Category Archives: Oregon

Dixie Butte

July 19, 2023

12 mi. | 2690′ ele. gain | 6 hr.

Dixie Butte lookout tower

Photo album

Dixie Butte is home to one of the few remaining active fire lookouts in the state of Oregon. It’s also known for its summer wildflower displays. Despite there being a road to the top, I decided to walk up the road and make it a day hike.

I left early in the morning, knowing it was going to be another hot day. I appreciated all the shade that the trees alongside the road provided. It didn’t take long to get most of the way up the road. There weren’t many wildflower distractions until I was about a mile and a half from the summit. Once I reached the blooming meadows, I could barely take a step without stopping to squat and take another photo. The flowers were gorgeous. Some of my old favorites colored the hillside along with new friends.

One particular flower caught my eye: the beautiful pink, trumpet-shaped blooms of slendertube skyrocket. I’d first spotted this wildflower last year in the Wallowas, at the end of a long day. I was delirious with dehydration and fatigue. Yet, it stopped me in my tracks. It was one of the prettiest, most delicate plant I’d seen in the alpine. I was delighted to see it again.

Slendertube skyrocket

As I got closer to the lookout tower, I heard a dog barking. Lovely, I thought. Being allergic to dogs, I’m used to people yelling “(s)he’s friendly!” My two least favorite words. Friendly dogs get all up in your business, licking you, rubbing their noses in inappropriate places and generally being a nuisance. So I dreaded the all-too-familiar conversation where I’d have to explain that I’m allergic and to get your damn dog away from me.

But before that, I had to walk a loop around the lookout. I wanted to spend more time with my flowers before getting into it with the dog owner.

As the road crested up to a high shoulder and then curved back towards the lookout, I passed through a blanket of subtly colored flowers. Alpine knotweed, green-flowering paintbrush, coiled lousewort. Most of what I could see was a field bursting with greenery.

Green flowers

I paused at a rock outcrop to enjoy the view and to look for wildflowers that preferred that exposed, rocky habitat. Here were lanceleaf stonecrop, bush penstemon and wild buckwheat. Plus long, blue ridges as far as the eye could see.

Eventually I had to approach the lookout. As I did, the dog charged towards me as predicted and I stopped short, pretending to look around and catch my breath. The person working as the lookout stepped outside and asked if I had enough water, to which I responded yes. She invited me closer and that’s when I told her about the dog. She immediately called her dog in, which I appreciated, and we had a nice long chat.

On the way down, I made a lollipop loop by walking along the adjacent ridge top. I wanted to do some painting while also giving the lookout some privacy. So, I found an equally awesome rock outcrop bursting with wildflowers and sat there for an hour.

The ridge naturally drew me back downhill to the road, but not before leading me through gorgeous meadows dotted with white mariposa lily, sage and abundant colorful wildflowers. The sun had really kicked in by this point and I was grateful that it was all downhill from there.

White mariposa lily

Although the return hike took me back the exact same road I hiked up, I saw so many flowers that I didn’t notice in the morning. My eyes had been primed for the native wildflowers of this area, and now they were seemingly everywhere. Their accompanying pollinators, notably butterflies, also dominated the previously hum-drum landscape. It was a joyous romp downhill.

Since the sun was basically overhead, I lost my long stretches of shade and took any opportunity to stop and rest in a shade patch I could. By the time I got back to the van, I was nearly out of water. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon resting in my hammock in a cluster of trees.

Diamond Lake bike trail

July 9, 2023.

11.2 mi. | 550′ ele. gain |2.5 hr.

Photo album

On a warm, sunny summer day, Aaron and I took our bikes out on a lovely paved bike trail around Diamond Lake. While clicking and zooming around my favorite mapping app, I found the Dellenback Trail, which encircles Diamond Lake in the course of about 12 miles. This was perfect for a casual outing. Most of my memories of this area involve fighting crowds; this goes for winter and summer! It’s a popular destination for a number of reasons, and therefore it’s rarely on my shortlist for places to visit.

Since most folks head to Diamond Lake in the summer for pizza, ice cream and water sports, I thought maybe the trail would be a little less crazy. And I was right. We chose to start the loop at the South Shore picnic area and rode clockwise. This was strategic, since that would mean we’d finish our route at the ice cream shop!

We started pedaling as the day was heating up. Soon, we reached a wooden bridge crossing Silent Creek. We hopped off our bike to admire the pretty water and wildflowers. But in that short pause, the mosquitoes found us. Back on the bikes, we rode just fast enough to prevent them from biting.

The trail is generally fairly flat, but it does gain a few hundred feet over the loop. Therefore, we had to ride up and down some hills as we circumnavigated the lake. As we rode, we made sure to take many different kinds of breaks: wildflower, view, breath, and snack, to name a few. The purpose of the ride was to spend Sunday afternoon together, not to break any speed records. So we traveled at the pace of Sunday. At the north side of the lake we pulled out our picnic lunch and relaxed in the shade of a large Ponderosa pine. From there, we watched the numerous folks on watercraft traverse the lake.

The east side of the lake was a little less scenic since much of the trail crossed through one of the biggest campgrounds I’ve ever seen. It was packed with RV’s, trailers and massive tents. Enormous trash cans overflowed with garbage. As in, people walked up to a full garbage can and decided to pile their trash on the ground next to it instead of find another can or bring it home. I could not believe that even those huge containers were not enough for the amount of trash produced by campers. What do people bring camping?! We fill a couple tiny bags each week. It was disturbing.

