our camp and a hot meal.

Dreams of Adventure and Fairytale Trails

Dawn broke early, revealing our surroundings. Cool mists floated through the hills, and a fresh dew coated the grass all around us. I groggily turned on the stove to heat water for coffee, while my partner broke out yogurt, granola, and a small jar of local honey given to us by some friends. Breakfast would have to be brief, as there was a lot of ground to cover today and we only had a rough idea of where we needed to go. The plan was to find a remote group of hot springs deep in the forest and snowshoe in. It would be a cold few miles, but the powder or icy pack would be enough to deter most people from making the hike in, or so we hoped. Unfortunately, there weren’t any clear directions on how to reach this watery gem, so we would need to find a local who could point the way.

Not long after breaking camp, we reached a fuel station with diesel and decided to top off just to be safe. There were rumors of the road being impassable due to snow, and we weren’t taking any chances of running out of fuel. We rolled up to the pump, where a rather rotund lady was standing by, a warm smile on her face. “Where on earth are you folks from?” she asked, with a strong note of excitement. Friendly people here, I thought, and responded with “Texas and California.” She looked confused and a little disappointed. It took me a moment to register why: the truck had European plates. I quickly added, “But this old girl is from the EU, and has even traveled to Africa.” The light in her eyes returned, and it struck me how starkly they contrasted the gentle lines of age creasing her face. In her excitement, she looked more like a young girl, desperate for adventure and a glimpse beyond her corner of the world.

We talked long after the archaic pump had clicked off, until eventually, she asked where we were headed next, a touch of earnest envy in her voice. “Well, the hot springs, if we can find them.” She smiled, and with a bound in her step took off toward the station. “I can help with that!” She shouted back. A few minutes later she returned with a napkin, a pen, and directions to the springs that we apparently couldn’t mess up. Based on my history with written navigation, I had my doubts. Still, we thanked her graciously, then turned north.

As we fussed about converting her notes on miles to kilometers to match the truck’s odometer, I suddenly spotted a picturesque two-track leading into the hills. It was definitely not our route, but how could I pass up such a drive? We turned off, then shifted into low-range before ascending.

The path was narrow in places, forcing me to watch the camper’s cab carefully. I was definitely glad Maltec had decided to keep the trucks narrow for maneuverability. Looking ahead, a layer of pine needles covered the trail, while thick moss dominated the undergrowth. The effect was like something out of a fairy tale. It was easy to imagine that we had suddenly found ourselves in some distant land, one filled with adventure, beauty, and perhaps a few hairy-toed inhabitants led by a gray-haired wizard.

The sound of a spinning all-terrain tire brought me back to reality. Apparently, the wet slick stones had teamed up with a cross-axle ditch to work against our forward progress. No worries though, the Land Cruiser had differential locks. We popped them on, then relaxed while the truck easily continued up the hill. Eventually, the track reached a summit, then turned into an atv trail which continued into the woods. We could go no further. Shifting down into first, I pointed the camper back toward the main road and let her slowly walk down the obstacles she had just conquered.

When we reached the bottom, our stomachs could be heard grumbling over the noise of the small diesel. We became aware that our conversation at the fuel station and little detour had cost us most of the morning, and we desperately needed to eat. Opening Hema Maps, I spotted a fork in the road just a few miles ahead. It was by a river, and I hoped it would be a perfect place to eat lunch. We cruised toward it, and to my delight found that our guess had been right. A small outcropping jutted out into the water where two rivers met, and the Maltec fit perfectly along the bank. It looked like lunch would be enjoyed next to the symphony of water rushing over rock.

Secrets Are No Fun Unless You Tell Everyone

An hour later, we were hot on the trail of the springs. In a few miles, we would arrive and begin our trek in toward their warm water, but we had hit a slight snag. At this point, we should have been fighting deep snow in the truck, or possibly even have been forced to begin our snowshoe trek, but the ground was completely dry. We hadn’t seen a speck of snow all day. If the roads were like this all the way to the trailhead, it was unlikely we’d have the place to ourselves.

Before long, we found the pullout, and apparently, so had everyone else. The place was packed. Nearly 30 vehicles lined the road, and it was a struggle just to park. The trail that we had expected to be knee- or even waist-deep in snow was green, and locals flocked over its length. The secret hot springs weren’t so secret anymore. We decided to make the hike in anyway though, and it truly was beautiful. Ferns, low-hanging foliage, and vibrant green plants of every shape and size enveloped us as we strolled deeper into the forest. Wooden bridges spanned frigid snow-melt waters, which ran around great boulders in an unbelievable shade of blue.

