Exploring the Blue Mountains 2006I spent my childhood growing up in Grant County amidst the majestic mountains of Eastern Oregon. During these formative years my dad and I spent many weekends rambling around the Blue Mountains in his 78' Ford F150 whether hunting, cutting wood, fishing, or hiking. The lone big mountain we hiked during this time was Strawberry Mountain sometime in the late-80's when I was in middle school. Over the years my father had been on top of a lot of these mountains, and decided to share the experience with me on our Strawberry hike. It was an eye-opening trip, never before had I been so high on a mountain and been able to see so much. That day on Strawberry mountain is one I will never forget and encourage me to this day.
Over the following years there were other hikes I did, such as High Lake Rim with the Boy Scouts, parts of Canyon Mountain with one of my friends, and all of the hills around John Day and Canyon City, but never any other summits of the Blue Mountains. While living in Canyon City the most prominent in the area was the Strawberry Mountains, and particularly Canyon Mountain which raises dramatically behind Canyon City. Slide Mountain was also an eye-catcher with its top to bottom Slide visible for miles, Baldy Mountain and its long Bald top, and Indian Creek Butte with its sharp summit block. After many years of moving from town to town and state to state I finally found an opportunity to explore these mountains this summer so many years after I had moved away. This is a recap of my forays into the Strawberry Mountains in the year 2006.
Spring Break; Canyon Mountain / Dixie Butte Mar - 27thI made the long drive over to John Day from Salem to spend spring break at my grandfather's house so I could make an attempt at Canyon Mountain. I knew there would be snow so I picked up some cheap snowshoes at Play it Again Sports in Salem and also brought along my cheap boots and gloves I had picked up a few weeks earlier. I found that the weather in John Day was OK, but the Strawberry Mountains were being swept over by snowstorms every night, I had forgotten how late in the year there was snow on these mountains. I watched Canyon Mountain for several days through binoculars from the house, evaluating how long of a hike in it would be, and whether I was even capable of doing it. After a couple days of surveying I set out in my 94' Toyota 4x4 up to the trailhead. Once I was within a mile of the trailhead I ran into snow on the road and came to the realization that there was no way I could do this hike in March. I had no snowshoeing experience, poor winter gear, and it looked to be almost 7 miles into the summit in probably 6 feet of snow through terrain that I was not familiar enough with. One of the wisest moves I would make this year was in deciding against this hike. I hate walking away from a challenge but this was just too much.
Below; Canyon Mountain as it appeared in late March of 2006.
The next day I gathered up my gear and headed for Dixie Butte snowpark. Although not a Strawberry Mountain, it is just across the valley and with its bald top and road in, I was certain this would be a great snowshoeing break in experience for me. Wearing only jeans, two shirts a sweater, a coat, gloves and a stocking cap I parked at Dixie Mountain Summit Pass on Highway 26 and set out for the first time in snowshoes. I made great time, hitting 7000' within a couple of hours. The isolation was almost overwhelming. No animals were to be heard this day, the forest was completely white and silent. I was actually scared, hiking alone and in so much snow for the first time. I openly wondered if this would be my final hike, if I would die out here unexperienced to the elements, but I dispelled these fears and marched on watching the sky hoping against a any sort of drastic weather change.
My hike would come to an end prematurely at 4 miles in. Once I moved above the treeline wind blowing up the John Day Valley made conditions unbearable. I just didnt have the right clothing to be doing this. I made it to the false lower summit, and got some pictures of the summit less than half a mile away; but couldnt bring myself to traverse the icy saddle when I was shaking violently from the fell wind sweeping up the mountains face. I knew it would be ignorant of me to try it so I made a hasty retreat back down into the trees and started my long hike back to the truck. It would be a painful return hike, my poor conditioning and the weight of the snowshoes really made my hips hurt. The last two miles were absolute agony, but press on I did and eventually I made it back to the truck. I was ecstatic to get back to John Day so I could recount my trip to my grandpa and uncle.
Fields Peak - May 28thAgain I made the drive over to John Day with the goal of hiking Canyon Mountain, and again I backed off. Like the previous trip over in March the weather was just not cooperating. I didnt want to head back to Salem empty handed so I decided to head up Fields Peak. I won't recount that trip here as I did a seperate trip report for that mountain.
