Tag Archives: John Day river

Cottonwood Canyon State Park

We spent Memorial Day Weekend in Bend and on Saturday morning drove up to Cottonwood Canyon State Park along the John Day River. To get there from Bend we drove north on Highway 97 to Wasco then turned onto Highway 206 for 15 miles to the park entrance.

Just after turning onto the entrance road we forked right on a short gravel road to a parking area near the river. The Hard Stone Trail began here.
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This nearly level 1.5 mile path follows the river upstream to Big Eddy, a lazy whirlpool at a bend in the river. The park has very few trees which allows for some wide open views but it also means a real lack of shade. Considering it was already in the low 60’s as we set off on the Hard Stone Trail at 7:30 we knew we were in for a hot hike.
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We spent our time enjoying the views of the canyon cliffs and scanning the sagebrush for flowers and animals including rattle snakes which are seen with some regularity along the John Day. We didn’t see any snakes but we saw a few other critters and a nice variety of flowers.
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The trail, which followed an old road bed, officially ended at Big Eddy which was where we turned back, but the road continues on.

After returning to our car we drove further into the park following signs for the Pinnacles Trail parking area. We set off following signs for the trail. After a short walk through a camping area the path led to a gate with a signboard and trail register.
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A nearby walnut tree offered some cool shade.
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The Pinnacles Trail follows another old road bed along the river downstream a total of 4.3 miles. IMG_0728

The cliffs along the trail were captivating. It was hard not to turn off the trail just to see how far one could get up some of the gullies and side canyons.
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A short distance from the gate the cliffs crowded the trail.
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The cliffs hung over the trail and were home to countless American Cliff Swallows which sped to and from their nests as we passed underneath.
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Just under a mile and half along the trail brought us to a neat old walnut tree where we spotted a colorful lazuli bunting.
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A trail near the tree provides river access and another trail led slightly uphill away from the tree. The sign named this the D & H Trail and indicated that it returned to the Pinnacles Trail further downstream. We decided we’d take it on the return trip after realizing (after way too long a time) that those were our initials, D & H.

As we continued on we passed part of an old fence where we spotted an aptly named western fence lizard.
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We spotted many of the same types of flowers we’d seen along the Hard Stone Trail and a few we hadn’t including some sweet smelling mock orange.
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The Pinnacles Trail is named after some rock outcrops across the river near the 3 mile mark.
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Beyond the Pinnacles the trail bent to the left passing through an open area full of sagebrush before rounding a rocky ridge-end.
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The ridge bowed away from the trail.
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We had talked early about the possibility of spotting larger animals on the hillsides and imagined that most of them would be sticking the the brush filled gullies we had seen along the way. As we were scanning the cliffs below the ridge I spotted what might have been an animal or possibly another rock (I have a real knack for spotting rocks and tree trunks).
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Making use of the camera’s 30x optical zoom allowed me to confirm that is was indeed an animal, in fact it was several animals.
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Going from the optical to the digital zoom gave us a closer look (but grainier picture) of the first big horn sheep we’d spotted on a hike.
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Sure enough they were hanging out in the shaded vegetation. Then we noticed a few more of the sheep passing below the first group. They seemed to be grazing on balsamroot leaves.
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The official trail continued to a narrow area between the cliffs and river.
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A use path continued on but we didn’t see any reason to continue. It was well into the 80’s and we’d seen plenty of great sights already. The sheep had disappeared when we passed back by where we’d seen them but Heather spotted something that was almost as surprising to see as they had been, a mushroom.
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We forked onto the D & H Trail when we reached its eastern end.
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The trail led through the sagebrush just far enough uphill that we were able to avoid what had been a fairly active area for mosquitoes before dropping back down to the Pinnacles Trail by the walnut tree.
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One final sighting of note was a pair of Bullock’s Orioles which we had not seen before.
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The one thing we didn’t see were any snakes which Heather was more than thankful for. I on the other hand was a little disappointed. I have no desire to be close to a rattle snake but at the same time I wouldn’t mind seeing one at a nice safe distance.

