August 8-11, 2023.
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.