By the time we reached the failing structures surrounding the springs, we realized there was no point in waiting around for a spot. Unless we wanted to get cozy with some rather naked strangers, it would be best to return to our truck and find a camp for the night. That suited me just fine, because darkness was closing in, and the rain had already begun to fall.

Better Late Than Never

My alarm blared, and slapped at it in a futile attempt to make it stop. Where was the blasted thing!? A crisp clunk sounded on the floor down below. Crap. I peered down from the bed at the lower level of the camper, where my iPhone was happily berating me with an alarm to get out of bed. I slipped down from the top bunk and silenced the device. When I looked up, my heart jumped into my throat—through the window, I could see snow falling all around us. The camper’s heater had been running, which had made me forget that outside the temperatures were dropping rapidly. I woke my girlfriend, who sipped coffee with me while watching the wisps of wind blowing the flakes through the trees. I wondered if the higher elevations had received more snow. If so, it would make our planned day toward Mount Hood a challenge.

After packing up camp, which only consisted of lowering the top, we cranked up the diesel and began cruising toward the distant peak. The snow slowly built up around us, but we soon realized that this was far from fresh powder. A solid layer of ice was packed down beneath the tires, turning the track into a slippery nightmare. We dropped into 4-lo, then proceeded onwards.

Under normal circumstances, I would have aired down, but without a functioning compressor on this trip, we decided not to. This caused a bit of an issue for traction, but the surface was so dense that we never sank in. Things were going quite well until we encountered a downed tree.

Just a few months out of back surgery, I was in no shape to do heavy lifting or chopping, and the truck didn’t come with a winch. The trunk was small enough to drive over, but the ice had coated it, making it extremely difficult to cross on highway pressure tires. It took a few attempts with lockers and careful throttle control to coax the cruiser over the tree, but eventually, we made it without issue.

For the next three hours, we took small turnoffs and plowed fresh tracks toward our destination: a paved road we hoped would lead us to a second chance to snowshoe. According to our map, there was a rather beautiful frozen lake resting in a heavily-forested basin, and we wanted to take a peek. This time, we had a good feeling things would work out.

A Last Attempt

It was well into the afternoon by the time we rolled into the parking lot, but it appeared our luck was improving since there was still snow covering this trail. We opened up the rear compartment in the Maltec to grab our necessary gear: snowshoes, winter boots, trekking poles, water, backpacks, and, of course, snacks. I also strapped our inReach to my backpack in case anything were to go wrong on our very brief hike. Better safe than sorry, right?

Sufficiently stocked, we wandered into the snow-covered forest, following a closed road toward the lake. It was quiet along the trail, sleepy almost. The wind gently brushed pine branches together, while the blades of our snowshoes crunched as they bit into the icy surface below. It was a winter wonderland, plain and simple, but we didn’t bring snowshoes for walking on ice. We intended to stray from the path in search of an alternate route, and before long we turned off to do just that.

Off the road, the snow was much deeper and more powdery. It made softer sounds than the ice had as we trudged through it, allowing us to enjoy the peaceful hillside dropping toward the valley below. Here and there we would spot animal tracks, and overhead a light snow began to fall. We pushed on, further down the hill, while the flakes became larger and more regular. We took a break, and decided to check the inReach’s weather forecast for our location. The snow was supposed to get heavier, and darkness was approaching once more. There wasn’t far to go in order to reach the lake, but with my recent injuries, it wasn’t worth the risk. We decided to turn back.

At first, I was frustrated at having missed yet another destination on our journey, but as the stunning flakes swirled around us, my mood continued to improve. Sure, things may not have gone according to plan, but we had covered some amazing territory, and experienced a rather unique shoulder season in Oregon’s backcountry. Plus, how could I be upset after spending time with such an amazing truck?

Upon returning to the Land Cruiser, I threw on some coffee while we removed all of our gear and heavy snow pants. We had a bit of a drive ahead of us, and roads would likely be dark and slick. Before long, the invigorating aroma flooded the cab, so we poured the beverage into our travel mugs and fired up the motor. Heated seats on, coffee in hand, destination set, we were on our way home. Another week of time behind the desk lay ahead, but then again, so did another weekend ready to be filled with adventure.

Recommended books for Overlanding

Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide
by Tom Sheppard
From $136.99
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, And Why
by Laurence Gonzales
From $9.99

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Senior Editor while living full-time on the road.