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Blue Mountains - North Hiking Oregon Trip report

Cold Springs Wildlife Refuge and Ninemile Ridge – 6/13/2021

As we continue to explore the trails in the Pacific Northwest we are working on completing a number of “goals”, one of which is having hiked in each of Oregon’s 36 counties. We began the year missing just two, Gilliam and Umatilla. We checked Gilliam off our list over Memorial Day weekend with a hike at Cottonwood Canyon State Park (post) leaving just Umatilla County. One of our other goals is to hike in the 46 Oregon wilderness areas open to visitors (post). (Oregon Islands and Three Arch Rocks off the Oregon Coast are off limits.) We began the year with just four wilderness areas left to visit; Black Canyon, Devil’s Staircase, Monument Rock, and North Fork Umatilla. We used a week of vacation to finish the county hikes, visit the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, and check off three more featured hikes in one of William L. Sullivan’s guidebooks, this time his “100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon” (3rd edition). Our long term goal is to complete the 100 featured hikes from at least one edition of each of Sullivan’s five guidebooks; Oregon Coast, NW Oregon & SW Washington, Southern Oregon & Northern California, Central Oregon Cascades, and Eastern Oregon (post).

We started our week off by driving to Pendleton stopping along the way at the Cold Springs Wildlife Refuge near Hermiston, OR. This stop came about while I was looking for hikes in areas around Oregon where we hadn’t hiked yet. At four hours from Salem the short Memorial Marsh Trail system looked like a good leg stretcher on our way to Pendleton and it would be our first hike in Umatilla County. We parked at the trailhead for the Memorial Marsh Unit at the east end of an access road.

Map from the refuge brochure. We parked at the arrow.

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The brochure, which is available online and at the trailhead, is dated 2014. We didn’t realize that when we grabbed one to use as our map. What we should have done is paid more attention to the laminated map posted on the trailhead signboard.
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The brochure map shows a total of three loops (see above). There is a triangular loop from the parking area, and two loops around marshes. The laminated map however only shows the triangular loop. While the brochure indicates that there are loops around both the Lower Pond and the Upper Pond the other map did not. Having missed that detail we set off with a plan of staying left at junctions to complete the non-existent loops. The trail led us through a sagebrush landscape similar to what we had seen at the nearby Umatilla Wildlife Refuge (not in Umatilla County) in 2019 (post).IMG_7227

IMG_7233Yarrow

IMG_7236Caterpillar

After .3 miles the dirt trail met a gravel roadbed at the Lower Pond.
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IMG_7242Looking right down the roadbed which would lead back to the parking area.

We weren’t off to a great start as we were already confused at the roadbed. We weren’t sure exactly where we were on the brochure map and spent some time debating on which direction we should go. Before we figured that out though Heather realized that we’d left her GPS unit sitting on top of the car so she headed back to retrieve that and I wandered to the right up the road a ways where it became clear that it was going to lead back to the trailhead which let me know that it was part of the triangular loop.
IMG_7244Ducks in the Lower Pond

IMG_7248Showy milkweed

IMG_7251A lone phlox blossom

Having retrieved the Garmin and figured out where we were we headed left from the dirt trail along the gravel road which curved around the Lower Pond.
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IMG_7254Female red-winged blackbirds

IMG_7262Blue-winged teal and a black-necked stilt.

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IMG_7274Black-necked stilt

IMG_7275Red-winged blackbird

IMG_7276White pelican

IMG_7280Cinnamon teal

When we came to a “Y” junction in the road we went left.
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This road led between the hidden Cold Springs Reservoir on the left and the Middle Pond on the right. We spooked a couple of deer along this stretch but they both vanished in the sagebrush before I had time to retrieve the camera.
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IMG_7288Middle Pond

We ignored a side road on the left for hunting blind 5 and then again forked left when the road split at the Upper Pond.
IMG_7289Spur road to hunting blind 5. The blinds were well signed but not marked on the brochure map. The laminated map at the trailhead though did show the blinds which would have also been very helpful.

IMG_7294Upper Pond

IMG_7298Upper Pond

IMG_7300Yellow headed blackbirds

We wrapped around the pond to the edge of the refuge where we were carefully watched by a herd of cows on the other side of a barbed wire fence. The gravel road eventually gave way to a cut grassy track near blind 1b and then vanished altogether.
IMG_7301Not going to be making a loop around the Upper Pond.

