If I’ve learned one thing on this trip, it’s to not over-plan. As an obsessive planner, this lesson did not come naturally. With so many sights to see on the coast, we put this strategy to use as we drove south from South Beach State Park towards the Carter Lake Campground.
Aaron picked Ona Beach as our first stop. Along our short walk to the beach, we picked enough evergreen huckleberries to fill our berries. Bushes loaded with ripe berries lined the trail. Apparently, we were the only ones to notice. They were delicious.
Next, we stopped at the Waldport Heritage Museum, where we learned so much about the bridges connecting sites at the coast. Without these bridges, we couldn’t do this road trip. We also learned about Lewis Southworth, a Black settler who purchased his way out of slavery and came to become a prominent community member in Waldport and then Corvallis.
We kept driving, pulling off at the brown signs that caught our attention: Devil’s Churn, Spouting Horn, Neptune Beach. Then, on a recommendation from an Instagram friend, we stopped at Fred Meyer to scramble up the impressive sand dunes behind it. The coast is full of curiosities, history, nature and more!
We camped at Carter Dunes so we could get a nice hike in early the next morning. After filling up on huckleberry pancakes, we hiked about a mile through coastal forest to the beach. There, we took our shoes off and wandered along the beach. The bright sun reflected off the ocean surface, filling the sky with light. Not one other person was on the beach, a classic sign of having hiked to the Oregon coast.
Shore Acres and Sunset Bay
Next we drove to Shore Acres State Park and made lunch in the parking lot. It’s tempting to want to stop at every little cafe or fish and chips shop to eat, but those receipts add up really fast.
We packed up our picnic blanket and reading materials, then looked for a scenic place to sit and read by the ocean. Along the way we made several stops to ooh and aah at the scenery; Shore Acres is an exceptionally beautiful place. Here, the crashing ocean waves carve unique sculptures in the soft rock and tenacious, old pine trees cling to eroding stone edges like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger.
I did some reading, then meandered among the cartoon-like rock formations. I sat quietly on a sandy patch, simply watching the waves crash for what felt like hours. The sea is enchanting.
We continued on to Sunset Bay for an evening of camping. We arrived at high tide, so the water in the bay nearly reached the edge of the parking lot. The next morning, however, much of the beach revealed itself. Rocks jutted up from the sand, with tidepools between. We poked around looking for critters, then I returned to the van to finish up some paintings for the art show.
On our way to Boice-Cope Park/Floras Lake, we stopped in Bandon so I could pick up a couple of bottles of Bandon Rain. I tried several flavors before settling on cranberry and blueberry. It’s not easy to find these ciders out in the wild, so I was glad to make the stop.
That evening, rain poured down and wind shook the van. I scoured the van kitchen for comfort food and discovered I had all the ingredients to make a queso sauce. It was so easy and really delicious over tortilla chips with all the taco toppings. When you’re living on the road full time and you love to eat a variety of meals, it’s important to learn how to cook creatively in a small space with limited cookware and ingredients. Queso is now on my menu of food options!
In the morning, I needed to stretch my legs, so I took a quick walk to the ocean. The tide was high and furious. I didn’t make it too far before I felt like I could get crushed between the incoming swells and the sandstone headland. I walked back in the aggressively blowing wind and watched the birds; this is becoming one of my favorite things to do at the coast (bird-watching, not walking head first into wind).
Harris Beach State Park
It was packed; I was glad to get my reservation in that morning. The following day, I arose before the sun so I could catch the entire sunrise. It was research for the otter artwork I planned on painting for this year’s holiday card. It was a little eerie hiking down to the beach through a tree tunnel in the pitch dark, but once I reached the beach and saw the pastels begin painting the sky I realized it was worth it.
I walked barefoot along the edge of the water, pausing to peer into the small tidepools that were beginning to form. The tide was still pretty high, so my route dead-ended at a tall cliff with no way around. I stopped there and called my dad. We talked for so long that by the time I headed back, an entire beach formed in front of the previously impassable cliff.
We had one more stop to complete the Oregon coast drive: Crissey Field. Although it sounds like a place to catch a ball game, it’s actually a nice beach with a visitor center, picnic tables and plenty of parking.
Since I had a nice place to sit and spread out my art supplies, I chose this location to work on the 2023 seasonal card painting. I’d already sketched out a sea otter design and I thought, what better place to paint otters than at the edge of the ocean?
When Aaron had a break from work, we chatted with the ladies at the visitor center for a while. They hooked us up with postcards, eclipse glasses and other “Welcome to Oregon” paraphernalia. I asked if we could walk the beach into California and they said yes, so that we had to do.
I slipped off my shoes once again and we set off on the sand. As we strolled along the crashing waves, we watched the pelicans play. They seemed to “surf” the waves by flying down low, a couple inches from the top of the water, then gliding over the top of the rolling wave as it raced for shore. It was beautiful.
There was no sign indicating that we’d crossed state lines, but I kept looking at Google Maps until it said we’d made it. In ten days, we made it from the Northern end at the Columbia River to the southern end at this random point in Brookings. Another adventure crossed off the list.
The last time I visited Nehalem Bay was on Christmas Eve, 2009. I had recently gotten out of a long-term relationship and my mom flew across the country to keep me company. The weather was so good on the coast that we took the drive out there and walked the beach together. It’s one of my favorite memories of being with my mom.
Needless to say, the bar was high for this visit!
From the boat launch/day use area, I followed the short trail to the beach. There, I took off my sandals and started walking south along the coastline. For miles, it was just me and the sea birds. The ocean waves crashing on shore put me in a meditative state. Hiking into the wind, gray skies enveloping me, I put one foot in front of the other until I reached the giant log pile on the end of the spit.
I peeked over the logs to get a view of the sea pouring into the bay. The waves were violent and crushing; there’s a reason they say never turn your back on the Oregon coast.
After a brief backtrack along the dunes, I found a trail that crossed over to the bay side. I walked through the forested center spit, heavily vegetated with grasses and stunted trees. I’d learned my lesson more than once about trying to bushwhack on the Oregon coast. It’s futile. And it’s the one place I’d much rather be on a trail than off trail. The high tide allowed me to walk on the sand for just a short while before forcing me back onto a forest trail. I skipped around the flooded beach sections and returned to the water’s edge where it became safe again.
After about five miles of walking, I made it back to the van. Just in time for lunch, too. On Aaron’s next break, we hit the road and pulled into a public lot at Rockaway Beach. I took another barefoot sand walk, then we popped into the farmer’s market. There weren’t many vegetables that we wanted to buy, but there were plenty of baked goods that looked appetizing.