But I knew we had ice cream ahead, so I put my head down and kept pedaling. We couldn’t have arrived soon enough. We were both feeling pretty hot by the time we rolled up at the ice cream window at South Shore Pizza. Aaron found us a shady picnic table while I ordered us a couple of cones. It was cold, refreshing and delicious. We were among only a handful of people there. After that, it was only another half mile or so to the parking area.

All in all, we saw maybe a dozen people riding all day. The route was well-marked, well-graded and accessible to beginner riders. With plenty of options for starting and ending, as well as services on the south and east sides of the lake, I can recommend this bike ride for just about anyone. You can even rent bikes at the lake if you’re traveling without bikes. Glad we made this stop during our travels.

Pilot Rock and Porcupine Mountain

July 7, 2023.

8.5 mi. | 1965′ ele. gain | 5.5 hr.

View of Pilot Rock

Photo album

Since we were getting ready to head north, I prioritized one more highpoint before we left Southern Oregon: Pilot Rock. Based on my research, it would either be a death-defying scramble or a yawner of an after-work hike. My guess was it was something in the middle, but I took the warnings seriously and hoped it was easier than it looked. I wore my approach shoes with sticky climbing soles and planned to assess the route as I went, ready to turn back if I didn’t like the idea of soloing up the rock.

Pilot Rock

In an effort to beat the heat, I got an early start. It took no time at all to hike the mile of trail to the Pilot Rock junction. From there, I hiked up a series of steep switchbacks to the base of the rock itself. The route was completely in shadow, which helped my body temperature but upped the intimidation factor. It was steep and dark and there was no one else around. I left my poles at the base of the route and started up.

What you can’t see might hurt you.

Decades of rock climbing experience has made me more hesitant to climb without a rope, even on a “scramble” route. Having spent a lot of time in high consequence terrain has made me very conservative in my decision-making, especially when I’m alone. So, I took each section of the climb seriously, choosing the most solid line and anticipating challenges I’d have on the way down (turns out, you’ve got to go both ways!). I had to pause after each vertical section to let my heart rate slow down and feel good about making the next decision. There were two short, steep sections that required a chimney move or two to get up, followed by what I’d consider more normal steep scramble parts. The rock quality was generally good, which made me feel secure in my footing and decision-making. However I would never take any of my non-climber friends on this route, nor would I recommend it to them.

Before too long, I stood at the summit. I was in no rush to get back down, so I poked around the summit area looking at wildflowers and trying to identify the mountains off in the haze. I also studied the map for the next section of my planned hike to Porcupine Mountain.

Summit!

I dreaded the downclimb. I’ve never liked unprotected downclimbing. I would have felt much better with just another person there, to say things like: there’s a good foot two inches to the left or, you’ve got this! But no one had come up since and I felt incredibly alone.

So, I gave myself a pep talk and slowly made my way down. At the top of the first tough spot, I miraculously found an easier slab to climb down right next to it. When I turned around to look at what I’d just accomplished, I realized that I hadn’t gotten to one of the hard parts yet. Dammit! Still two challenging sections to go.

When I actually got to the two spots I struggled with on the way up, I sat down and took a few deep breaths before analyzing the route and making a plan. I had to do some weird sideways chimneying and take some mega big steps, but I made it through unscathed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I reached my poles because I knew I just had hiking ahead of me from there.

Porcupine Mountain

It was already getting hot, and I wasn’t sure if Porcupine Mountain would even be worth the effort. I started walking in that general direction just in case, but in the back of my mind I was willing to turn back and do some painting instead of a bunch more hiking.

As I walked along the PCT, it took me around to the backside of Pilot Rock and then dove into a shady forest. Oh, how I much appreciated the shade. And then the wildflower show turned up to 11: paintbrush, coyote mint, columbine. But what’s that? A phantom orchid? I took a bunch of photos of the first solitary plant I found, then proceeded to hike among hundreds of these beautiful and unique flowers. Just like me, they love a shady forest. Suddenly I felt like I was surrounded by friends.

Phantom orchid.

In order to get up to Porcupine Mountain, I bushwhacked off trail to find an overgrown old road leading to the peak’s south ridge. There I picked up another road/trail that rambled over a few bumps to the summit. Along the way, I hiked through a desert landscape decorated with hardy buckwheat plants, owl’s clover and mountain mahogany (one of my favorites). The actual summit here was unclear, so as usual I walked around until I felt like I hit all the possible highpoints before picking a shade tree to relax under for lunch. I had good cell service there, so I shot out a bunch of messages to friends and stretched out my shade break as long as I could.

Plein air painting

If an opportunity exists to create a loop, I’ll take it. While on my break, I noticed a trail on the map leading east from my road junction that connected to the PCT. It would add nearly a mile to my hike but it was on trail and it was over gentle terrain, so I went that way. On my hike back I crossed paths with 5 or 6 people hiking the PCT. They were all headed north, all walking singly, all wearing roughly the same uniform. Sun shirt, sun hat or ball cap, light hiking pants, sunglasses, beard. Some had poles, some didn’t. One guy had a Hawaiian shirt instead of a sun shirt. None of them stopped for the flowers.