A little confused we turned around and passed the equally confused looking cows. We backtracked to the fork between the Middle and Upper Ponds and went left thinking that maybe we had misread the map and this was the loop.
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IMG_7304Killdeer

This roadbed began to loop around the Upper Pond before petering out near blind 8 (again all of this would have been clear had we used the laminated map). The saving grace here was we got to see an owl fly out of the trees along the pond (no time for a photo though) and we saw another deer which I did manage to get a picture of.
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Once again we found ourselves back tracking. Having not yet learned our lesson when we made it back to the split between the Middle and Lower Ponds we once again attempted a loop and headed between them.
IMG_7310Great blue heron

IMG_7314Lazuli bunting

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The road had turned into a grassy track before ending in some sagebrush where a faint trail? could be seen.
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We did pass at least one sign facing the other direction which indicated that at least at one time this had been a loop but it was now very overgrown.
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We passed blinds 7 and 7b which were also quite overgrown and in the process I manged to pick up at least a half dozen unwelcome guests in the form of ticks.
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When we finally made it back to the gravel road we stopped for a tick check to try and make sure there were no stowaways left and then followed the roadbed .3 miles back to the trailhead. I wound up doing 4.4 miles here (Heather wound up with )  which was quite a bit more than we had planned due to the backtracking for the GPS unit and the non-existent loop around the Upper Pond.

We almost managed a loop around the Upper Pond

Before we started our drive to Pendleton we did attempted another full tick check. Despite stripping and attempting to look under any flap on our clothing we somehow missed two of the little blood suckers. One we spotted crawling up my pant leg before we started driving which we quickly dispatched of but the second appeared on my knee while we were on Interstate 84. Heather attempted to get it into a container since there was nowhere for me to pull over at that moment but instead of going into the container it wound up on the floor and vanished (at least for the time being). For the rest of the drive we were on high alert watching for it to reappear.

We still had a second hike to do so after filling our gas tank (and searching in vain for the missing tick) we drove past Pendleton to a temporary trailhead along Bingham Springs Road (National Forest Road 32).
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Severe flooding in February of 2020 washed out roads and trails in the area and work is still being done to repair the damage. We had actually planned on doing this trip in 2020 before the flooding (and COVID) and at that time were planning on camping at the Umatilla Forks Campground since our next three hikes all began within a half mile of the campground. Since that option was off the table staying in Pendleton (just 31 miles from the temporary trailhead) made the most sense.

After searching again for our missing tick we set off on the closed road which we followed for 1.2 miles to a fork at the far end of the campground where we turned up FR 045 for another 0.2 miles to a trailhead sign.
IMG_7330The road walk wasn’t all that bad as it followed the Umatilla River the whole way.

IMG_7332This was a popular spot with the butterflies, particularly swallowtails.

IMG_7338Swallowtails

IMG_7336Swallowtails

IMG_7342Lorquin’s admiral

IMG_7344A tortoiseshell

IMG_7350Dragon fly watching the butterflies

Approximately 3/4 of a mile from the gate we passed a sign for the North Fork Umatilla Trail which was our destination for the next day.
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IMG_7362Just beyond the sign we crossed the North Fork Umatilla River.

IMG_7364Ouzel

IMG_7365FR 045 on the left.

IMG_7375Another gathering of butterflies

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Three trails start at this trailhead, the Ninemile Ridge, Buck Creek, and Buck Mountain Trails.
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Today’s plan was the Ninemile Ridge Trail. In the original plan this was the shortest of the three hikes with Sullivan listing it as a 7.2 mile out and back. Adding the road walk was going to add close to 3 miles round trip but the road walk was necessary for the other two hikes as well. We weren’t sure though how much of the trail we were going to be able to hike. While the Umatilla Forest Service listed all the trails in the area as open the most recent updates from late May 2021 indicated that only parts of the trails had been maintained since the flood damage. In the case of the Ninemile Ridge Trail the webpage stated that as of 5/20/21 the trail had not been logged out.

We headed uphill from the signboard a tenth of a mile to a 4-way junction.
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Here the Ninemile Ridge Trail headed uphill to the left while the Buck Creek Trail was straight ahead and the Buck Mountain Trail was to the right. We turned uphill onto the Ninemile Ridge Trail and soon entered the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness for the first time.
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It was evident fairly early on that some maintenance had been done since the last update on the webpage.
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The trail climbed steeply through the forest at first but soon the trees gave way to open hillsides.
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IMG_7393

IMG_7394Grouse

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IMG_7404Buckwheat

IMG_7406Ragged robin (Clarkia pulchella)

IMG_7411Lingering snow in the distance.