Tourist stops on the Northern Oregon coast
As we continued driving, we made a couple more necessary stops. First we hit up Pronto Pup, one of the businesses that claims to have invented the corn dog (apparently this is up for debate). We ordered a couple of originals as an afternoon treat. Admittedly, I’ve only ever had one corn dog in my life and I thought it was way better than the one we had here. But, you’ll have to go to the little food truck in Sumpter, Oregon to find it!
Next, we stopped at the Tillamook Creamery, probably the most visited attraction on the Northern Oregon coast. Aaron had never been there, so we both took a deep breath and stepped into the tourist hell inside.
First, we headed upstairs to the viewing area to see how the cheese is made, but nothing was running and mobs of people were everywhere. So we quickly bailed back down to the first floor and got in the absurdly long line for ice cream. They didn’t have many unique flavors that you couldn’t buy at the store, which was a little disappointing. But they did offer a “flight” option, which had 3 different scoops of ice cream in a tray. I was tempted to order a flight containing a scoop of each of the different vanillas (how different could they possibly be?!). However, I decided to choose more interesting flavors, like the limited edition s’mores something-or-other.
I’d booked a campsite at Cape Lookout so we had a convenient place to crash for the night as well as hiking trails in the morning.
We both began the next day with bellies full of delicious cinnamon rolls. I walked down the beach towards the Cape Lookout trail system, enjoying the morning solitude. I didn’t expect much of that on the hike, since this was a reasonably popular place to visit. But I was pleasantly surprised to encounter only a handful of hikers on my way to the end of the trail. The first couple miles traversed upward from the campground to the actual trailhead, and I loved walking through the densely green coastal forest. Ferns cascaded down onto the trail as twisted, robust conifers seemed to anchor the sky above. Once I reached the parking lot, the steepness mellowed out and I breezed along the well-worn Cape Lookout Trail.
Halfway down, I encountered a sign warning me that it would be slippery and muddy ahead. I was ready, wearing my Bedrock sandals and mentally in need of some interesting walking. Sure enough, the route became a muddy, rooty obstacle course, which I found quite enjoyable. As the trail neared the end, I got peek-a-boo views of the ocean far below. I even enjoyed some lovely quiet at the trail’s terminus, just me and the pelicans.
On my walk back, I encountered many more hikers, including two who stood in the middle of the trail, looking down at something. As I approached the couple, they gleefully pointed to a banana slug. “We saw one with a shell on it yesterday!” the man exclaimed in some sort of European accent. I did not correct him. It made me happy that they were happy to see this exotic slug right before them. Aaron picked me up at a pullout where the return trail met the road, and we were off to the next destination.
We couldn’t drive through the cute little town of Depoe Bay without making a stop. They’ve got ample parking on the main road, so we grabbed a spot and walked to the whale watching center adjacent to the tiny bay. Inside volunteers offered up information and binoculars to those who were interested. I’m terrible at using binoculars so Aaron grabbed a pair for himself and we wandered to the viewing window. Turns out, the key to finding whales is to train your eyes on the whale watching boats on the horizon. They’re tracking the whales, of course. So, we saw some spouts, whale backs and whale tails from the Gray Whales passing through.
After we’d seen enough whales, we wandered through all the little trinket and candy shops on the way back to the van. Then it was off to our next home for the night.
South Beach, Newport
After a yummy dinner at the Crab Shack, we pulled in to our campsite at South Beach. It was nearly sunset, so we quickly hopped out of the van to walk to the beach. We found a little trail out of our campground loop leading west. We caught sunset just in time. As we crested over the final grassy hill adjacent to the sand expanse, our eyes fixated on a ship…on the beach. There she was, the fishing vessel “Judy,” sadly washed up on shore. It was an odd and unexpected sight. We walked towards the water, wind blasting our face with sand, just to see another unusual happening: someone was kiteboarding just off shore.
We watched them go one way, turn 180 degrees, go back, and repeat, endlessly as the pinks and purples lit up the sky. How exhausting, I thought, that person must be ridiculously strong to hold tension in their body for that long.
As the last rays of light filtered up through the clouds, we hurried back to get on the trail. Once we reached the van, we collapsed into a heap on the bed. It was a full day of activities!
One thing I really wanted to do in this summer of Oregon travel is to drive the entire coast from one end to the other. We decided to travel north to south from Astoria to Brookings, in one go. Since we had to make a stop in Portland for some van stuff, we scheduled our coast tour to begin as soon as the van was out of the shop.
On the drive to Astoria, rain and wind pummeled the van. The sky grew dark, and we rolled into town late in the evening. I had booked a hotel for two nights so we’d be able to explore the town, so we parked the van and crashed in our room. Despite the forecast for the week looking pretty bleak, this was our one shot at the coast. So we went.
I woke up to partly cloudy skies and mild temperatures. After picking up coffee for a local shop, I decided to take advantage of the nice weather and go for a walk. Astoria is a quaint and beautiful town, with a trolley trail that turns into a paved bike trail along the riverfront. Not technically on the coast, Astoria borders the yawning Columbia River just as it enters the ocean. From the trail, I could see the Astoria-Megler Bridge. This impressive structure, completed in 1966, spans 4.1 miles across the Columbia River. Prior to the bridge, a ferry system carried goods and people across the water. As we’d learn on this trip, the ability to easily travel down the Oregon coast is a fairly recent phenomenon. I felt grateful to have the opportunity.
The weather held, so I kept walking. The gulls, late summer wildflowers and sea lions kept me company. I breathed in the sea air, something that brought me right back to childhood. Growing up in Rhode Island, we were on the water all the time. But having lived in the desert for the last seven years, I felt a real longing for the sea. There’s something healing about the salty breezes, crashing waves and moody clouds.
I walked further, pressing my luck during this unexpected weather window. I decided to run some errands while I was out and about, which took me miles from the hotel.
As I hurried back, the first drops of rain began to fall. Then, they called all their friends. Eventually, my shoes, socks and pants were thoroughly soaked through (notice how rain jackets just funnel water onto your pants?) so I accepted my fate and walked straight through all the puddles. I arrived at the hotel, sopping wet, with a backpack full of supplies for the week.
After eating lunch and changing into dry clothes, Aaron and I headed to the Heritage Museum to learn about Astoria’s history. The exhibits were interactive and fun; we enjoyed participating in all the little activities and flipping up the question doors. There was even a place to guess the animal track by stamping the shape of the track near the name of the animal. The museum covered information on native tribes, European settlers, the evolution of modern cookery, prostitution and gambling. At the time, a temporary exhibit titled “Blocked Out: Race and Place in the Making of Modern Astoria: told the history of redlining and the homogenization of Astoria’s population by pushing people of color out. The historical photos throughout the museum showed a wide diversity of people who used to live and work here, but most were forced to leave through violence, social marginalization and legal statute.