Vinegar Hill - June 10This would be my third trip to Grant County with climbing Canyon Mountain in mind. This time over apathy overcame me, my recently broken relationship with my fiancee and my uncertain future with where I was going once I finished school weighed heavily on my mind. Forunately my dad was in John Day the same weekend checking in on my ailing grandfather. My grandpa was actually recovering from a bloodcot scare and was in good spirits so I asked my dad if he wanted to go check out Vinegar Hill which I had only vague memories of. My dad has extensive knowledge of Eastern Oregon and drove out to Vinegar with me sharing his experiences in the area as we made the trip. While he wasnt interested in climbing to the summit, his company on the drive in was great. The dirt road into Vinegar was in terrible shape, so we ended up stopping several miles short of the summit.
My dad decided to check out mining sites in the area while I made the mad dash to the top. I followed the road in, leaving it once I thought I could see the summit (which I couldnt, I was looking at a false summit) and blasted right up the mountain. Vinegar Hill has an open unforested rocky top, with beautiful views of the surrounding Blue Mountains so this was a rewarding trip. The hike went really quick taking around three hours roundtrip I would guess, then I buzzed back down the Morning Mine where I met up with my dad who had discovered a lot of pioneer mining wreckage in the area. It was a cool little area to look around with all sorts of ancient debris scattered in the woods.
This was an uneventful hike other than a curious "meow" sound I heard on the hike back. I was in a forested area and heard what sounded like a kittens meow to my right. This spooked me a little and I watched my back more carefully the remaining walk out. I never did see any cats on this trip, but have heard from several people that they have seen cougars up here.
Baldy Mountain - June 11The day following my Vinegar expedition I was faced with the loathesome prospect of driving back to Salem (a town which I do not care for in the least). I woke up fairly early so I considered the prospect of sneaking in a hike before making that drive I had endured so many times before. Out of boredom I had driven up on the north face of Baldy a few times already this year and finally decided to make the plunge and hike up to the huge summit meadow. The Pine Creek Trailhead less than 1000 feet below the summit offered a nice quick little hike on a day I had 5 hours of driving ahead of me. I set off and quickly found this was going to be a switchbacking type of trail so I set off straight up the mountain and was on the summit within 30 minutes from the trailhead. I was surprised to find an entire range of mountains hiding behind Baldy. All the years I had lived in John Day and made the trip back and forth to Prairie City, I did not realize that the bulk of the Western Strawberry Mountains laid hidden behind Baldy.
I spent over an hour in the summit meadow, enjoying the view and taking lots pictures. Baldy is a truly spectacular viewpoint for the Strawberries, it is like being a composer with the mountains as your orchestra where you are looking up at majestic peaks all around you. OK, that was totally a lame metaphor but I hope you get the idea.
Indian Spring Butte / High Lake Rim - July 1stAfter working until 1am Friday night and then driving to John Day where I arrived at 5am I found myself unable to sleep after 4 hours. So I loaded up my truck and headed for Indian Spring Butte. Over the years I had been all over High Lake Rim but had never made it up to the summit of Indian Spring even though its an easy hike. I drove into the High Lake trailhead and set out directly north from the parking lot towards the mountain laying ahead of me. This hike went quick, I made it atop Indian Spring Butte in about half an hour and I was thirsty for more of a challenge so I set out to walk around the perimeter of High Lake on the rim.
I hoped to climb Rabbit Ears while I was up here, but much to my absolute surprise I found a mountain goat blocking my approach. I think the goat secretly knew that I am incapable of climbing this rock and was only there for my safety. I snapped a bunch of pictures of the goat as it was the first one I had ever seen and then set off towards BM8172. A short distance from Rabbit Ears I ran into another goat. I totally snuck up on, not intentionally but thats how it played out. When I attempted to gain its attention with a shout of "hey stupid" it charged me. I turned tail and ran like a coward, I was completely surprised that a mountain goat would charge me.
Nonetheless being chased by a "goat" was probably the single most amusing moment I have experienced in the mountains this year. Mountain goats are an absolute hoot, I hope to run into more before the years out.
Below; the mountain goat that charged me
Canyon Mountain - July 2ndI already made up a trip report for this hike so I wont recount it here again. I will say though, summiting Canyon Mountain was probably the most exhilarating thing I have done this year. An awesome challenge for a modest hiker like myself.
I made four drives to John Day before feeling comfortable with this mountain, I am glad to have it out of the way, and looking forward to hiking it again next summer with my dad who is commited to summiting this one after hearing my account of the trip.
Strawberry Mountain - July 22After achieving Canyon Mountain I wasnt sure what direction to take with my hiking. I had been talking to my friend Jake in Boise about doing a hike sometime this year and he called and told me he was free this weekend so Strawberry Mountain came immediately to mind. My buddy had never been on the Grant County highpoint, and I hadnt been there in over 15 years so it seemed like a great opportunity to revisit Strawberry.
