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Central Oregon Hiking John Day Oregon Trip report

Cottonwood Canyon State Park

We spent Memorial Day Weekend in Bend and on Saturday morning drove up to Cottonwood Canyon State Park along the John Day River. To get there from Bend we drove north on Highway 97 to Wasco then turned onto Highway 206 for 15 miles to the park entrance.

Just after turning onto the entrance road we forked right on a short gravel road to a parking area near the river. The Hard Stone Trail began here.
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This nearly level 1.5 mile path follows the river upstream to Big Eddy, a lazy whirlpool at a bend in the river. The park has very few trees which allows for some wide open views but it also means a real lack of shade. Considering it was already in the low 60’s as we set off on the Hard Stone Trail at 7:30 we knew we were in for a hot hike.
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We spent our time enjoying the views of the canyon cliffs and scanning the sagebrush for flowers and animals including rattle snakes which are seen with some regularity along the John Day. We didn’t see any snakes but we saw a few other critters and a nice variety of flowers.
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The trail, which followed an old road bed, officially ended at Big Eddy which was where we turned back, but the road continues on.

After returning to our car we drove further into the park following signs for the Pinnacles Trail parking area. We set off following signs for the trail. After a short walk through a camping area the path led to a gate with a signboard and trail register.
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A nearby walnut tree offered some cool shade.
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The Pinnacles Trail follows another old road bed along the river downstream a total of 4.3 miles. IMG_0728

The cliffs along the trail were captivating. It was hard not to turn off the trail just to see how far one could get up some of the gullies and side canyons.
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A short distance from the gate the cliffs crowded the trail.
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The cliffs hung over the trail and were home to countless American Cliff Swallows which sped to and from their nests as we passed underneath.
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Just under a mile and half along the trail brought us to a neat old walnut tree where we spotted a colorful lazuli bunting.
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A trail near the tree provides river access and another trail led slightly uphill away from the tree. The sign named this the D & H Trail and indicated that it returned to the Pinnacles Trail further downstream. We decided we’d take it on the return trip after realizing (after way too long a time) that those were our initials, D & H.

As we continued on we passed part of an old fence where we spotted an aptly named western fence lizard.
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We spotted many of the same types of flowers we’d seen along the Hard Stone Trail and a few we hadn’t including some sweet smelling mock orange.
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The Pinnacles Trail is named after some rock outcrops across the river near the 3 mile mark.
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Beyond the Pinnacles the trail bent to the left passing through an open area full of sagebrush before rounding a rocky ridge-end.
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The ridge bowed away from the trail.
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We had talked early about the possibility of spotting larger animals on the hillsides and imagined that most of them would be sticking the the brush filled gullies we had seen along the way. As we were scanning the cliffs below the ridge I spotted what might have been an animal or possibly another rock (I have a real knack for spotting rocks and tree trunks).
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Making use of the camera’s 30x optical zoom allowed me to confirm that is was indeed an animal, in fact it was several animals.
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Going from the optical to the digital zoom gave us a closer look (but grainier picture) of the first big horn sheep we’d spotted on a hike.
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Sure enough they were hanging out in the shaded vegetation. Then we noticed a few more of the sheep passing below the first group. They seemed to be grazing on balsamroot leaves.
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The official trail continued to a narrow area between the cliffs and river.
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A use path continued on but we didn’t see any reason to continue. It was well into the 80’s and we’d seen plenty of great sights already. The sheep had disappeared when we passed back by where we’d seen them but Heather spotted something that was almost as surprising to see as they had been, a mushroom.
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We forked onto the D & H Trail when we reached its eastern end.
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The trail led through the sagebrush just far enough uphill that we were able to avoid what had been a fairly active area for mosquitoes before dropping back down to the Pinnacles Trail by the walnut tree.
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One final sighting of note was a pair of Bullock’s Orioles which we had not seen before.
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The one thing we didn’t see were any snakes which Heather was more than thankful for. I on the other hand was a little disappointed. I have no desire to be close to a rattle snake but at the same time I wouldn’t mind seeing one at a nice safe distance.

It was a great hike despite the warm temperatures but they were a good reminder of why summer may not be the best time for a visit to the park. Winter can also bring strong winds and freezing temperatures, so Spring or Fall probably are the best.