I left feeling better about gaining a better understanding of the history and worse at having to reckon with our horrific and unjust past. I grieved not being able to know the people who once lived here. I wrestled with what to do with that knowledge. Step one: learn the things, step three: justice. What is step two?
Our hotel experience in Astoria was so heinous, we decided to leave very early on our last morning. (If you’re headed to Astoria and want to know what to avoid, message me.) We drove through relentless wind and parked at a public lot overlooking the beach. Aaron got hooked up to Starlink and I bundled up for a boardwalk stroll to Controversial Coffee. With Queen blaring from the speakers and a queer hall of fame on the back wall, I thought, ahh this is a great space to drink coffee and paint.
I’d read about this coffee shop ahead of time, learning that they provide free food and beverages to anyone who is unable to pay. While I was in there, I overheard a couple interactions between the barista and unhoused people who came in for a bit of sustenance and positive human connection. I loved how compassionate and humanizing these conversations were; in stark opposition to how unhoused people are treated and framed in most media. I happily contributed to the donation fund collected to help support this mission. It felt like one of those “step two” actions that would immediately have an impact on a marginalized community. As one of their Facebook posts says, “When did caring about others become so controversial?” I then understood the meaning of the coffee shop’s name.
As I completed the last of three paintings for the $20 Art Show, I headed back towards the van. The weather took a turn for the better, so I took off my jacket and shoes and walked down the sandy beach instead of the boardwalk. Watching the pelicans fly overhead and feeling the warm sun on my face, I felt at peace.
After work, we drove to a fish market Cannon Beach to pick up crab cakes to make for dinner. Then, continuing south on highway 101, Aaron said “we’ve got to stop here!” I looked up to see a sign for Hug Point. We veered into the parking lot for an apropos hug break and then walked down the short path to the beach. There are few things more special than a good weather day on the Oregon coast. We took a short beach walk, did a few handstands and scouted the bases of rocks to look for critters. It’s important to take these leg stretchers for your body and soul when you’re road-tripping!
Our day ended at Nehalem Bay State Park. A couple of friends invited us to join them on their camping trip. I reserved the campsite just across from theirs and we rolled up in the evening to say hello. They had a nice propane fire pit going under their RV awning, which was a nice place to huddle up and chat. Aaron gave a van tour and I got to see the inside of their rig. It was so fun to catch up, swap travel stories and share the joys of being on the road.
For dinner, we feasted on crab cakes and settled in for a rainy night.
On our way to Steens Mountain, we made a last minute decision to pull off for the night at Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Most folks will never make it here once in their lifetime; this would be my third visit. It is remote, there are no services and it gets no press. But it truly is outstanding, and this visit it was unusually so.
As we drove past one of the first volcanic features, I had an “Aaron, stop the van!” moment. What at first looked like autumn red leaves on the ground turned out to be a superbloom of Nesom’s monkeyflowers: showy, bright, fuchsia blooms peppered throughout the cinder. It was a magnificent sight. I jumped out of the vehicle to get a closer look. While I was out there, I also noticed some delicate buckwheat flowers and the characteristic late summer bloomers: smoothstem blazing star.
Yes, we’d stay here.
Another surprise on our evening walk
Further up the road, we found a nice pullout with a hilltop view of the surrounding hills and craters. According to the BLM website, this designated area has the entire suite of basalt volcano features, such as spatter cones, lava tubes and maars. If you are curious enough to Google those things, you might want to schedule a trip to Diamond Craters to see them in person!
That evening, Aaron and I took a short stroll along a the road. We found thousands more flowers in bloom, and then…a flurry of activity. Hummingbird moths were busily zipping from flower to flower, feeding on the sugary nectar inside. I’d never seen so many of them at once! The pastel colors spreading across the dusky sky provided a beautiful backdrop for the scene unfolding in front of us. Sometimes the most memorable moments are unplanned.
Take a hike
The following morning, Aaron got to work and I took off on a hike. We were within a few miles of Malheur maar, a volcanic crater with a spring-fed pond inside. I made that my destination.
It would be another oppressively hot day, so I started walking right after breakfast. Along the road I saw some interesting flowers in bloom, which I later learned are introduced weeds. Nonetheless, I enjoyed looking at the delicate, translucent petals tucked between sharp points projecting from the stems. Apparently, some local butterflies appreciated the plants too.
I veered off the road at Twin Craters, following a use path along the east side of one of the twins, then bushwhacking around the northern perimeter to the other one. The whole time, I was very cognizant of the possibility of running into a rattlesnake like I’d done just a few days before. No snakes today.
On the other side of the craters, I stumbled across many other cool lava features, including deep cracks in the ground and what I like to call sourdough loaves. I think these are more properly called “tumuli,” but they look so much like the cracked tops of freshly baked loaves of bread that I can’t resist renaming them.
I wandered through the features, poking around anywhere that looked interesting, until I eventually made it to a lava balcony above Malheur maar. This location was incredible because here, out in this hot and dry expanse, I heard a cacophony of water-loving birds. I saw a ring of luscious green grass. I felt like I was transported into a new and unexpected landscape. The maar is quite small, but it creates its own riparian ecosystem surrounded by sagebrush and craggy volcanic rock.
It was a scene that asked to be painted. So, I sat there to paint. As I did so, the morning clouds began to part and make way for the blazing sun. The hike back was much hotter and sunnier than before. The bright light now glinted off of the many bottles and cans carelessly thrown from vehicles years, even decades, before. I collected them as I walked.
Another feature distracted me from my beeline to the van: an old wooden structure. I veered off the road to investigate, and even as I walked all around it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. It couldn’t be an entrance to a mine, out here? It was just lava for miles. And it couldn’t have been a bridge, because why? Perhaps a little encampment? Again, why here? The mysterious wood remnants brought me, however, to another magnificent patch of monkeyflower. I lingered for a few more moments to bask in their beauty before the sweaty hike back.
This brief stop reminded me of several things about travel. One: just because you’ve been somewhere once doesn’t mean you’ve checked that place off your list for good. You can have many different experiences in the same place, especially if you visit during a different season, with a different person, in different weather or with a different attitude. Two: it’s important to leave flexibility in your travel agenda. I had no plans to stop here. About twenty minutes from the road intersection, I just happened to notice it while scrolling around on my map and said “hey let’s stop at Diamond Craters tonight.” Three: the unexpected little things often bring more delight than the big, much anticipated ones. Seeing the purple wildflowers carpeting the desert in September shocked and amazed me. Then, when we saw all the moths flying around, I felt like I’d found myself in paradise.