Thru-hiking has never appealed to me. To each their own. On my hike back, I stopped at a killer viewpoint of Pilot Rock, where I picked a small patch of shade to sit and take out my painting supplies. My new little watercolor pad, it turns out, has poor quality paper in it, but I did my best to capture the scene. If anything, the mere act of stopping to paint is valuable in and of itself. The actual finished painting, to me, is the least important part. The process of painting in plein air requires attentiveness and curiosity. As I’ve said in many previous posts, just being still is enough to see more, feel more, hear more and notice more. Painting is sometimes just an excuse to take an extended break. Walking constantly has its benefits as well, but I’m finding that striking a balance between motion and stillness is providing me with an experience that just one or the other cannot provide.

Watercolor!

The rest of the hike breezed by. Later that afternoon, we headed into Ashland for First Friday art walk, dinner and a stay/soak at Jackson Wellsprings. That’s a story for another time.

Mt. Ashland to Wagner Butte

July 5, 2023.

15.2 mi | 4012′ ele. gain | 8 hr.

Pointing to Mt. Ashland

Photo album

I wanted to do a big hike along the Siskiyou Crest while we were in the area. It appeared that I could hike from the Mt. Ashland parking lot up the east side of Mt. Ashland, down the west side, follow NF-20 to the Split Rock trail all the way to Wagner Butte and back. I didn’t calculate the miles because I knew it would be longer than I wanted it to be, but that I’d go anyway. So, on this warm July morning I gave it a go.

Mt. Ashland

The trail up Mt. Ashland gets right to the point. It is short and steep and breathtaking (in the literal and figurative sense). I took many breaks to look for wildflowers and observe the absurdity of being on a ski hill off season. All the lifts and machinery and such. At the top, I found a building in the shape of a giant soccer ball and a bunch of other structures. I found the summit marker, took a short break and then began down the road on the other side.

While I saw a ton of wildflowers on the hike up, I didn’t find much that was new or unusual. After reading so much online on the special flora that exists on Mt. Ashland, I was a little disappointed. But I would make a complete change of attitude on my road walk off the mountain. Almost immediately, I noticed something only familiar from the images I studied online the night before: Henderson’s horkelia! I audibly squealed, then dropped into my wildflower squat and took a bunch of photos. I touched its fuzzy leaves and searched for a “good” looking flower. They all seemed a little roughed up or withered. I wasn’t sure if that was just their look or if they were going out of season.

The rest of the road down was a cornucopia of flowers, shrubs, rocks and birds. Something to look at around every corner. While I generally try and avoid road walks, this one was rather pleasant.

Split Rock Trail

From the base of the Mt. Ashland service road, I needed to make my way to the Split Rock Trail. This required a bit more road walking, although I short-cutted one big switchback by tromping straight up a hill in the forest. Near the trailhead, I encountered my first snow patch of the day and made a mental note for later. It wasn’t hot yet, but I knew it was coming.

I loved hiking the Split Rock Trail. It traversed on or adjacent to a beautiful ridgeline, with the occasional steep up or down segment. I walked through meadows, rocky outcrops, shady forests and sagebrush desert. As the environment changed, so did the flora. Wildflowers were profuse and diverse along the trail. And the butterflies! So many butterflies flitted and swirled around me, hardly stopping for a second before heading to their next destination.

View from Split Rock trail

Along the way, I took short detours to the summits of McDonald Peak and Split Rock. The last item on my agenda was Wagner Butte. On my map, a trail went to “Wagner Butte Lookout” but not the butte itself. I decided I’d hit both of those. At the time I had no idea that the lookout was anything more than a nice viewpoint. But I figured if a trail went there, then it must be worth checking out.

Wagner Butte and Lookout

Weighing my options, I decided to cruise the trail to the lookout first, then walk the ridge back to the true summit and then return to the trail. By this point, it had gotten very hot and I appreciated every moment I got to spend in the shade.

Near the end of the trail, I found myself scrambling up huge granite boulders towards what appeared to be a handrail. At the top, it all made sense. It’s an old lookout site! A very faded sign shared the site’s history, and what a fabulous viewpoint it was. An old ammo canister contained a sign-in book, and it was filled with names from people visiting just this year. I’m glad I didn’t go on a weekend! I was the only one on top at that moment. With not a shade tree in sight, the direct sun completely zapped my energy. I sat down for a few minutes, but quickly got back up. I still had to bushwhack to the summit and hike many miles back to the van. At this point, I was 10 miles into my dayhike.

Lots of stonecrop. Stonecrop loves sunny outcrops.

On the map, it looked straightforward. How many times have I made that mistake…

I walked back down the trail to a point where I could easily gain a saddle on the north ridge of Wagner Butte. Then, I pushed through forest debris. First it was chinkapin, then snowbrush, then manzanita. The trifecta. Plus, there were tons of downed trees, piles of huge boulders and tangles of thick vegetation. When I finally made it to the summit area, there were three major pinnacles, of which any one could be the true summit. In order to make sure I got the right one, I made my way to the top of each one, then retreated to the pile that offered the best lunch rest stop. I was really hungry and very hot by this time.

I sat down and ate my lunch in a state of delirium. Out of nowhere, a bright green caterpillar appeared on my leg. Or was it a delusion? Nope, I’ve got video to prove it.

The return

Re-fueled and ready to get out of the sun, I began thrashing through shrubs again to get back to the trail. At least it’s easier to push through manzanita on the way down than it is on the way up.