While manny of the flowers were well past there were quite a few ragged robins blooming and few other flowers at the lower elevations.
IMG_7418Ragged robins

IMG_7422Paintbrush

IMG_7423Yarrow

IMG_7430Bettles and a crab spider on rose

As the trail traversed up the hillside it passed through some forested gullies where some maintenance had been done to remove the worst obstacles while those that were more easily navigable were left for later.
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IMG_7437

IMG_7436Arnica

As we climbed the views kept getting better.

IMG_7451You might be able to make out the trail continuing up the far hillside.
IMG_7453Now on the far hillside heading for that small tree on the ridge end.

IMG_7457Looking back along the trail and at Ninemile Ridge.

Near the 2.25 mile mark from the trailhead signboard (3.6 from the temporary trailhead) we reached the ridge end and turned up Ninemile Ridge.
IMG_7459South Fork Umatilla River from near the ridge end.

IMG_7463Heading up to the ridge top.

IMG_7467Gaining the ridge and a view ahead of what’s to come.

From the turn at the ridge end it was another 1.8 miles to a cairn at the high point of Ninemile Ridge. The trail gained over 950′ in this stretch, often times in very steep sections. The steepness combined with the heat (it was a warm day) made for a challenging climb.
IMG_7471

IMG_7473Balsamroot

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IMG_7478Large-flower triteleia

IMG_7481A penstemon

IMG_7502Paintbrush and prairie smoke

IMG_7503Death camas

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IMG_7509Turkey vulture checking to see if we were dead yet.

IMG_7510Ravens also interested in our carcasses.

IMG_7517An allium

IMG_7527There was a 20% chance of showers according to NOAA so these clouds forming weren’t a surprise.

IMG_7531A flat stretch along the ridge before another steep climb.

IMG_7532Buckwheat and Large-flower triteleia

IMG_7536Bush penstemon

IMG_7540The trail was actually down to the left but the ridge seemed like it would take less climbing.

Ball head sandwort?Ball head sandwort?

IMG_7547Lupine

IMG_7551Paintbrush along the final climb.

IMG_7553A parsley and naked broomrape

IMG_7555Larkspur

IMG_7557Rosy pussytoes

The trail became suddenly overgrown near the high point and I left the trail and headed uphill cross-country to a cairn near the top.
IMG_7558Cairn on the right.

Heather had stopped a couple of climbs back under a tree unsure if she was going to attempt reaching the top or not. I wasn’t alone at the cairn though as I made friends with a local lizard.
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IMG_7570Clouds starting to pass over.

IMG_7573High Ridge Lookout to the left

IMG_7576High Ridge Lookout

IMG_7565Looking back down Ninemile Ridge

I spotted Heather making her way up the trail again so I waited at the cairn for a while.
IMG_7566Heather making her way up.

I had just started down thinking that she may have balked at the final steep climb when I met her just below the start of the off trail climb to the cairn so back up we went. I was looking for more flowers to document.
IMG_7580Blue-eyed Mary and elegant mariposa lily

IMG_7582Slender phlox

IMG_7588A phacelia

IMG_7591Hoary balsamroot (most of it was way past)

IMG_7593Phlox

After a nice rest at the cairn we headed down under increasingly cloudy skies.
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IMG_7607

IMG_7610Spotted coralroot

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IMG_7612Honeysuckle

A welcome. albeit brief, shower passed overhead as we were in one of the small forested sections of the trail.
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IMG_7615Arnica and small flower miterwort

IMG_7618Twinflower

We were nearly out of water by the time we reached the road walk and wound up getting more from the Umatilla River before continuing on to our car. We had originally planned on a 9 to 10 mile day which we then had bumped up to 11 to 12 due to the road walk but the hike at Ninemile Ridge came in at 10.9 miles for me (I added a 1/4 mile coming down from the cairn to find Heather and go back up).

My track at Ninemile Ridge

Add the 4.4 miles from the Cold Springs Wildlife Refuge and it came to a 15.3 mile day with 2200′ of elevation gain. It was also a lot later than we’d expected. We didn’t get back to the car until after 6:30pm (having left Salem at 5:00am) and it was close to 7:30pm when we finally checked into the Rugged Country Lodge in Pendleton. We did however finally find that missing tick. At some point, despite all our searching, it managed to get onto Heather’s back. I used our tick key to remove it and we kept it in a plastic container just in case but it couldn’t have been on there too long given the number of times we checked for it.

Despite that and a couple of other misadventures it was a good but tiring start to six straight days of hiking. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Cold Springs WLFR & Ninemile Ridge