I love the childlike sense of wonder that I often feel when we’re on the road. That’s one reason I think we’ll keep doing it beyond our initial timeline. We’re already about five months in, but it seems like we’re just getting started…
I made muesli with warm water and huckleberries to kick off day 2. Since I’d been enthralled by the stark contrast of the red and white rock on the mountain outside my camp, I decided to sit and paint there before moving on. The geology of the Wallowas is so insane and pretty that the idea of hiking quickly through the landscape felt terrible. Instead, I really wanted to savor my time.
The breezy, mostly downhill walk from camp to the South Fork Imnaha five miles away was a little harder than expected due to downed trees. On a dayhike, the challenge of getting around obstacles can be fun and interesting. But a massive backpack sucks all the fun out of it. Several times, I had to take off my backpack and wrestle it over, under or around a pile of debris before scrambling around myself. Then, I’d load it back up again and start walking, just to repeat the process soon after. It got tiring. On the flip side, it made me spend a bunch of time crouching in the dirt, which meant I saw plenty of cool mushrooms.
After a particularly annoying stretch of blowdown, I heard an unexpected sound: a chainsaw. First, I thought chainsaws were explicitly not allowed in wilderness and second, I didn’t care one bit about the rules in that moment. I grinned widely as a small team on horseback rode up behind the man wielding the chainsaw. I stepped to the downhill side of the trail in order to let them through without spooking the horses. “Thank you so much!” I exclaimed. They asked how many trees were down ahead and I said enough to keep them busy.
I frolicked ahead at a canter after the horse team passed through. Life was good. At the river crossing, I changed into Crocs and waded to the other side, losing one of my pole baskets in the process. On the opposite bank, I had a nice lunch with some bacon, cheese and the rest of my baguette.
Shortly after hitting the trail again, I encountered my first hikers of the trip, a young couple from Spokane. They were very chatty, so we had a good talk for 20 minutes or so before parting ways. On to Crater Lake for them, which is where I camped the night before.
I wasn’t sure how much further I wanted to hike, and my frequent stops to gawk at the stunning Cusick Mountain wasn’t helping me make miles. I found a decent enough place to camp in some trees by a stream. Then, I set my hammock up and wandered around to find a painting spot. Along the way I poked around at all the little flowers still blooming, including dwarf fireweed. This was a new one for me!
In the evening, I spent 20 minutes desperately trying to hang my food. I was just about to give up when my last throw made it. I lay in my hammock, listening to podcasts, doing crossword puzzles and dreaming of my ridge ramble attempt on Cusick Mountain in the morning.
On the Tuesday morning after Labor Day, I hoisted up a backpack with five days worth of supplies and waved goodbye to Aaron. “See you on the other side!” I said, as I walked towards the wilderness permit box at the Summit Point Trailhead. I planned a traverse from the southern end of the range to the northern end, passing over several mountain peaks, climbing a few mountains and making a few side quests along the way. The forecast looked as good as it gets, so I set off.
I began hiking on the familiar Cliff Creek trail, which I used to access Cornucopia Peak three weeks ago. Although not much time had passed since my last visit, I noticed several changes. Most of the wildflowers had gone to seed. Some of the vegetation already showed off their bright fall foliage. So many mushrooms appeared. As I traversed under Nip Peak Pass I entered brand new terrain. The soft gray clouds and gusty winds gave the air a sense of mystery. I ate some snacks and followed the trail down to Crater Lake, where I set up my first camp of the trip. Miraculously, no one was there.
Above the lake, a little hillside offered up some nice camp spots with adequate hammock trees. I picked my favorite and took a rest. There was one more thing on my agenda: Krag Peak.
I built quite a bit of flexibility into my plan, since there were SO many options along this pathway and endless mountains to climb. But I wanted to kick it off with a scramble, so I outfitted a small daypack and began the charge up Krag Peak. I had a few route descriptions from my favorite websites as well as from my friend Rick, who had just climbed it.
From the lake, I walked to the right of the imposing white cliffs and up through the trees. The ground tilted sharply upward, so I shortened my poles and slowly plodded in the direction of the summit. Avoiding the big rocks and talus piles, I made my way to a large basin with some pools of meltwater left behind in a small meadow. I gained the ridge to the left of the basin and followed it until it looked annoying. Then, I dropped below the ridge crest and boulder-hopped below it (also annoying, but differently annoying).
The last stretch up to the peak was the worst. Since it was labeled Class 2, I wasn’t really expecting anything difficult. But the mountain top was crumbly and very steep. I carefully picked my way up the loose rock, testing everything and grabbing onto anything solid. Near the summit, I looked up and found myself right on the edge of a huge cliff face. Once I realized how the backside of the mountain dropped away, I found a better line and angled towards the small, but beautiful summit. There was no marker, cairn or register, but it would do.
Looking at the high peaks spread out in every direction from me, I was really glad to be there. I’d hoped a big traverse would come together and here I was doing the thing. Snapping out of my joy, I had to remind myself that I still had to get off of this choss pile. I took a different route down, skipping the ridge altogether and finding the least sketchy way straight down to that wet meadow. I don’t know if it saved me any time but it saved me a lot of stress. As I entered the forest, the lay of the land pulled me slightly away from my destination, so I used my GPS app to course correct. Once at the shores of Crater Lake, I took the long way around to my camp.
There were still no other campers at the lake. When I got to my hammock, changed into Crocs, pulled down my food bag and laid out a spread of charcuterie with all my heavy foods for the first night! I may be slow, my pack may be enormous, but I eat damn well on the trail.
If you are looking for a route description for the Van Patten Butte scramble, this isn’t it. Check out these resources from Oregon Hikers, Summitpost and Peakbagger. This is a story about how to take a straightforward, half-day route into an all day, nail-biting adventure. I would not recommend, however I feel that if you are a person who likes testing creative routes in the mountains at all, some of your days will inevitably turn out like this. I’d say about 85% of my exploratory adventures are neutral to good, 10% are excellent and 5% are gnarly. This was one of the gnarly ones.
We were back at the Anthony Lake Ski Area for a few days so Aaron could get some work done. Since Van Patten was such a short route, I decided to hike to the trailhead from the parking area 3 miles away to begin the day’s adventure. It was all downhill, meaning an easy approach but nothing to look forward to at the end of the day.