Back on trail, I moved at a comfortable pace and made sure to pause at every shade stop after a sunny stretch. My body felt so hot. I sipped on my water regularly and calculated how long it would take me to get back to the snow patch. Back on Wagner Lookout, I’d messaged Aaron a pickup location that would save me a few miles of hot, exposed road walk to get back to the van. So, I also had that to look forward to.

All my shade stops turned into flower and bug-watching stops, too. I sat in one meadow, mesmerized by the bees buzzing around a particularly stunning monument plant. It was better than any Netflix documentary I’d ever seen. A good reminder that stopping can be good for a number of reasons, but one is certainly that I see so much more cool stuff when I sit in place for a while.

Monument plant and bee

The highlight of the hike back was reaching the snow patch. I threw off my pack, turned around and laid down flat on the snow. How refreshing! I stuffed my pants pockets full of snow, put a snowball under my hat and filled my water bladder with snow: I had plans for that later. With fresh energy, I finished my hike back to the van.

Cool down

Aaron had the AC running in the van, which felt so luxurious. I stripped off my sweaty clothes, filled a mug with snow and poured cold tea over the top. Iced tea in the AC! It was a fabulous way to finish off a hot summer hike.

Compared to the dozens of people I’d seen on the PCT section we hiked the day before, this place was completely deserted. I saw one person near the Wagner Butte Lookout and one person near the Split Rock trailhead as I was finishing up. For the rest of the day I got to hike in quiet solitude. Those big-name trails attract people like bugs to a nightlight, but the less well-known trails are no less worthy of a visit. If you like to hike alone, skip the things you’ve heard of and venture onto a neighboring trail. You’ll get all the wildflowers and views and natural beauty without the crowds and noise.

Mt. Melissa

June 26, 2023.

14.4 mi. | 3850′ ele. gain | 7 hrs.

Mt Melissa scramble
Wilderness sign.

Photo album

We made it all the way out to the Wallowas and I just wanted to get into the high country. My research took us to the McCully Basin trailhead, just outside of Joseph, that did have a trail running deep into a lakes basin. From there, I thought, I could scramble up to a saddle and do some ridge walking to a summit.

While perusing my map, I noticed a north-south ridge adjacent to the McCully Basin trail with a high point at its northern end. On some maps, it’s called East McCully Basin peak, on others it’s just noted with its elevation (9,128′). But the locals apparently call it Mt. Melissa, and once I found a write up on Summitpost describing some variants on accessing this peak, I knew I found my objective. I read “easy access” and “6 miles one way” and thought yeah, I can do that.

In order to make a quick and early get out the following morning, I packed up all my gear the night before Food, layers, poles, ice ax, microspikes, water, first aid, Garmin, etc. I had a plan.

McCully Basin Trail

I charged up the McCully Basin trail as fast as I could, hoping to give myself plenty of time to navigate the potentially more difficult terrain in the upper basin and get back down before the possible afternoon thunderstorms arrived. The miles evaporated quickly; I stopped to catch my breath. As I hiked, I ran through my plan and my gear list. “Microspikes…” I knew there would be snow and potentially lots of it, based on a report I got from a couple of trail runners the night before. “Where did I pack my microspikes?” A flash of heat radiated from my chest.

Western meadow-rue

I threw off my pack and emptied it out. Damn. They’re not there. Although I had taken them out the night before, I reasoned they must be camouflaged in their black bag on the black seat in the van. I missed taking them from my gear pile and putting them in my pack. My heart sank. I was so excited to get up there today, but I failed in my prep tasks. I didn’t have time to turn back, so I pressed on.

As I walked, my mind spiraled through all the possibilities of today. Where might I encounter obstacles? What decisions will I have to make? How can I salvage this trip? What’s the best and worst case scenarios? This scenario: I’m outside, I’m walking, I’m in the mountains, life is good.

The snow begins

“You can follow our tracks,” said the ladies I met in the parking lot last night. Except they didn’t do exactly the route I was planning, and I’ve learned from experience not to try and follow other people’s tracks. Instead, I’d use them when they were convenient and rely on my maps and intuition otherwise. I focused on getting to the basin, as long as the snow wasn’t rock hard.

McCully Basin

Luckily for me, the snow was just soft enough to get sufficient traction with my hiking boots but not so soft that I was slipping and post-holing on every snow patch. The isolated patches turned to continuous, rolling snow fields. I made my way across the creek and up into the basin proper. From that point, the trail became more difficult to follow and it often wasn’t the best route due to snow conditions. I picked a line that took me up the good snow and avoided the worst of it. I was shocked to find an abundance of alpine wildflowers in bloom, including lupine, wallflower and phlox. What a treat!

Near the saddle, I approached one final snowfield that looked pretty intimidating. It had one steep face but then appeared to mellow out on top. I took my time and carefully poked my way across it. With that behind me, I was confident that I could make it to the saddle.

The wind whipped across my face, carrying with it a light, soaking drizzle. The temperatures were mild, so the weather felt more like ambiance than an assault. At the Wing Ridge saddle, I paused to enjoy the dramatic view on the other side. Snow-capped mountaintops peeked through ethereal clouds. The raspy, rattling calls of Clark’s nutcrackers filled the air. They were hustling to store pine nuts for the coming winter. Meanwhile, summer had just begun.