It was a great hike despite the warm temperatures but they were a good reminder of why summer may not be the best time for a visit to the park. Winter can also bring strong winds and freezing temperatures, so Spring or Fall probably are the best.

Hiking isn’t the only activity the park has to offer either. Rafting, fishing, mountain bike riding, and horseback riding opportunities exist as well. Whatever your reason for visiting it’s well worth the trip. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Cottonwood Canyon

Clarno Unit – John Day Fossil Beds and Spring Basin Wilderness

We officially kicked off our 2017 hiking season on 4/22 with a pair of hikes near Clarno, OR. The first was a 1.4 mile at the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. We parked at the day use picnic area 3.4 miles east of the John Day River bridge at Clarno.

Clarno Unit Trailhead

From the parking area we took the .3 mile Geologic Time Trail west toward the dramatic rock formations called The Palisades.

Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

The trail was lined with golden fiddleneck blossoms and passed several interpretive signs describing the history of the area that created the amazing features.

Fiddleneck along the trail at Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

The Geologic Time Trail ended at a junction with the .2 mile Trail of Fossils loop. Here we turned uphill to the right passing more interpretive signs. These helped identify fossils in the nearby rocks.

Interpretive sign Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Leaf fossil at Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Leaf fossils Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Interpretive sign Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

The loop descended to a second possible trailhead where another trail, the .2 mile Arch Trail, split to the right (west) near a large signboard.

The Palisades Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

This short trail led uphill to the base of a rock arch along The Palisades.

Rock Arch Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

The views along the trail were amazing both across the highway and up close to the rocks.

Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Looking south toward the Spring Basin Wilderness

Rock pillar Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Rock wall along the Palisades - Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

Just before the rock arch was a sign describing a pair of fossilized logs 40 feet above the trail. For some reason neither of us could see them despite spending a few minutes searching. After visiting the rock arch, we paused again to look for the logs. This time they were easily spotted up in the wall of rocks above the sign.

Looking up at the rock arch

Petrified tree trunks in the rock walls of the Clarno Unit - John Day Fossil Beds

We returned to the Trail of Fossils loop and completed it then took the Geologic Time Trail back to the picnic area where another car was just pulling in. These were really interesting hikes and a great warm-up for our next stop, the nearby Spring Basin Wilderness.

Designated a wilderness in 2009 the 6,404 acre Spring Basin Wilderness has no official trails but similar to nearby Sutton Mountain old jeep tracks and open terrain make exploring the area fairly easy.  The wilderness is located south of Highway 218 across from the Clarno Unit.

For our visit we were planning on following the route described in the Third Edition of William L. Sullivan’s “100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon” (Hike #18). From the Clarno Unit we drove back toward Clarno 1.9 miles and turned left onto gravel Clarno Rd. After 3.2 miles we parked on the left at a pullout near a lone juniper tree. An outdated wilderness sign declaring a wilderness study area indicated that we were at the correct spot.

Wilderness signpost at the Spring Basin Wilderness

A faint but clear path led into the wilderness toward a draw on the horizon.

Spring Basin Wilderness

The views were dramatic from the start with jagged rock formation and green rolling hills.

Sun and shadows as seen from the Spring Basin Wilderness

View from the Spring Basin Wilderness

Spring Basin Wilderness

The path led us up into the draw passing a number of different types of wildflowers.

Biscuitroot

Biscuitroot

Balsamroot

Balsamroot

Prairie stars

Prairie stars

Balloon pod milkvetch

Balloon pod milkvetch

milkvetch

Another type of milkvetch

paintbrush

Paintbrush

Phlox

Phlox

There was one flower that had not yet started to bloom that we had never seen before and we still aren’t sure what it was.

Wildflower getting ready to bloom in the Spring Basin Wilderness

After 1.3 miles the path reached a ridge top junction with an old jeep track marked by a rock cairn.