The night before, I’d read through all the resources listed above. I eyeballed the topo map and Google satellite images. It was my usual prep routine. I thought I’d take the suggested route up the mountain and circle back down a different ridge, then either rejoining the route in or bushwhacking to the road to cut off some extra walking. On the hike down to the trailhead, I studied the landscape, trying to visualize what would make a good route back. I felt ready for a fun day in the mountains.
Once I reached the trailhead, I had a short, steep climb to Van Patten Lake. The lake was pretty, but the water level looked pretty low. While having a snack, I pictured how gorgeous it would be when it was full. I found a pair of sunglasses sitting on a rock near the lake; lately I’ve been finding these on nearly every hike.
From there, I walked around to the north side of the lake, where I followed an inlet stream up the vegetated slopes. As I climbed, I was presented with more and more options. I chose to follow a line where giant boulders occasionally punctuated the forested canyon walls. The route required a little bit of poking around, but it was generally straightforward and safe. Along the way, I found another pair of sunglasses that were hung up in a tree; they must have fallen off of someone’s head as they were scrambling the route. Once I gained the ridge, I had to navigate around a few obstacles to get to a wide, flat saddle. From that point, the summit of Van Buren was just a quick and easy walk away.
The highpoint, a pile of sloped boulders surrounded by thick and twisted trees, was not a great place to hang out. So I tagged the top and wandered around the high ridgeline, looking for a nice place to sit and paint. There, I also scoped out my options down. None of them looked good. My original plan, which looked okay on paper, most definitely did not look possible in real life. This sometimes happened, and I knew this was a possibility. The NW ridges looked mostly do-able, but there were enough narrow, loose and cliffy sections separating the good stuff that made it unsafe. That was out. The NE ridge was very knife-edgy, atop sheer cliffs. That was out. Even the gullies looked too loose and steep to want to attempt solo with no gear. My last option was to retreat the way I came.
I started along this path, the best and most intelligent choice. But then I got the idea to follow the ridgeline adjacent to my ascent route, the one that would take me right back to the lake! That seemed like a good idea. I veered off the beaten path and on to the ridge.
Just like the NW ridge, this one consisted of a jumble of tall, impossible boulders choked with vegetation, making it difficult to see far ahead. I poked along very slowly on and near the ridge, mostly on the west side to avoid the intimidating cliffs. The terrain was mostly loose and steep, with a mixture of rocks, dirt and trees. Occasional cliffs became frequent cliffs and my options were very limited. I was really struggling to find a line that would go.
After much frustrating zig-zagging around, I found an escape gully leading to a giant talus field. It was steep and loose, but with enough firm footing and trees to hang on to in order to be safe enough to descend. Without knowing what happened in the trees below the talus, I decided to just go for it. I needed to get off that damned ridge.
Once safely on the pile of rocks below, I sat down for a while to let my nervous system calm down. I ate some food, drank some water and thought about options from here. I was so annoyed with myself for making the stupid decision to try a different ridge despite having a perfectly good way to go down and also knowing that all the other ridges were too rugged for me. (So why would this one be any different?)
But, being annoyed with oneself doesn’t lead to better decision making. I had to snap back into rational problem-solving mode and I could berate myself later.
Below that talus, I could hear running water. No problem, a little stream. Unless that stream turns into a waterfall. Can you guess? Of course it did. I was having flashbacks to last year’s debacle getting off Chief Joseph Mountain, where it took hours to go less than a mile through similar terrain. I cut right away from the creek, where I began traversing a steep, forested hillside. But I kept getting cliffed out. Each time I reached another cliff, I could feel my heart race and my breathing get shallow. This was clearly type 3 fun.
As a strategy to move safely and efficiently, I settled into a way of movement that felt a lot like bouldering. I tested each hand and foothold before committing weight to it, I only moved when I felt in balance and I hyper focused on the task at hand. I was not (literally and figuratively) out of the woods yet.
Even though I had made it below the ridge and “just had to get through the woods,” the landscape was relentless. I desperately sought paths of least resistance through rocks, creeks and soggy hillsides. Once I finally reached the road, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and chugged some water. Then, I had nearly 3 miles of walking uphill on the road in the hot afternoon sun to wrap up this debacle.
On the return hike, I passed by what looked to be a promising huckleberry patch. I dropped a pin on my GPS app so I could come back another day. A silver lining, perhaps.
Lessons learned? I fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy. The further I traveled down the terrible ridge, the more committed I felt to that route. At any point (especially early on), I could have backtracked up to the saddle and taken my original route back down the mountain. Even though it would require going back uphill, it would have been faster, safer, easier and way more fun. A reminder that nature is indifferent to our hopes and dreams. And that respect and humility in the mountains is paramount to help ensure you can go back and explore another day.
Situated 30 miles west of Baker City, 57 miles northeast of John Day and 108 miles south of Pendleton, the Sumpter Dredge sits in a pond of its own making. Once used to sift for gold along the banks of the Powder River, it now serves as a tourist attraction and reminder of a piece of Oregon history.
I was surprised to find several other visitors there at this fairly remote and off-the-beaten-path site. Aaron found a volunteer ranger who was available to give us a tour of the dredge (you can also just walk through on your own). He shared quite a bit about how the dredge was built and used as well as some of the greater context around mining in that era. The visitor’s center and signage within the dredge echoed the details from the guided tour. It was helpful for me to see the photos and illustrations, since I am a visual learner.
The dredge essentially housed a rotating line of huge buckets that dug up the rocks and dirt, then dropped the slurry through a series of sifting devices that separated the gold from the remainder. The non-gold material, or “tailings,” got left behind in rows behind the dredge. You will notice these tall piles of tailings as you drive past Phillips Lake on Route 7. Alternatively you can see them clearly on Google satellite view, where they look like intestines!
In the process of sifting for flakes of gold, the dredge literally flipped the underground layers upside down, leaving the rocks on top and the soil on the bottom. As a result, the mining dramatically altered the naturally functioning landscape . While nature slowly takes its course, there are theoretically some habitat restoration projects happening. When I searched for more information, I found some reports dating to 1984, 2006 and 2017. Sadly I found more references to restoring the railroad than the actual habitat.
Thinking back to my bike ride around Philips Lake, I remember seeing lots of wildlife utilizing the area around the tailings. I have no idea how much more volume or diversity of wildlife would be there had it been in a more natural state. I’m also curious how the use of mercury on the dredge impacted the environment. When we asked the volunteer, he was absolutely certain that the mercury was not found in any amount in the surrounding area, which I had a really hard time believing.