Wing Ridge to Mt. Melissa

Here I had a decision to make: call it a day here or continue towards Mt. Melissa? By now, the clouds had nearly completely enveloped me. I looked up towards the summit of Wing Ridge, a possible intermediate stop or turnaround point. I thought at least if I could get one summit I’d be happy, and it was right there.

Heading to Wing Ridge Summit

I began searching for a route up the loose, wet rock up to the top. My visibility was poor, so I moved slowly and took the path of least resistance. I stayed mostly to the north side of the ridge, avoiding any tantalizing but unnecessary rock outcrops. Soon, I made it to the summit, where I found a rockpile encircling what looked like a very eroded statue of Mary. Odd.

By this time, the clouds had gotten so thick that I could no longer see the ridge leading to Mt. Melissa. I had to pull out my compass to figure out which way to go. I knew that steep, rocky cliffs ran down from the edges of the ridge, so again I moved slowly to keep myself on the tamest terrain. My backup plan was to bail down into the basin at one of the less steep sections of hillside. With that in mind, I kept moving forward.

The first part of the ridge walk was the steepest and trickiest, made even more challenging in low visibility. I played the familiar Wallowas scrambles game show: “Which Side of the Ridge is LESS Bad? Neither option was great, but one side generated less fear than the other, so I opted for that. I frequently swapped sides based on rock quality, snow, exposure, etc. Despite the weather and obstacles, I was still having fun and I was well-within my time window. Once I got through the steepest part of the ridge, the rest of it was a joyful romp. Wildflowers in profusion. Rolling terrain. Dramatic clouds. Mountain goat tracks. What a place.

Ridge to Mt. Melissa
Phlox streaks across the alpine ridge

At the summit, I looked everywhere for the elusive summit canister. Nothing. I sat down to eat my ramen and made a game plan for the return hike. Last night, I planned on a 12-mile day: 5 miles to the saddle, 1 mile to Melissa, return the way I came. But it was 6.5 miles to the saddle and just over a mile to the last summit. Sure, I could reverse my route and do a 15 mile day, but I could do better.

Gets windy up here!

Back to the parking lot

On the way up, I scouted possible return routes that involved dropping down into the basin without going back up (or around) Wing Ridge summit. I’m sure glad I did, because the thick clouds obliterated any views I had once I reached the saddle. About half a mile back down the ridge, I saw my opportunity to descend. It was a “familiar kind of terrible”: loose volcanic scree. With almost 2 decades of scrambling in the Oregon Cascades under my best, this was not a deterrent. I lost elevation quickly, returning to the snowy forest and then the marshy basin.

Aforementioned marshy basin

Back on the trail, I breezed back down, making time for rest and wildflower breaks. I noticed so many more on the hike down than I did on the way up! When I get fixated on completing a task, I effectively block out most extraneous data. I very much enjoyed seeing the extras on the return trip.

Unsurprisingly, I saw no other people out on this day. And despite a number of reasons why this trip could have gone sideways, I was able to carry it out to plan! That’s never a guarantee in the mountains, and I was prepared to turn back several times. I had to talk myself into continuing at each decision point, and I’m so glad I did.

When I returned to the van, I collapsed on the bed. Can tomorrow be a rest day?

Zumwalt Prairie

June 25, 2023.

Wide open spaces.

Photo album

Zumwalt Prairie had been on my to-visit list since watching an Oregon Field Guide episode about it many years ago. But, it’s a very long ways from anywhere and there aren’t any mountains on it. So, it fell pretty far down in my priorities. But this year’s project, to see as many different wildflowers across Oregon as possible, brought Zumwalt to my attention. The Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy, is designated a National Natural Landmark. It is known for its spectacular plant diversity, outstanding elk habitat and intactness as an ecosystem. We had seen several elk as we drove through several days earlier and were excited to spend more time on the ground to discover what else called this place home.

Horned Lark Trail

1.9 mi | 290′ ele. gain | 1:20 hr.

Old man’s whiskers. No, really.

HIking on the preserve is limited to official trails only, so we began our tour on the Horned Lark Trail. The cool morning air made for a pleasant walk. Dewdrops hanging on all the tall plants and grasses dripped down our legs as we walked. We wore shorts and sandals in anticipation of this!

Immediately, we were taken by all the birds we heard and saw. We pulled out our phones to use the “Sound ID” feature on Merlin. Western meadowlark. Savannah sparrow. Red-winged blackbird. Song sparrow. Wilson’s snipe. Just to name a few. The trail descended through dense grassland and mostly spent wildflowers to a pond teeming with life. Birds squawked, sang, chirped, chipped, called and warbled all around us. Waterfowl paddled around the water’s surface. Blackbirds balanced on the tops of reeds. Raptors soared overhead. And then, the insects. To me, insects represent a gaping black hole in my knowledge. I can distinguish a small handful of critters, but mostly when I get a good look at a bug I think, “wow, I’ve never seen THAT before?!”

We used the zoom feature on our phones like binoculars, trying to get closer views of all the things hurtling through the air. It was like a zoo but better; all of the animals were free.

I was neither surprised nor disappointed that most of the wildflower bloom was over. Instead, I was thrilled by the millions of funny looking seed heads filling the fields. Call them old man’s whiskers or prairie smoke, one of the funkiest little wildflowers dominated the landscape during our visit. Each individual tuft of fluffy seed hairs was a unique spectacle. I wanted to photograph each one. But alas! We had other places to go. As we hiked back out of the depression in the field, we noted some white mariposa lilies, yarrow and Mexican bedstraw.

