Categories
Blue Mountains - South Hiking Oregon Trip report

Tower Mountain – 06/16/2021

After three days of hiking in the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness we headed south from Pendleton planning on spending the next two nights in John Day. While I was planning this vacation I began looking for possible hikes between the two towns. Sullivan had a pair of hikes in the back of his Eastern Oregon guidebook starting from the Winom Creek Campground including a hike to Tower Mountain, the highest point in Umatilla County. A 92′-tall Aermotor steel lookout tower stands atop the mountain and is still in operation during the fire season. Sullivan’s description used the Upper Winom Creek and Cable Creek Trails to reach the summit road for a 16.4 mile out and back or a 16 mile loop by descending the Tower Mountain Trail to Big Creek Meadows and following a tie trail from there to the Winom Creek Campground. Nearly all of the area was impacted by the 2019 Tower Complex Fire. There wasn’t a lot of information online regarding the trails here which pass through the North Fork John Day Wilderness but from what I could find online it appeared that our best bet was to simply start at Big Creek Meadows Campground and do an out and back hike using the Tower Mountain Trail.

We parked at the trailhead for the Tower Loop Trail at Big Creek Meadows Campground.
IMG_7958

Instead of heading off on the Tower Loop Trail though we backtracked along the road to Big Creek and turned left following it to NF-52 (Blue Mountain Scenic Byway).
IMG_7960

IMG_7964Frosty penstemon

IMG_7967Tall mountain bluebells

IMG_7970Big Creek

IMG_7973Sign for the Tower Mountain Trail across NF-52.

The tread for the Tower Mountain Trail was faint to say the least as it started in meadows along Big Creek.
IMG_7974

IMG_7978Buttercups

IMG_7979The trail passed through a stand of young lodgepole pine where it was easier to see but there wasn’t much room to maneuver. Our theory on why the Forest Service hadn’t widened this was to deter OHV riders from using the trail as there is a large network of OHV approved roads/trails in the area.

IMG_7981Back to the faint tread.

IMG_7982Elk had chewed up this section of trail.

IMG_7994Snowshoe hare

IMG_7995The hare wasn’t too concerned about us and even stopped to munch on some grass just a few feet away from us as we passed.

IMG_8007

IMG_8010The only sign/marker for the trail through the meadows.

On the map the trail appeared to cross a branch of Big Creek which it did.
IMG_8011

We were surprised to find a second crossing (of the same creek) just a few moments later.
IMG_8014

The trail became clearer as we continued on. It followed Big Creek for a little over 3.25 miles, sometimes climbing above the meadows along forested hillsides and other times passing through wet meadows with wildflowers. Some of other sections had avoided at least the worst of the 1996 fire.
IMG_8023

IMG_8025

IMG_8028

IMG_8033

IMG_8032Elephants head

IMG_8035

IMG_8048

IMG_8057

IMG_8072

IMG_8074Milberts tortoiseshell

IMG_8080Fleabane along the trail.

When the trail turned away from Big Creek it began to climb through an open lodgepole pine forest with some western larch mixed in.
IMG_8084

IMG_8085

IMG_8088

Soon the lodgepole forest gave way to other conifers.
IMG_8090

IMG_8102

We began to have views of the Elkhorns (post) to the east.
IMG_8103

IMG_8105

IMG_8108Either a cinquefoil or an aven.

IMG_8109Arnica

The trail grew a bit faint as we passed through an open meadow with a variety of wildflowers.
IMG_8115

IMG_8116Parsley

IMG_8132Woodland stars

IMG_8134Larkspur

IMG_8138Mountain bluebells

IMG_8142Violet

IMG_8143Nuthatch

There was also a nice view south of the Greenhorn Mountains including Ben Harrison and Vinegar Hill (post)
IMG_8118

IMG_8119Vinegar Hill is in the center with Ben Harrison to the right of the green tree in the foreground.

The trail began to climb more gradually and actually dropped a bit to a saddle below Tower Mountain before again climbing steadily to an old roadbed at the wilderness boundary.
IMG_8145Back in forest burned in 1996.

IMG_8147Glacier lilies

IMG_8148Dropping to the saddle with Tower Mountain in the distance.

IMG_8152Valerian

IMG_8156The lookout tower on Tower Mountain.

IMG_8157

IMG_8160Huckleberry blossoms

IMG_8163Arriving at the wilderness boundary.

IMG_8164Looking back into the North Fork John Day Wilderness.

IMG_8165

A short distance later the trail ended at Forest Road 5226.
IMG_8166

IMG_8167

IMG_8171The Elkhorns from NF-5226.

The road loops around the summit of the mountain so either left or right would have led us to the lookout tower. We decided to go clockwise and headed left up the road.
We arrived at the summit after a 0.4 mile climb.
IMG_8179Western bluebird

IMG_8180

We sat at on a bench facing the Elkhorns to rest and have a snack.
IMG_8192

IMG_8184

After the break we walked over to the tower to check it out. It wasn’t clear if it was okay to climb the stairs, there was no signage either way. We decided to admire it from the ground though.
IMG_8188

IMG_8187

IMG_8191

IMG_8190

After admiring the tower we continued on the road loop. When we came to a fork in the road we detoured left to a ridge end meadow with a view that included the Wallowa Mountains (post).

IMG_8196

IMG_8197

IMG_8200

IMG_8201Wallowas on the left and the Elkhorns on the right.

IMG_8203Wallowa Mountains including Eagle Cap

IMG_8205Elkhorns

IMG_8207Balloon pod milk vetch

IMG_8215A patch of snow clinging to Tower Mountain.

20210616_105314Lupine

20210616_105410A penstemon

IMG_8229Paintbrush

IMG_8235Old man’s whiskers

We completed the road loop and then headed back down the Tower Mountain Trail. We retraced our steps looking for flowers and wildlife along the way.
IMG_8250

20210616_112711Ball head waterleaf

20210616_114428Violets and ?

IMG_8274Tortoiseshell on a cone.

IMG_8287Shooting star

IMG_8293

IMG_8308Fish in Big Creek.

IMG_8312I believe this is a columbian ground squirrel.

IMG_8320California tortoiseshell butterflies

IMG_8321Diffuseflower Evening-primrose

IMG_8324Red tailed hawk

Our hike came in at 12.7 miles with a little under 2000′ of elevation gain. The climb never felt very steep and the scenery along the trail was great.

We were both very impressed with this hike and it wound up being our favorite of the whole trip. Having a map for the lower faint portion of trail was necessary but the trail itself was in really good shape. We then drove to John Day and after checking into our motel had a wonderful dinner at 1188 Brewing. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Tower Mountain