The impact of resource extraction is one that we will continue to deal with as our changing technologies require more and different minerals. I’m beginning to learn about lithium and cobalt mining, as these impact us both locally in Oregon and our fellow humans abroad. I am glad that our state parks work to preserve these historical sites. I just wish they addressed all of the impacts in a more transparent way, instead of focusing on the things like “what a cool piece of technology” and “how wonderful for this local economy!” I’d rather hear a more complex and nuanced story than that.
After our tour, we walked around a few of the trails in the park. In total, there are less than two miles looping around the area, so it’s just a nice place to stretch your legs. A few steps away in town, we wandered into the Sumpter Municipal Museum, which is also worth a visit. And to top it all off, a friendly guy in a food truck across the street sold us some corn dogs to fuel us up for the rest of the afternoon. It was my first time eating a corn dog, and I must say I quite enjoyed it!
The Elkhorn Crest Trail had been on my to-do list for many years. I had an opportunity to spend 4 days on the trail while in Northeast Oregon, so I researched the route, made a list, packed my backpack and hit the trail.
Day 1: Orientation
5.4 mi | 1130′ ele. gain | 2:30 hr.
Upon seeing the weather forecast, I took my packraft and paddle out of my backpack. Highs only in the 70’s and mostly cloudy? That didn’t feel like it was worth the weight of a boat. I had mountains to climb, anyways, and I already hate backpacking. That decision would make the next few days slightly easier.
Hate backpacking? That can’t be right? Sure looks dreamy on Instagram. However, my body has never adapted to carrying an overnight pack, ever. No matter what shape I’m in, how much backpacking I do (which, arguably is never that much), what pack I have, how much weight is in it, etc. I just feel awful. It’s not just the “I’m working really hard” kind of awful, it’s the blisters and tweaks and aches and rubbing of pack against skin over and over and over that makes me ask, couldn’t I have just done this as a dayhike?
Sure, there are some humans who can cruise the Elkhorn Crest in a day, but that was never my intention. I wanted to move at a pace at which I could really experience and enjoy it. Besides, there were side objectives I wanted to see. Mt. Ruth, Rock Creek Butte and Elkhorn Peak were all on my agenda in addition to the trail.
I set off from the parking lot at Anthony Lakes Ski Area after a long, slow breakfast and packing session. The morning was overcast and chilly, so I was in no rush to get out the door. The start of the trail wasn’t terribly remarkable. There were lots of tiny huckleberry bushes and just past prime wildflowers. The forest opened up near Angell Pass to provide a preview of the views I’d enjoy for the remainder of the hike. I then made my way down to Dutch Flat Lake, a pretty little lake with some giant campsites that indicated it got heavy use. After eating my lunch there, I decided to scout out a campsite away from the lake shore just in case a group decided to show up and be obnoxious.
I was right about a group showing up but I was not right about how far away from the lake I’d have to go to not hear them literally yelling for 8 straight hours after setting up their camp. I put my headphones in and laid in my hammock, alternating between napping and crossword puzzles until dinner time. Wanting to enjoy nature, the whole reason I came here, I briefly took my headphones out to try and identify the various lovely bird songs filling the air. But they soon got drowned out by more yelling, so the headphones went back in.
Day 2: Finding a rhythm
9.8 mi. | 1765′ ele. gain | 5:20 hr.
Bright rays of sunshine brought me out of my quiet slumber. Ah, the sun! It was a beautiful sight to see after yesterday’s thick gray cloak. I had coffee and pop tarts and watched the clouds flitter across the sky. I got packed up to leave, and just about when I took my first steps, the group starting roaring awake. It was just in time.
The clouds eventually overtook the sun, which meant the air was cool and refreshing for hiking. I made my way up the trail to the base of Mt. Ruth’s northwest ridge. There, I switched to a tiny day pack and picked my way past granite boulders and twisted whitebark pine to the summit. The top of the mountain provided a comfy place to sit and enjoy the view for a bit. I munched on a bag of salty-sweet popcorn from Bend Popcorn Company; this was an excellent trail snack!
I returned to my pack, continued along the Elkhorn Crest trail to a very confusing trail junction, then found the path to Summit Lake. A mile of ups and downs led me to a picturesque lake surrounded in part by dramatic cliffs. I found a nice, well-established camp spot with trees for my hammock near the lake and settled in. I could hear a small family nearby but they mostly kept to themselves. This camp was a stark difference from the previous night. I didn’t mind having these folks as neighbors!
I read a bunch of my book and did a little painting at the lake. Dinner was a delicious dehydrated chili with crumbly cornbread topping. I do miss having access to a dehydrator, as I used to make all my backpacking meals from scratch. This one tasted pretty good, although it was expensive and it wreaked havoc on my digestive system later.
Briefly, I caught a glimpse of a mama and baby goat racing through my neighbor’s camp. But in a flash, they were gone. I was promised goats on this hike, and so far it was pretty disappointing for wildlife sightings.
Day 3: The longest, hottest day
14.8 mi | 2640′ ele. gain | 8 hr.
In preparation for this trip, I used various mapping apps to calculate my daily mileage and elevation gain. Although there are many write-ups on the internet for the Elkhorn Crest Trail, none of them did exactly what I was planning to do. Today’s estimated mileage was 9.5, with a summit of Rock Creek Butte towards the end of the day. Anything under ten feels pretty doable with an overnight pack for me, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about getting an early start or getting psyched for a big day.
However, my calculations were wildly wrong. I figured out after I was done with the hike where I had gone wrong with my math, but that didn’t matter in the moment. The weather was much sunnier, which made for prettier views but hotter hiking conditions. The heat sapped my energy and I stopped for multiple breaks in just the first few miles. At some point, I saw a large cairn just off the trail, and it was not indicated on my map as a junction or point of interest. I had to see what it was though.
A phone to God? I immediately remembered seeing pictures of this thing while researching trip reports. I would love to know the whole story.
I looked ahead on my map and chose a spot that I thought would make a reasonable lunch destination. I just needed to keep moving until then. As I rounded my final turn towards the spot, I saw a pair of eyes staring back at me. A cow. And her whole posse. I’m familiar with cows, as I frequently end up biking or hiking where they’re grazing. Generally they just get annoyed enough as you get close to them that they walk away. But this band of cows wanted to stand their ground. I managed to herd them away from my precious lunch stop for about 20 minutes, but then they were stubbornly piled on top of the trail headed my way. No amount of yelling, waving my poles around, walking towards them would get them to move. So I had to walk a big semi-circle off trail to get back on course on the other side.
Also not helping: foot pain and afternoon heat. I had no idea why my foot was hurting so badly, but nothing I did seemed to make it better. I did manage to figure out how to make it worse, though.