Hiking isn’t the only activity the park has to offer either. Rafting, fishing, mountain bike riding, and horseback riding opportunities exist as well. Whatever your reason for visiting it’s well worth the trip. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Cottonwood Canyon

Categories
Bend/Redmond Central Oregon Hiking Oregon Trip report

Dillon & Benham Falls

Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening. We were driving up the Cascade Lakes Highway through an impressive thunderstorm attempting to reach the Green Lakes trail head at Fall Creek when we came to our senses. The second round of hail and the increasing display of lighting prompted a retreat back down toward the city of Bend, OR. We had known this was a possibility the day before when the lighting and thunder had started so we invoked our backup plan and headed south of Bend to the Benham Falls picnic area on the Deschutes River near the Lava Lands Visitor Center.

We parked on the east side of the river at the picnic area and waited for a rain shower to pass and some sunlight before setting out. We promptly crossed the river on a footbridge and remained on the west side for the remainder of the hike. The river was calm and peaceful above Benham Falls as we walked along watching the sun rise through the clouds to the east while the thunder and lighting continued to the west.
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After approximately .7 miles the river became louder as it approached Benham Falls. The falls are not a classic waterfall but rather a series of turbulent rapids as the Deschutes flows through a lava canyon.
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We headed up to the parking area here to make use of the facilities and had a deer bolt away as we came around a corner. Then a forest service vehicle pulled up and we spoke briefly with the driver who confirmed we made the right choice when we turned around. He said it was a mess up in the Cascades with many small lightning fires having been spotted. Indeed we heard (and saw) the helicopters and planes throughout the day flying over on their way assist with the fires.

The river calmed again after Benham Falls passing forest on the west bank and a lava flow on the east. The sun made a couple of brief appearances, once creating a faint rainbow in front of us, and then disappeared. We were heading toward the Slough Day Use area and the hike was quickly turning into a wildlife spotting bonanza. We saw douglas squirrels, golden mantled squirrels, chipmunks, and scores of birds. Heather also spotted a paper wasp nest near the trail which was not the kind of wildlife I was interested in seeing.

When we reached a small slough pond we started noticing little Pacific Tree Frogs hopping along the trail.

A pair of Pacific Tree Frogs
A pair of Pacific Tree Frogs

The further we walked the more frogs we spotted and soon our progress was slowed as we tip-toed along trying to avoid all the little frogs.

We made it to the day use area and went down to the river for a closer look when I noticed something staring at us from across the water. At first we thought it was another deer, but then I spotted a second one and we noticed that their heads were darker than that of a deer. We broke out the binoculars and while we were watching a couple more came into view and we confirmed that they were indeed elk. The first we have seen while actually hiking :). They headed on down the river and out of sight so we continued on as well. We didn’t have to go far when we spotted them again on the opposite bank. There was now close to 20 elk including a small bull and several calves.
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The trail then swung around a 10 acre slough lake where the number of frogs somehow increased. There were now dozens of frogs hopping in all directions. There were also several families of ducks who left the reeds and headed for the center of the water as we approached.
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Next we passed through a short forested section of the trail and came to the edge of a large meadow. Looking across the meadow we could see Mt. Bachelor beneath the clouds in the distance. Here we were greeted by mosquitoes which quickly became a nuisance. The thunder and lightning had not quit and as we hurried across the meadow a heavy rain began to fall. It was both a blessing and a curse as the rain helped keep the mosquitoes at bay, but drenched us in the process.
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Shortly after leaving the meadow we reached the parking area for Dillon Falls. Like Benham Falls, Dillon Falls was a series of rapids in a lava canyon. We spotted an Osprey clenching a fish that it had snatched from the river as we descended down toward the calmer waters below the falls.
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A series of log steps brought us down into the canyon and to the river’s bank where we passed through some different types of vegetation including a section of trail lined with ferns.

Over the next three miles we passed Aspen (where whitewater rafters put in), Big Eddy Rapids (where the rafters scream), and Lava Island (where they get out). Near Big Eddy there were several Osprey across the river including one perched on its nest.
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A smaller bird was circling the river, occasionally diving into the water hunting for something. Just past the Lava Island Day Use area we came to our turn around point a small rock shelter used long ago by hunters.
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The thunderstorms had ended and the trail became increasingly crowded on our way back, but the wildlife remained abundant. The birds and golden mantled squirrels kept us entertained as we returned to the car. We had started the morning expecting mountains and lakes, but instead found a river and wildlife which proved to be a more than adequate replacement.
Happy Trails 🙂
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Facebook pictures: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10201735043005001.1073741847.1448521051&type=1
Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/9319235@N02/sets/72157634888763551/