Jake and I both spent our childhood years growing up in John Day and have been friends since basically kindergarten. We both ended up leaving the area around the same time in the late 80's early 90's, so it was cool to meet up with him back in Grant County to hike the tallest mountain around.
The hike in was hot, we didnt leave the trailhead until 9am, but we were both fully equipped with lots of ice water and granola bars so the trip was not miserable in any way. I had forgotten how easy this hike was, within a couple hours of meandering up the trail we were at the summit taking pictures and killing horseflies. We explored the narrow ridgeline that makes up Strawberry Mountains top, investigating some of the cairns on the NE face before suspecting they might be housing piles for urns. After heading back to the truck we drove into Seneca and visited with Jake's grandparents there. It was a nice relaxing day and a fun little hike.
Looking south towards the Strawberry Range.
Lookout Mountain - July 23 (ochocos)Again I was faced with driving back to Salem from John Day on a Sunday. I got a good early start around 8am and found myself nearing Lookout Mountain around 10 in the morning. My atlas showed there was a road to the summit, and I felt like taking a detour into the Ochocos to check out the view. I made the drive to the road that "used" to lead to the summit and found it blocked with a sign saying "Lookout Mountain Summit 4 miles". It was still early in the morning so I grabbed my camera and some water and headed up the mountain. I had seen a sign warning hikers of Mountain Lions in the area, and heeded people not to hike alone, but after conquering Canyon Mountain and Vinegar Hill without being eaten by a cougar I really wasnt too concerned (although I did keep my knife at close reach at all times!).
Immediately after setting out I came across the Independent Mine with its collapsed mine shaft and ore-sorting house. I was amazed this neat little spot hadnt been looted by artifact hounds yet. The collapsed mine had rail tracks and a creek running out of it across the trail, and the surrounding area was an absolute verdant green. Another gem of the Blue Mountains. The rest of the trip I had a smile on my face after seeing this neat little area. The summit meadow was beautiful as well, above the treeline it was mostly a sagebrush meadow littered with alpine trees. I wasnt able to see much from the summit as it was pretty hazy, but sometimes the view of the summit is enough to make you happy. This was another gratifying hike I managed to knock out on a whim.
Slide Mountain / Graham Mountain - August 12I had finally moved to Sisters, and the Blue Mountains were closer than ever. Upon reviewing my Atlas I realized I had hiked 3 of the 5 highest Strawberry Mountains and decided I should shoot for as many as possible beginning with #2 (Graham) and #5 (Slide). I had always wanted to hike Slide Mountain so this trip was especially appealing to me.
I arrived at the Strawberry Campground early on a Saturday morning shortly after sunup. I had read Barbara Bond's account of the Slide Mountain approach in the book "75 Scrambles in OREGON" and I knew it was going to be a long day, even longer if I tried to bag Graham after making Slide. I noticed uncharacteristically I had forgotten my Malheur National Forest map so I carefully reviewed the map thankfully posted at the trailhead. I located a route through Slide Basin and set off. Not too many people make it up to the summit of Slide Mountain, and the only people I saw outside of the campground were a couple of determined fishermen making the long hike into Slide Creek so this was another quiet day in the mountains for me.
Below; Slide Mountain on the way in
The trail had many more forks than I remembered seeing on the map so initially I became a little intimidated. At my first view of Slide I wondered if the trail even came anywhere close to the summit. Once I crossed Slide Creek I considered turning back and stopped and thought about it for a good long while. There were other mountains in the area I could still make it to this day to hike so I wasnt ruling out that possibility. Finally the fact that I was already 3 miles in overruled that option and I set out down Slide Creek. Much to my delight I found the Skyline trail which switchbacked up Slide Mountain in the exact direction I wanted to go. Within an hour I was climbing up the dark red cone of Slide Mountain and its huge flat summit. I managed to find the summit register, the most unique I have located so far, a large cotton cloth with signatures spanning fifty years. I signed the register then took a good long gander at nearby Graham Mountain and decided what the hell, I was going to take a shot at Graham this day also.
The ridgeline connecting Slide and Graham Mountains very much reminded me of High Lake Rim. The altitude runs a little over 8000 feet, lots of high altitude pine and fir, and gorgeous views into surrounding valleys carved by ice age glaciers. The traverse only took about an hour, but that was not my concern. The largest obstacle was Graham's north and west faces which are steep and primarily composed of talus. I could see that I wouldnt be able to make my way up the north face so I carefully made my way around to the west where I found a cliff with manageable holds so I climbed right up it to the summit block above.
