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Blue Mountains - North Hiking Oregon Trip report

Upper Wenaha River – 09/11/2021

For the second year in a row our September vacation plans were disrupted by wildfires. The reality we are facing is that this may well be the norm now and maybe September isn’t the best time to try and take a hiking trip. We’d been avoiding October due to the erratic weather that time of year but it might be time to rethink that. Unlike last September when we scrapped our plans and just stayed home staying inside to avoid the smoke this year we had a viable back up plan. Our original plan was for a long weekend in Union Creek near Crater Lake National Park but that area seemed to be ground zero for unhealthy air quality so we canceled our reservations there and watched the weather and smoke forecast waiting until Friday to make our final decision. A favorable forecast put Pendleton as our first choice but according to the Forest Service website two of the three trails we planned on hiking were showing as closed. The entire Umatilla National Forest had been closed earlier this year due to wildfires but those were either out or mostly contained and the closure area had been greatly reduced. I reached out to the Forest Service and they confirmed that despite what the website said the trails we were planning on hiking were open.

It was a 5 to 5 1/2 hour drive from Salem to the Timothy Springs Trailhead for our first hike of the weekend on the Wenaha River Trail. We had hiked on this trail in 2019 but from the other end near Troy, OR (post). The trail is just under 31.5 miles long but for this hike we planned on following the trail downhill for 4.5 miles to Milk Creek which is Sullivan’s longer option for his featured hike #43 in the 3rd edition “100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon”. We arrived to find the campground at the trailhead full of bow hunters which we had expected this time of year. We parked in a dirt area not far from the historic Timothy Springs Guard Station because the only spot open at the actual trailhead would have meant parking over grass which we didn’t want to do given the fire danger.
IMG_4882The guard station.

IMG_4884The only “parking spot” open near the actual trailhead.

The trail immediately entered the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.
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The trail descended gradually through a the forest crossing a couple of small streams before reaching the South Fork Wenaha River at the 2.3 mile mark.
IMG_4889There was a lot of cone flower along the trail.

IMG_4891It had rained the night before but most of the moisture had already dried up or evaporated.

IMG_4898There were just a few flowers hanging on.

IMG_4899There was also a nice variety of mushrooms.

IMG_4900Paintbrush

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IMG_4908One of the small streams.

IMG_4910Self-heal

IMG_4913There weren’t many views along the trail but this one was nice.

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IMG_4921Pearly everlasting

IMG_4923Ghost pipe

IMG_4925This was one of the smallest frogs we’ve seen. When I first saw it jump I mistook it for a grasshopper.

A short distance before reaching the river we passed what Sullivan described as 6′ waterfall. There wasn’t much water flowing this time of year so we had to picture it mostly.
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IMG_4932South Fork Wenaha River

The river was just wide enough and the logs wet enough that crossing dry wasn’t an option so we forded the river, it was maybe mid-calf at its deepest. A brief climb on the far side quickly put us above the river as the trail traversed a rock hillside.
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The views were better along this section as it gradually descended to Milk Creek 2.2 miles beyond the South Fork Wenaha ford.
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IMG_4953One of two snakes we came across, both the harmless types.

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IMG_4961South Fork Wenaha River

IMG_4965Fall colors along the trail.

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IMG_4971Milk Creek with the Wenaha River Trail continuing on the far side.

IMG_4972Milk Creek joining the South Fork Wenaha River.

DSCN0844Elderberry near Milk Creek

DSCN0845Snowberry

After a nice break at Milk Creek we began the 1300′ climb back to the trailhead. It was a fairly uneventful return trip but we managed to spot a few flowers and mushrooms along the way that we’d missed on our first pass.
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IMG_4989Might be an aven?

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IMG_5004Coral fungus

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IMG_5017Aster

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IMG_5022A lone arnica still blooming.

This was a pleasant 9.1 mile hike and despite it being bow hunting season most of the hunters were already back in camp when we arrived so we only saw one group of three people the entire hike.

It was interesting to see the difference in the forest and terrain between the upper and lower ends of the Wenaha River Trail too. We then drove to Pendleton and after a little hiccup in our plans checked into a motel and then went to OMG! Burgers & Brew for dinner. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Upper Wenaha River

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.
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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).
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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.
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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.

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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.
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We were surprised to find a second crossing (of the same creek) just a few moments later.
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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.
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IMG_8032Elephants head

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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.
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Soon the lodgepole forest gave way to other conifers.
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We began to have views of the Elkhorns (post) to the east.
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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.
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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)
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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.

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IMG_8160Huckleberry blossoms

IMG_8163Arriving at the wilderness boundary.

IMG_8164Looking back into the North Fork John Day Wilderness.

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

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

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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.
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20210616_112711Ball head waterleaf

20210616_114428Violets and ?

IMG_8274Tortoiseshell on a cone.

IMG_8287Shooting star

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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