Buttes of the Willow Creek Basin
Southeast Oregon is known for high rugged fault scarps and vast basins dotted by buttes. Nestled in between the Trout Creek Mountains and the Oregon Canyon Mountains is the Willow Creek Basin, which itself has a series of buttes ringing it. The highest of these is Whitehorse Butte overlooking the windy Whitehorse Canyon. Scenic and remote, Whitehorse Butte is a must visit for anyone that loves hiking in the the Oregon High Desert. The following is a series of highlights of the Willow Creek Basin and Whitehorse Butte area.
Whitehorse Creek Canyon
Whitehorse Creek Canyon is virtually unknown. Go ahead and google it, see what kind of results pop up. Given the unique beauty of this place its shocking that it isn't a wilderness or protected area. Whitehorse Canyon is lined with some of the largest beaver dams you will ever see in the desert, dams that have created impressive cattail marshes. Whitehorse Canyon is one of the most impressive of the regions non-glacially formed gorges. Viewing the image at left at full size reveals one of the large beaver ponds on Whitehorse Creek.
Several ruins can be found along Willow Creek. While investigating a visually prominent cave we stumbled on a chimney near a very out of place mountain mahogany growing along the creek (picture bottom of page at right). Given their close proximity to each other, the cave, chimney and mountain mahogany must be somehow related but its impossible to say how. A short distance down the frequently beaver dammed creek is a rare waterfall in the desert flats.
One of the first peaks you will pass is Flagstaff Butte
as you enter the Willow Creek Basin. Flagstaff Butte is a fun little side-climb with some scrambling at the summit. Gold mining claims cover the west face of Whitehorse Butte, evidenced by white PVC tubes climbing all the way to locations just under the summit.
The Whitehorse Ranch was the first establishment in this corner of the state. Originally a military fort location, John Devine was the first permanent settler in the Alvord Desert region, finding enough success to go on and found the Alvord Ranch a few years later. The barn in the picture at right was built by Devine and has stood for over 100 years.
3 miles SW of the Whitehorse Ranch on the Whitehorse Ranch Road is the turnoff for Little Whitehorse Creek and Willow Creek Hot Springs. More specifically from Fields travel 8 miles south to the Whitehorse Ranch Road, turn east and travel 23 miles where you will cross Willow Creek and turn right onto the road to Little Whitehorse Creek. Whitehorse Butte does not have a trailhead let alone a trail so find a line up the mountain you like as you follow the dirt road along Willow Creek. There is a nice moderate ridge up the west side of the south face that should be snow free even during the winter. To access this ridge travel 3.5 miles south to a junction in the Willow Creek Road where you can turn east towards Little Whitehorse Creek. About a mile east of the turnoff you will find yourself about three quarters of a mile from the base of Whitehorse Butte, this is a good starting point. The typical scramble route travels 1.5 miles with 1200 feet of elevation gain.
Red Tape - When to Hike
Laying in a desert basin, water is
surprisingly prevalent here with Willow Creek and Whitehorse Creek running year round. Be on the lookout for rattlesnakes from April to late October. This is BLM land, so checking in with that agency might be a good idea before travelling into the desert. The BLM office is in Burns, and some literature can be found in Fields at the store. Best time to hike is in the winter when nearby ranges are snow covered and roads in this basin are dry enough to pass, January to April may be best.
An Oregon Field Guide Segment about Lahontan Cutthroat Trout in Whitehorse and Willow Creeks
Willow Creek Hot Springs
Willow Creek Hot Springs Link 2
can be found at the nearby Willow Hot Springs, or at nearby hunters campsites along Willow, Little Whitehorse, or Little Trout Creeks. The Little Whitehorse location is found where the 4x4 road listed in the directions above crosses that creek. Additionally, a few locations can be found along the road that follows Willow Creek (BLM 6315).