As I complained loudly about my ungrateful foot, I passed under peak after peak after peak. And at each one, I asked myself, “is this it?” The trail felt interminably long. How far have I gone, anyways? It had to be over nine miles at this point. And this is when I realized I’d messed up my planning. I sat with my map, using the distance calculating tool in CalTopo to help me re-orient for the remainder of the day’s route. I was so annoyed about this error. Had I known I was in for a nearly 15-mile day, I would have mentally prepared for that.
But, there was nothing to do but trudge ahead so that’s what I did. When I finally arrived at the base of Rock Creek Butte, I almost blew right by it, thinking it was just another blip on the ridge. I left my backpack under a large tree right above the trail and slowly hiked uphill. I was so tired that I used the step-counting method to help keep my pace. 1-2-3…15. Rest. 1-2-3…15. Rest. I repeated that on the steepest parts, then increased the number of steps to 20, 30, 40 as the grade mellowed out.
At last, I collapsed near a huge cairn at the top and paged through some of the thousands of entries in the summit register. Apparently, this is a very popular place! I felt lucky to have it all to myself at this moment.
But, my day wasn’t done. I had to keep walking to the junction with Twin Lakes trail and then hike the horribly long and flat switchbacks to the lake. These were the most insanely gradual switchbacks I’d ever seen, and the last thing I needed to end a frustrating day. As soon as I found a campsite that had a couple good hammock trees, I called it good. I immediately dunked my feet in the lake and started chilling a beer.
At dinnertime, I got my stove set up to boil water, then I received my first visitors.
Mountain goats. A dozen of them. They barged right into my camp, so I cautiously backed away to give them space. They were not at all frightened or impressed by me, so they kept pushing towards me. I backed up, they came forward. Over and over again. I knew there was one other party camped at the other end of the lake, so I decided to hustle over there and find safety in number as the goats were clearly not afraid of me. When I arrived, I met two kids who were standing around a campfire (don’t even get me started). We stayed together until the goats moved past the lake. I thanked them for letting me barge into their space and retreated to my camp.
The goats visited me again that evening, but I was comfortably bundled up in my hammock and was too tired to be bullied out. I yelled and waved at them and waited until they left to fully relax into my book. Then I reminded myself that I wanted to see goats…
Day 4: The long walk home
10.5 mi | 1410′ ele. gain | 5 hr.
I awoke early, with the sun, and slowly began preparations for breakfast. The goats wouldn’t have it, however. This time, twice as many animals appeared and completely overran my camp. I desperately tried to give them adequate space as I hurriedly shoved food in my face and packed up what I could. Being completely acclimated to people, they did not give me any space and practically ran over all my supplies. I aggressively shooed them away so I could load up my bag and get out of there. The whole encounter felt so ridiculous.
But the baby goats were so cute.
I put my head down and marched up the horrible switchbacks. At the saddle, I stashed my backpack and headed up towards my last summit: Elkhorn Peak. Although it is the namesake peak of the range, it’s not the highest (that’s Rock Creek Butte). However, I found this scramble entirely more interesting and fun than Rock Creek Butte. At the top, there was no summit register. But I did find an odd, makeshift beacon-looking thing. I just never know what I’m going to find at or along the way to all these highpoints. One of many reasons why I love chasing after them!
Back at my pack, I knew I only had a few more miles to hike before reaching the other end; the end of the trail, not of my hike. I still had many miles of road walking to do to get to a place where Aaron could pick me up in the van. Tales of the shittiness of this road have traveled far and wide.
I barreled though this last part as fast as I could, slightly annoyed that I couldn’t enjoy it. The Elkhorn Crest Trail, famously one of the best high routes in Oregon, according to hikers on the internet, and here I was just trying to get it over with. But I reminded myself that there is no “best” and “top ten lists” are meaningless.
A hike is an entire experience. It’s the trail, sure. But it’s also the weather, the conditions, the wildlife, the solitude, the companionship, the frame of mind, the physical state of your body, and so many other things. And just the idea that I was supposed to enjoy this trail more than other spectacular trails I’ve been on felt a bit silly. I’m very fortunate to have spent time in so many incredible spaces across the state of Oregon. As nice as this was, it wasn’t quite the standout that I expected. And perhaps the expectation set me up for feeling this way.
On the way to the trailhead, I encountered two groups of mountain bikers and two pairs of backpackers. These were essentially the only people I saw on trail in fours days. It was wild that they all came in a sudden blast. I knew a shuttle ran on Friday mornings, dropping people off at this end. I assumed that was the result.
I took a break at the trailhead, airing out my feet completely. Meanwhile, I sent Aaron a check in on my Garmin InReach to let him know my progress, then began the questionably long road walk past the bad sections of road. I estimated up to a 6-mile road walk, so I screwed my head on for that. Based on previous flubs, I checked my estimate multiple times before embarking on this last leg!
To my great surprise, a beautiful wildflower display greeted me along either side of the road. They were the best flowers I’d seen on the entire trip! What a treat. I had not looked forward to the drudgery of a road walk, but it was actually one of my favorite sections. What was that about expectations?
About 5 miles down the road, I stopped near a rushing creek. The road surface had been consistently good for at least a half a mile, so I felt confident that Aaron could drive the van there. I sent one final check in, dunked my feet in the ice cold water and laid down with a book. A couple hours later, my chariot arrived, loaded with fresh wood-fired pizza from Anthony Lakes!
In sum, I turned a 28-mile trail into a four day, 40-mile adventure with three highpoints, three lakeside camps and some mountain goat encounters I’ll never forget. The wildflowers didn’t wow me, but so many other things did. I am just glad to have these opportunities to spend multiple days alone on the trail as we travel full time in the van. And I can’t complain about a warm pizza upon pickup.
One of my must-see destinations for my cross-Oregon wildflower hunting trip was the Steens Mountain. Located in Southeast Oregon, the Steens is a unique fault-block mountain rising up from the expansive desert. It’s shaped like a wedge, gradually ascending from the west to a highpoint of nearly 10,000 feet. Then it drops abruptly in a series of craggy cliffs about 5,000 vertical feet to the Alvord desert. In most years, visitors can drive a loop road up from Frenchglen to the summit of the mountain and back, passing by multiple scenic viewpoints overlooking glacially carved canyons. And at the right time of year, you can marvel in an explosion of wildflowers, many of which grow nowhere else but there.
It was that time of year.
