We have really come to enjoy spending time at wildlife refuges and have been looking for more to visit. I’d noticed Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge on maps when looking at the Mt. Adams area so I dug a little deeper to find that there is a trail there, the Willard Springs Trail. The refuge webpage describes the Willard Springs Trail as a “two-mile loop” then lists the trail length as 3.79 miles. The Oregonhikers.org field guide entry shows 2.3 miles as the hike length. No matter which length was correct, on it’s own the hike would be too short to warrant the 2:30 hour drive from Salem. I went looking for a way to fit a visit in and looked over my map of future trailheads and saw that the trailhead for the Nestor Peak hike was located on the way to the refuge. The Nestor Peak hike was just over 8-miles so adding the Willard Spring Loop would put the day around 11 miles which sounded manageable.
Our plan was to visit Conboy Lake first since it was the furthest from home, and an earlier start there might provide a better chance at spotting wildlife. We parked at the refuge headquarters and made our way to the historic Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House.
The path to the cabin on the right.
Built in 1875 the cabin was moved from its original location in 1987.
The snowy top of Mt. Hood from the cabin.
After exploring the cabin we set off on the Willard Springs Trail only we briefly went the wrong way. A grassy track lead north directly across the gravel road from the path to the cabin and we took it.
We got about 250′ before realizing that this path was just going to take us back to the parking lot so we backtracked to the gravel road and followed it toward the lakebed across a small canal. (The Garmin named this Cold Springs Ditch.)
We turned left on a wide grassy track along the ditch. Numerous colorful birds were flying in and out of the bushes and trees along the ditch, most of which would not sit still long enough for me to photograph.
There was a lot of monkeyflower in and along the ditch.
Lupine along the ditch.
Yellow warbler (according to the Merlin app).
The top of Mt. Adams above the trees.
We followed the ditch for a third of a mile then crossed over it to a field with bird houses and more birds.
We stayed right at a junction near the corner of the field following the trail through the grass then into a mixed forest.
The lakebed was often visible through breaks in the trees.
Through one such gap in the trees we spotted a pair of greater Sandhill cranes. The refuge is the only place in Washington that supports breeding pairs of the birds.
Approximately 1.4 miles from the trailhead we came to a 4-way junction. To the left was a “shortcut trail” and to the right a viewing platform with the Willard Springs Trail continuing straight(ish).
Continuation of the Willard Springs Trail behind the sign.
More often than not on our hikes we strike out with viewing platforms/bird blinds. (We’d have better luck if we sat and waited for the wildlife to come to us.) It was a different story today with a deer making its way across the lakebed and an excellent view of Mt. Adams.
We hung around long enough that this warbling vireo came to check on us.
After a nice break at the platform we continued on the Willard Springs Trail. After another 0.5-miles we came to a signed spur trail to Willard Springs.
We followed this spur 0.2-miles to its end at a couple of benches near the springs.
Willard Sprins hidden in the vegetation. We could hear them better then we could see them.
A healthy lupine near the springs.
We returned to the junction and continued on the loop which now turned back south. It was interesting to see the change in the forest along this section that was further from the lakebed.
Cat’s ear lily
Lupine along the trail.
Golden-mantled ground squirrel
Arriving back at the refuge headquarters.
Two interesting things to note about the hike were that the Oregonhikers.org Field Guide mentioned a trailhead 0.2-miles from the HQs along the entrance road but we passed no trails coming from the road and there appeared to be a no parking sign on the side of the road near where we expected to see this other trailhead. Our guess is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department decommissioned the alternate trailhead at some point. The other oddity was that while we did pass the other end of the shortcut trail neither of us noticed another trail joining from the left closer to the headquarters which would have been the other end of the trail that had split off at the edge of the field with the bird houses. There was even a map at the trailhead showing such a trail. Possibly another recent change (or we both just missed the connector trail).
Trail map at the trailhead.
Between exploring the cabin and briefly going the wrong way our hike here came in at an even 4-miles with only 50′ of elevation gain. Given the 4-mile figure the 3.79 miles listed on the refuge webpage for the Willard Springs Trail is probably the most accurate of the distance we came across. We didn’t see any other people, just a lot of wildlife which made for a great first stop of the day.
After finishing at Conboy Lake we drove back south to the Buck Creek Trailhead #1.
This is one of several trailheads located along the roughly 21-mile Buck Creek Trail loop. We had hiked a segment of the Buck Creek Trail in 2020 on our Monte Carlo – Monte Cristo Loop (post). Today’s segment would be a roughly 4.2 mile climb to a former lookout site atop Nestor (Nester) Peak. We picked up the trail on West side of N-1000 across from the trailhead.
It was later in the morning than we usually get started due to visiting Conboy Lake first and even though it was a little before 10:30am it was already feeling a little warm. The trail made a steep initial ascent before leveling off a bit.
There were lots of phantom orchids blooming along the lower sections of the hike.
Spotted coralroot was also plentiful.
Near the 3/4-mile mark we recrossed N-1000.
The trail actually lost some elevation here as it descended toward N-1300.
The trail ran parallel to N-1300 for a mile before again turning steeply uphill.
One of only two trees that were down over the trail, both were easily manageable.
The one small stream crossing.
There was enough sunlight getting through to really heat up the trail.
While there wasn’t much there we did occasionally see poison oak throughout most of the lower 2/3rds of the hike.
After the trail steepened we passed a spring on the right at the first of three switchbacks.
Sign above the switchbacks warning mountain bikers that they were ahead.
Following a fourth switchback the trail came to another dirt road which we jogged slightly right on before finding the continuation of the Buck Creek Trail.
Buck Creek Trail to the left near the roads end.
For the next half mile the trail climbed at a healthy pace. Heather hadn’t been feeling well and the heat wasn’t helping things. We talked it over and she told me to go ahead and she would go at her own pace so we split up for now.
More spotted coralroot.
Just over a half mile from the road crossing the trail crossed another road.
After another initial steep climb the trail relented a bit as it traversed around a ridge before gaining a ridgetop and following down to a saddle below Nestor Peak. Along the way were a couple of openings hosting bright wildflowers.
Mt. Hood from the Buck Creek Trail.
Cedar hairstreak on yarrow.
Paintbrush, lupine, penstemon, and balsamroot.
Gaining the ridge.
The trail dropped off the ridge and started another good climb along a hillside to a ridge end where it turned steeply uphill climbing to road N-1600 a tenth of a mile below the summit of Nestor Peak.
Approaching the start of the final climb.
Sub-alpine mariposa lily
A right turn on the road led past more wildflowers with a view of Mt. Hood to the remains of a shed on top of Nestor Peak.
At the summit Mt. Adams came into view to the NE.
I took a break at the summit and followed some butterflies around trying to get pictures. While I was busy chasing butterflies Heather messaged to let me know she was at the start of the final climb so I waited for her at the summit.
Unfortunate amount of graffiti on the old shed.
Mt. Hood and balsamroot.
Butterfly on cat’s ear lily.
After Heather got a break too, we headed back down. There was a little bit of a breeze as we went down which combined with going downhill instead of up helped it feel cooler on the way down.
Mountain lady slipper
The hike here would have been between 8 and 8.5 miles but I wandered around the summit area enough to log 8.9 miles on the GPS unit.
We passed 8 others on the trail (3 hikers and 6 mountain bikers) and saw another mountain biker on Road N-1600 from the summit. It was a nice hike but it would have been a little more enjoyable in cooler temperatures. The views and wildflowers were great though. Happy Trails!
Flickr: Conboy Lake WLFR and Nestor Peak