Like Canyon Mountain; at one time Graham had some sort of marker wired up on its summit. I am not sure what the significance of these was, but I thought it was interesting that these were atop the summits of the Strawberry Mountains tallest eastern and western peak. After a quick search for the register which proved fruitless I made the long hike back to the Strawberry Campground. Along the way I jumped up a herd of elk, the first time I have done that this year.
Indian Creek Butte - August 26Still feeling the financial effects of moving I planned on staying in Sisters this weekend. As I lay in bed Friday evening I kept thinking to myself that fall and bad weather are just around the corner and that I couldnt let this last Strawberry Mountain I wanted to climb slip through my fingers. So I set my alarm for 4am and went about catching a few hours of sleep in preparation for the next days hike.
I arrived at the Road's End trailhead a little after 9am. The wind was blowing and it was chilly out so I wanted to throw on my greenish tan sweatshirt I brought with me. To my ultimate displeasure I noticed on the drive in bowhunters were out in force, not a good combination for wearing animal colored clothing. So I toughed it out in my bright blue T-shirt and headed off towards Indian Creek Butte. Shortly into the hike I came to the fork in the trail where I could either drop down into Indian Creek Basin or south in Wildcat Basin. Both trails looked good so I headed north into Indian Creek Basin. After about half a mile the trail basically disappeared in a maze of fallen timber and new undergrowth, the results of a massive wildfire here in the 90's. I scrambled along the north face of Peak 7915 attempting to follow the trail as much as possible and eventually found my way to the wild onion beds at the head of Indian Creek. I initially had no idea that these were wild onions and walked on by without giving it a second thought. It wasnt until browsing through the William Sullivan 100 Hikes in Eastern Oregon book that I read these were onions. Pretty cool.
Eventually I made my way back to the Pine Creek Trail and followed it on to the base of Indian Creek Butte. I scrambled up the north face of the mountain and climbed the rock face rather than walking up the south face. I have kind of made a habit out of doing a little climbing to reach summits whenever possible even if unnecessary. On the summit I found some scrap lumber and sheet metal, some sort of marker like I had found on Canyon and Graham Mountains also. There was no summit register so I left behind a powerade bottle that I buried in rocks and the woodscraps. The view was pretty good. I had a great view of Strawberry Mountain to the east, Baldy to the North, and Pine Creek Mountain to the west, but it was smokey out from a multitude of fires burning across the northwest so I couldnt really see more than 20 miles or so. I did see a hunter camped down in Hotel De Bum camp at the southwest base of Indian Creek Butte. At one point a mule started braying in the distance which startled me. Thats not a noise I am used to hearing high in the mountains! Apparently a hunter had used a mule to pack his gear in, the Hotel De Bum camp is probably 7 miles from the nearest road, a long trip in for a hunter.
After taking a good long break I set off down the south face of Indian Creek Butte and back to Wildcat Basin so I wouldnt have to fight my way through Indian Creek Basin again (actually Indian Creek Basin wasnt nearly as bad as I make it sound).
Wildcat Basin was lush, with a pool of water at the Wildcat hunters camp. It was really a nice little green respite after hiking dusty trails for so many miles. I stopped and took some pictures and then had the horror of the climbing out of Wildcat Basin. The trail out and over Peak 7915 was a steep dusty exercise in agony in the beaming afternoon sun. This was by far the hardest part of the day. After hiking in, and halfway back to the trailhead I was in no mood to climb another mountain in the 85 degree weather. Nonetheless I really had no choice and had to do it. It sucked, but oh well the rest of the hike was pretty enjoyable.
After crossing 7915 I jumped up some mulies and made the fairly boring and level hike back to the trailhead. Just another routine hike in the Strawberry Mountains.
Lookout Mountain - Sept 3rd (East of Graham Mountain)After checking out Steens Mountain the previous day my dad and I drove up to the summit of Lookout Mountain. The road was horrible, I probably should have hiked in using the sunshine trail, but I take the opportunities to hang out with family when I can get them. The view was pretty good, similar to Graham Mountain. This peak is literally covered with glacial valleys despite a relatively low elevation of 8032 feet. This mountain has been brutally burned by wildfires, especially the east side. We hiked around and explored the summit area until it started to rain. Overall I would say this mountain isnt really up to the high standards set by the adjoining Strawberries, nearby Dixie Butte or Monument Rock Wilderness. Decent view, but nearby mountains offer better, I'd only recommend this one if your doing the P2K list.
Above; Lookout Mountain with snow