Patti’s Trail

2.6 mi. | 160′ ele. gain | 1:15 hr

Aaron in the wild.

We continued up the road towards the main visitor information station, which also serves as the trailhead for Patti’s Trail. In the parking lot, Aaron opened up the hood to check the oil and noticed that a rodent family had built a nest in the engine. The industrious critters used not only the local grasses but also our van insulation. Hooray. Another mouse problem.

On that annoying note, we took off on another little walk. The beginning was underwhelming compared to the previous trail, but after climbing over the first fence, things got more interesting. First of all, in order to climb the fences, we used these built-in stepladders that made the job much easier. Once on the other side, we were greeted by colorful buckwheat flowers, purple asters and something we hadn’t seen yet. Clematis seed heads. These frizzy creatures resemble the prairie smoke we’d seen innumerable times before, but the strands of fuzz are a little longer, less dense and they tend to hang down from the stem. I had to stop and examine them for a while to be sure I’d found something new.

The temperature rose as we ambled along the trail. It eventually ran along a little creek and some riparian shrubbery. We poked at white-stem frasera, paintbrush, cinquefoil , lupine and stonecrop. Birds kept swooping and buzzing overhead. It was quiet and peaceful.

By the time we returned to the car, it was hot and we were hungry, so we decided to eat lunch at the van, then go into town for a lazy afternoon. If I were to visit the Zumwalt again, I’d go in late spring to catch more of the wildflower show. And I’d also want to visit in the dead of winter with cross country skis! One visit to a place is never enough.

Buckhorn Lookout to Eureka Point

June 23-24, 2023.

10.4 mi | 2225′ ele. gain | 6:45 hr.

Snake River views

Photo album

Far, far up in the northeast corner of Oregon lies an old, boarded up fire lookout called Buckhorn Lookout. It’s only about an hour’s drive from Joseph, but the little mountain town of Joseph is many miles away from most places. Based on the write up in Matt Reeder’s Extraordinary Oregon, I decided to put this on the list of places to visit while wildflower touring around Oregon.

We arrived just before sunset and took in the incredible light show in the sky from the lookout viewpoint. The van looked particularly majestic in this colorful skyscape. The lookout itself is perched atop a remarkable canyon rivaling the Grand Canyon. But here we were, in Oregon, enjoying a quiet and peaceful vista worthy enough to be in a National Park.

Eureka Point hike

In the morning, I pointed my GPS towards Eureka Point. I began my walk from Eureka Lookout, following rough dirt roads, to the official trailhead for this hike. I think this is actually the better place to begin the hike, especially during wildflower season. I walked past so many vibrant patches of flowers, including buckwheat, mule’s ears, larkspur and geranium. It was a very scenic road walk that was about to get even more scenic.

Hills of various wildflowers

The route follows an old road, so the tread is wide and generally pretty gradual as it descends into the Imnaha Canyon. Bees and butterflies buzzed and flitted among the plethora of perky blooms. A cool breeze blew up from the canyon below; I knew it wouldn’t last, so I enjoyed it while I could. Along the road, I passed through shady clumps of trees, wide open meadows, rock gardens. It became notably drier and dustier the further I went. It amazes me how hiking a trail with significant elevation gain is like time travel; what’s in peak bloom at the top is long gone at the bottom, and vice versa. I traveled through spring to early summer to late summer all in the course of a few hours.

The last third of the hike was extremely hot, brown and desperate looking. I debated whether it was worth going to the end point noted in the book or whether my time would be better spent prancing through the wildflower meadows back towards the lookout. But I was so close, and I thrive on hitting known targets, so I carried on.

Despite the book describing an actual route to this slightly-off-trail viewpoint, I made my own way out there (mostly because I’d forgotten this narrative existed). I climbed over a barbed wire fence, poked around at a few overlooks, then almost get poked back: prickly pear cactus! It was of course, too late to see them in flower, but I was still excited to find a new-to-me patch of cactus in Oregon!

Prickly pear cactus

It was very windy up there. I found the most reasonable spot to sit, eat lunch and paint. I couldn’t imagine ever being back in that area again, so I really wanted to savor my time there. Painting has given me a good reason to sit and enjoy a space. To really see a space. And to notice just how much I don’t see when I’m in motion. I still can’t believe how much time I’ve wasted trying to move as quickly as I could through a landscape. And just how much I’ve missed.

On my way back, I stumbled into the route Matt described, which was a totally normal and reasonable way to go. Of course. The walk back was hot, hot, hot. The sun’s position in the sky meant far fewer opportunities for shade, so I stopped at every chance I got. One really nice shady spot was already occupied by a really angry robin, who screeched at me incessantly until I got up and moved. I hoped that I’d brought enough water (I did).

Just another meadow.

On the way back, I watched the clouds drift across the sky. I noticed the palette of colors sprayed across each hillside. I marveled at the history carved into distant canyon walls. The landscape had so many stories to tell, if only one took the time to stop and listen.

We’d spend another couple nights at the viewpoint, since it was such a special place. Worth a visit for anyone who calls Oregon home for a day, a year, a lifetime.

Lower Deschutes River Trail bike ride

June 21, 2023.