Spring Basin Wilderness

Near the junction we spotted the first of many hedgehog cactus.

Hedgehog cactus

None of the blossoms were open and we mistakenly thought we were a week or so too early to see them in full bloom. As we would discover later the blossoms would open to the Sun later in the day.

Hedgehog cactus

We turned left onto the jeep track and headed toward a knoll on the horizon.

Spring Basin Wilderness

We followed the track around the side of the knoll then turned uphill and went cross country to the summit marked by another cairn.

Spring Basin Wilderness

John Day River from the Spring Basin Wilderness

Our goal, Horse Mountain, was slightly southeast of the knoll.

Spring Basin Wilderness

To reach the summit of that mountain without having to lose and regain too much elevation Sullivan’s route called for a .9 mile cross country route due east through a juniper grove then up a draw to find the jeep track once again on the ridge line.

Spring Basin Wilderness

We surveyed the landscape and picked out the juniper grove before heading back down the knoll to the jeep track.

Juniper grove in the Spring Basin Wilderness

We followed the jeep track north a short distance to a low point then descended into a draw and headed for the grove. The initial descent was a little steeper than it had appeared from the knoll but it was not a problem and we made it to the junipers without any difficulty.

Juniper grove

Juniper grove in the Spring Basin Wilderness

From the grove we climbed up the draw we’d seen to the jeep track and turned right toward Horse Mountain.

Spring Basin Wilderness

On the ridge we found more hedgehog cactus amid other many other wildflowers.

Wildflowers in the Spring Basin Wilderness

Hedgehog cactus

We stuck to the jeep track for approximately 3/4 of a mile then veered off toward Horse Mountain when the track turned left amid more junipers.

Horse Mountain in the Spring Basin Wilderness

Our initial plan was to sidehill up to a saddle along Horse Mountain but we found it was actually easier to head directly uphill so we wound up gaining the ridge near it’s western end which was dotted with balsamroot.

Balsamroot

Balsamroot in the Spring Basin Wilderness

We then followed the ridge up to the summit of Horse Mountain.

Horse Mountain

Along the way we passed a lone daggerpod in bloom,some lupine plants that were just beginning to show buds, and more hedgehog cactus.

Horse Mountain

Lupine

Biscuitroot and hedghog cactus in the Spring Basin Wilderness

A small rock cairn marked the summit of Horse Mountain.

Horse Mountain summit in the Spring Basin Wilderness

The 360 degree view was spectacular. We sat on some rocks and examined the scenery.

View from the summit of Horse Mountain

View from the summit of Horse Mountain

View from the summit of Horse Mountain

Spring Basin Wilderness

To the far south the snowy Ochoco Mountains lined the horizon.

Lookout Mountain from Horse Mountain

It was amazingly peaceful on the summit. The only sounds were bird songs and the low hum of insects buzzing about. If the rocks had been a little softer we could have stayed for hours. As it was we eventually headed back down to the jeep track which we thought about following all the way back to the knoll. We had seen quite a few caterpillars on the ground all morning but now there seemed to be more and they were moving about.

Caterpillar

caterpiller

From the ridge The Palisades of the Clarno Unit were visible to the north.

The Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds from the Spring Basin Wilderness

Raven with the Palisades of the Clarno Unit in the distance

After looking more closely at the map we decided that the jeep track swung out a little more than we were willing to do so we instead took a slightly different off trail route to the knoll.

Spring Basin Wilderness

We wound up climbing up the same draw we’d descended earlier in the day and regained the jeep track below the knoll. We then returned to the rock cairn and descended the gully back to our car ending our hike at 7.4 miles. We had been on the alert for rattlesnakes all day but had not seen nor heard any. That changed on our drive back to the highway. We spotted at least 4 rattlers sunning themselves on Clarno Road. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Clarno Unit and Spring Basin Wilderness