Unfortunately, a landslide and subsequent road work closed a portion of the loop road. We had to make a choice about which way to go. For me, it was a no-brainer; we drove the north side of the loop, which was open to the summit and several miles down the other side. That gave us the most opportunities for exploring, camping, hiking and hanging out.
Page Springs campground
Our trip began at the base of the mountain, elevation 4200″. We’d camped at Page Springs before, but only in the fall/winter. It’s a different experience in the summer. The heat of the late July sun was absolutely brutal. The only respite we had was the cold Blitzen River running along the edge of our campsite. At every chance we got, we plunged into the refreshing water.
I attempted to take a hike along the river trail that emerges from the campground, but I ran into two problems: voracious mosquitoes and a trail long abandoned by the BLM. It’s too bad, because it has the potential to be a lovely place to walk. I’d hiked it back in 2013 and I even described it as brushy back then. Despite the challenges, I made it about a mile up before turning around. On the way I found some pretty flowers and even saw teasel (invasive but whatever) in bloom for the first time.
One nice thing about Steens Mountain is that it is an experience right from the car. You don’t even have to go on any massive hikes to have an enjoyable experience. Of course, if you are able to and want to go hiking I strongly recommend it!
Aaron and I pulled off at every signboard and marked viewpoint along the north loop road. We learned about history, geography, weather and more as we putt-putted along the drive. It became refreshingly cool as we ascended the road. I had to put some layers on as temperatures dipped into the mid-fifties at time. It was a far cry from the 90-degree weather we had down below.
With each gain in elevation, we got to see new and different wildflowers. Aaron’s favorite is the elk thistle. This unusual plant grows up to 6 1/2 feet tall, has long leaves covered in spines and produces bright purple flowers. It is one of the more aggro plants I’ve seen in the world.
My favorite is quite the opposite. It’s a subspecies of cushion buckwheat that is made of a low-growing mat of leaves, from which long stems protrude. Each stem is topped by a pink pom-pom looking thing that is a cluster of tiny flowers. Many of the plants lie prostrate, like they are resting. Others stand tall and look like they were invented by Jim Henson (the Muppet guy). They are cute and precious and I just want to stop and touch every one.
We saw both of these flowers growing right by the road and at our feet at the highest elevation pullouts. Other high mountain finds included silky phacelia, balloon-pod milk vetch, orange sneezeweed and the tiniest little lupine.
At the tops of each U-shaped valley, we tried to imagine a time where they were filled completely with ice. Over time, glaciers carved the incredible landscapes we see today. It fascinating to learn the geologic history of such a special place.
Freedom to roam
In my opinion, the best way to experience the Steens is on a cross-country adventure. And with such a wide-open landscape, this is easy to do. I did a few hikes on my own while Aaron worked. I plotted routes that led down into the canyons, across vast meadows, along stunning creeks and up to the rocky ridges. Despite the elevation, the days still got pretty hot so I tried to stay near water whenever possible.
I was impressed both by the number of different types of wildflowers as well as the overall volume of flowers. In places, the ground looked as if it was painted yellow or purple or a collage of colors, simply due to the density and number of plants in bloom at once. Any creeks or wet patches were easily identified because of the deep green adjacent to whatever was flowering there. In the span of a couple minutes, I could walk from a boggy swamp to a dusty, dry desert. And back again!
It was on one of these excursions that I ran into my most unusual hiking find yet. Below the summit, on some random, rolling ridgeline lay what appeared to be a death mask. I didn’t have the heart to touch it or get too close but I took some photos and video of this object. People seem to think it was someone’s art project. I thought it was utterly creepy without any explanation next to it. Although I hike alone a ton, I’ve never felt as weirded out as I did at that moment. I hurried out of there to get back towards the road, which is when I discovered a little cliff. It took just a couple of rock climbing moves to get up over it, which made that find feel even more out of place. Whoever left that mask there really wanted to get to that spot.
What I wanted to see was bighorn, but no luck. That’s the thing with wandering around outdoors. You never can be quite sure what you’ll find.
Our friends Kevin and Casey joined us up in the Steens for the last few days of our visit. We took them to all the scenic pullouts as well as a couple of short hikes, including this one. If you’ve been up to the top of Steens Mountain, you’ve likely done this one too. It’s only 1.2 miles to walk to the lake, but it’s nearly 1000 vertical feet downhill. That’s a lot of climbing up to get back out to your car.
I was not going to waste the opportunity to get our packrafts in the lake, so I took my 60L pack and loaded both rafts, paddles, picnic supplies, art supplies as well as the usual ten essentials to make for a fun day. It was worth the effort. Once we found a nice spot on the lakeshore, we settled in for the afternoon. Aaron swam, Kevin read, Casey painted and I dreamed up a plan for rafting. A strong wind blew across the lake, which was not ideal for our flatwater boats. But I decided we’d hike to the opposite side of the lake, put in and let the wind blow us back to our beach. And that’s what we did. For an added bonus, the hanging meadows we saw from our put-in spot were astonishingly beautiful.
We had to stop many times on the hike up to catch our breath, which meant lots of time for wildflower watching! There were many varieties of paintbrush, buckwheat and penstemon. We also saw bog orchid, desert parsley, field chickweed, asters, thistle and a variety of GDYC‘s.
I visited the summit twice on this trip, once alone and once with Kevin. By far, the best native plant on this walk is the balloon-pod milkvetch. I’m usually not a big fan of the plants in the vetch family, but this one is a stand out. I’m not even sure what the flowers look like, but the seed pod it creates is so bizarre. Picture a hollow kidney bean that’s translucent yellow-green in color with mottled red spots. Now picture thousands of them covering the ground in clusters, dangling from vetchy leaves. When new, the pods are plump and squishy. When they dry out they become hard, detach from the plant and shatter as the wind blows them into surrounding rocks. This spreads the seeds and thus spreads the plant. What a weird, alien life form!
But this is not all there is to see on the Steens Mountain summit. Buckwheat grow in great profusion. Some form rather large mats with flowers embedded between the leaves, sprawling out like tentacles along the ground or spiking tall above the plant. Clumps of yellow composites, some with ray flowers and some without. In stark contrast, beautiful purple penstemon blooms nearby. All with the surreal backdrop of the vast Oregon desert.
Steens Mountain is one of Oregon’s treasures. Whether you visit for an hour, a day or a week; whether you hike, bike or drive; whether you know your wildflowers and geology or not, you will have a novel and beautiful experience there. Anyone who’s spent any time living in Oregon should make it a point to journey there. For tips on planning a trip, check out ONDA’s Steens Mountain region guide. Or, post your questions in the comments. I’ve visited several times in different seasons and I’ll likely go back and visit again!