26.5 mi. | 800′ ele. gain | 4.5 hr.

lower deschutes river trail bike ride
Deschutes River

Photo album

It had been many years since I’d last visited the Deschutes River State Recreation Area, and all I had were bad memories. All I could envision was a packed campground with over-watered fields of grass that were actually more goose poop than grass. And the trains, rumbling through at all hours of the night. We had stopped there to tent camp for a night on our way from one interesting place to another and it was the only option I could find at the time.

I was long overdue for a second try with this park.

We camped elsewhere for the night and rolled up in the early morning. We left the van in the free, day-use parking area and I got my bike ready for a ride before the temperatures got too hot. The Deschutes River trail follows an old railroad grade on the east side of the river for dozens of miles, although the first 13 miles is what’s recommended by the parks department. That seemed to be a reasonable goal for the day.

Indian blanket flower
Indian blanket flower

The trail climbs up above the campground right away, then levels out for most of the remainder of the ride. I breezed past fields of dry, golden grasses and clumps of green trees. A few wildflowers remained: Indian blanket flower, thistles, asters. The late bloomers.

All along this stretch of river, there are pit toilets and designated camping areas for hikers and bikers. I was grateful for a backcountry pit toilet, although they were all downhill rides from the trail. The miles ticked away as I followed the gently curving banks of the mighty Deschutes. In places, the water formed a wide, blue ribbon across the dusty landscape. In others, it was pinched through ancient lava flows, which created little riffles and pools.

Wildlife kept me company the whole way. Deer burst out from below the tops of the tall grasses, running gracefully across the hillsides. Birds flitted and fluttered about. At one point, a small, coyote-like animal ran down the road right in front of me. It was just far away enough so that I couldn’t get a great view. I followed it for at least a half a mile. But the instant I looked away, when I looked back, it was gone.

lower deschutes river trail bike ride

For a novice mountain biker like me, this was the perfect kind of ride. Easy, mostly flat, plenty of room. At about the old Harris Homestead area (the buildings destroyed by wildfire in 2019), I was greeted by two large raptors in a nest high up in a tree. This is roughly where the roadbed surface became more loose and difficult to ride through.

Shortly after, a large downed tree blocked the road entirely. Not wanting to let a tree deter me from seeing more of the trail, I got off my bike and picked my way over the mangled branches, carrying my ride up and over. On the other side, the road surface continued to deteriorate and I kind of wished I would have turned back at the tree. But now committed to the journey, I pushed on a little further than maybe I should have before stopping to eat a snack.

two raptors in a nest
Nesting

There was not a shred of shade to be found. I had been hopeful that “well maybe around that next corner” I would find some. No dice. I hopped back on my bike, climbed back over the tree and cruised back down the road as quickly as I could. There was one spot on the way back where the road passed just below a cliff. The cliff provided some much appreciated shade and I took my time completing that section. I took one more long break to paint, then bombed back to the van.

If I were to do this trip again, I’d cut off the last 3 or so miles. The riding gets more difficult, the views aren’t any better, plus at this point you have to negotiate that fallen tree (although I’m sure that will be taken care of quickly). My butt hates being on a bike seat for that long, so a shorter trip would mean a happier tush. I’ll save the long mileage days for when I’m wearing my hiking shoes.

Grouse Mountain

June 16, 2023.

5.6 mi. | 1450′ ele. gain |4 hrs.

Grouse Mountain

Photo album

Aaron and I drove out to one of the best dispersed campsites we’d yet found on this trip, just spitting distance from the Zig Zag Springs trailhead. We arrived in the evening, just in time to make dinner and watch the sunset. Perched high above the Umatilla River, we watched the colors of the hillside soften and shift, mirroring the color changes in the dusky sky. It was a beautiful backdrop for another quiet night of camping.

Home for the night.

The next morning, I got up to do a “summit” hike from our campsite: Grouse Mountain. I am happy to chase after anything labeled a highpoint on my map. Highpoint, to me, is a pretty loose term. It’s just an excuse to get out and explore. Having a destination is helps me narrow down the thirty bazillion ideas I have, and incorporating a specific point to reach appeases my goal-oriented brain. I found it especially comical that the elevation of the trailhead was higher than my intended highpoint!

The trail begins in a lovely, shaded forest with a smattering of wildflowers. Bright yellow lupine formed a welcoming committee near the start of the trail, and otherwise there was a variety of little white forest flowers.

Hello, lupine

But the shade didn’t last. Soon, the trail entered a blazing hot and dry desert hillside. Despite the lack of water and cover, a surprising amount of lush vegetation lined the trail. I enjoyed rambling amidst hundreds of buckwheat, prairie smoke, paintbrush, cat’s ear, penstemon and even a few balsamroot hangers-on. The profusion of wildflowers slowed down my progress; as the day wore on and the temperature rose, I knew I was going to have a very hot walk back. But it was worth the extra time and sweat to enjoy the blooms while they lasted.

The trail peters out at the end of a high plateau overlooking the winding river. I sat there to paint among the flowers, with the benefit of a hilltop breeze. The scene was majestic and yet familiar. I’ve spent countless hours hiking and camping in these grand landscapes. I’d yet to feel successful in capturing an accurate portrayal of them on the page. With each painting, I get a little closer.

Painting the canyon

After a nice snack, I turned back to find the actual summit of Grouse Mountain. It was tucked away into a thick, twisted thicket of shrubs and scrappy trees. I poked around trying to find the best way in, then decided it would be more efficient to just dive in. There was no best way.

I knew I was at the top when I looked at my GPS and saw that I was standing on the triangle icon; there was no other way to know. Content that I’d gotten my prize for the day, I headed straight back to the trail for the return walk. Soon after I ran into my first people of the day, a group of three smiling hikers headed for that end of trail viewpoint.

So much buckwheat!

I couldn’t help stopping for more photos (read: more squats) on the walk back. Even on an out-and-back hike, that change of perspective tends to reveal things I hadn’t noticed on the hike in. Sure, Grouse Mountain wasn’t a tall mountain or a prominent mountain. It gets no Internet cool points and most people living nearby probably don’t even know it’s there. But to me, Grouse Mountain sits high on a long list of places that I would never have visited until I just happened to notice it on a map. I wonder where the map and my curiosity will take me next.

Phillips Lake circumnavigation by bike

June 12, 2023.

16.7 mi. | 650′ ele. gain | 3 hr

Phillips Lake mountain bike ride

Photo album

From our basecamp at the beautiful Southwest Shore Campground on Phillips Lake, I planned a ride that would connect the trails on the south side and the north side. It looked like just a couple short roads would let me make a full loop. And you know, I love a good loop…

South shore

The morning air was cool and clear, but I knew thunderstorms were on the way. I got an early start by riding towards the trailhead on the east end of the campground road. I immediately got disoriented. An obvious, but overgrown, road led right down into the lake. That wasn’t right. I poked around at the edge of the marshy grass. I looked at the map on my phone, which showed me as being in the lake. That wasn’t right either. Back in the parking area, I looked around for signage and sure enough, I had to wiggle through a narrow gap in the fence and take a sharp switchback to get onto a barely discernable single-track trail. Here we go.

Once on the trail, I was in heaven. The tread was narrow, lined closely by tall, wet marsh grass. My legs dripped with the morning dew. Wooden boardwalks crossed the wettest areas as the trail snaked along the undulating edges of the water. I felt like I was tracing the outline of an amoeba.

There were a few gentle ups and downs, but they weren’t too bad. I stopped several times to look at the wildflowers and the ever-changing view of the lake.

The South Shoreline Trail terminates at the Mason Dam. This dam is the whole reason this lake exists; it blocks the flow of the Powder River so that the water can be managed for irrigation as well as flood control. It is quite an impressive structure. As I munched on a snack, I tilted my head up towards the highway above me. Oh no, I thought, that’s my connection to the other trail. It was time to get ready for a hill climb.

I rode across the dam, up a gravel road to the main highway, then turned left to ride on the highway. Thankfully, only one vehicle passed during this time and the driver moved well out of the way to give me some room. Since there was no shoulder, I much appreciated this kindness.

North shore

From the road, I dropped down a steep, paved hill towards a boat launch. There, I picked up the North Shoreline Trail. This side was drier, with a bumpy paved section through a massive campground. And all my mountain views were gone. But, I enjoyed seeing some new wildflowers and getting to look back at where I just was. The sun felt hotter now, and there was less shade to boot. I took a few more rest breaks.

At the west end of the lake, things suddenly got more interesting. Suddenly there were birds. Lots of birds. I had made some recordings of sandhill cranes from camp the previous night, so I knew they had to be in here somewhere. I stopped riding and walked slowly, intentionally, along the edge of the water. And there they were, a pair!

One of the sandhill cranes

Since the initial confusion at the very start of the ride, the entire trail was easy to navigate. But here, the trail dropped down to what looked like an old road, then entered a maze of wetlands. Again, I looked at my map and I appeared to be underwater.

The only directional signs I could find were located in places where it was quite clear where the route went, of course. At one point, I got off my bike and walked in each cardinal direction to assess my options. I was on the edge of what the map labeled “Powder River Tailings.” These are piles of rocks left behind by old gold dredging operations that took place on the Powder River. From my perspective, I was trapped in a web of loose rubble, lake water and thick riparian shrubbery with nowhere to go than back the way I came.

When I feel this way, I give myself a few minutes of rest. Obviously I wasn’t stuck. There was a way out, I just couldn’t see it yet. Maybe the water was a little higher than normal, as it seemed to have been for this entire trip so far. My route was hiding at the moment, and it was my job to seek it out. I looked at the map, then I looked all around. I eliminated the ways that were absolutely not possible, then I began to get more clear about what could be possible. Exasperated, I took my shoes off and was prepared to wade through however much water I needed to find my way. And then, there it was.

Phillips Lake Mountain Bike Ride
Now, it seems so obvious!

Two lines of rock on either side of a TRAIL! I picked up my bike and walked through the shin-deep water to a dry patch on the other side. The trail continued to reveal itself ahead of me, with breaks in the vegetation and rocks piled in cairns on top of the tailings. What an adventure this had become!

I made my way through the final gauntlet, popped back out on to a road and followed that to the turnoff for our campsite. I was almost finished. One final stretch of trail took me back to the van and I completed the circumnavigation of the lake.

This ride took me three hours, although I’m sure if you’re a more competent biker who doesn’t stop to look at every wildflower, you could do it faster. And if you really like to take it easy and enjoy your time, you could spend all day out here. If you’ve only got time to do one section, I recommend the South Shoreline. I found it more scenic, with more interesting variety of terrain and plenty of shade. Although, you’ll miss the wetlands, which were quite magical.