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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.

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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

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High Cascades Hiking Mt. Washington Area Oregon Trip report

Mount Washington Meadows

One week after returning from our Northern California trip we found ourselves headed to Bend to drop off some furniture to our Son who had recently moved.  It wasn’t going to be a long visit due to his having to work so after a quick tour of his new apartment we were back on our way home.

Our plan was to stop for a hike on the way home along the Pacific Crest Trail near Santiam Pass south to Mount Washington Meadows. We had left Salem at 5am so it would still be fairly early when we hiked. Just after 8:30 we pulled into the PCT trailhead near Big Lake.

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We headed south on the PCT which quickly entered the Mt. Washington Wilderness amid trees burned in the 2011 Shadow Lake Fire.

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The first two or so miles passed through the burn where despite most of the trees being dead, there was plenty of green and other colors present.

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The lack of living trees did allow for some views of both Mt. Washington ahead and Three Fingered Jack to the north beyond Big Lake, the Hoodoo Ski Area and the flat topped Hayrick Butte.

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We could also see two small buttes just to the SW of Big Lake which we had hiked around in 2012 when we visited the Patjens Lakes.

That hike was also done during the first week of August, but less than a year removed from the Shadow Lake Fire. It was interesting to see how the forest was recovering with the passing of several more years.

Patjens Lake TrailPatjens Lake Trail – August 2012

IMG_6791Pacific Crest Trail – August 2017

A wider variety of plants including various berries were present now.

We left the burn area where we were able to see what the forest will look like again eventually.

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We passed several small meadows and lots of wildflowers as we went.

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We had been gradually climbing and when a break in the trees allowed us a view to the north where we spotted Mt. Jefferson over the shoulder of Three Fingered Jack.

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It was a bittersweet view as it reminded us that the Whitewater Fire was burning on the west side of Mt. Jefferson and had already burned over portions of several trails leading to Jefferson Park.

There was no real visible smoke but we knew that it was there and those trails would look a lot like what we’d passed through earlier in the Shadow Fire area.

When the PCT began to curve around a ridge to the left the Spire of Mt. Washington came into view.

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An open hillside then opened up views to the south were several other familiar peaks were visible.

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These included the North and Middle Sister, Belknap Crater, the Husband, Diamond Peak, and Scott Mountain.

IMG_6783North & Middle Sister with Belknap Crater

IMG_6697Scott Mountain

As we continued we passed through some increasingly impressive meadows until reaching a large lupine filled meadow below Mt. Washington.

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Mt. Washington rose above the meadow where we were able to get a great look at the eroded volcano.

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Lupine wasn’t the only thing in abundance in the meadow. There was also a large number of tortoiseshell butterflies who seemed to be overly attracted to me.

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We continued through the meadow where we found a nice display of cat’s ear lilies still in bloom amid the lupine.

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At this point we’d gone a little over 5.5 miles, but the level grade of the PCT and the great scenery so far enticed us to continue a little further to see what else the area had to offer. We decided to follow the PCT until it began to lose elevation as it crossed a valley between Mt. Washington and Belknap Crater. We soon found ourselves in another area affected by fire.

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We ended our hike as the PCT bent around a ridge end where it would begin the 400′ elevation loss before climbing up to the shoulder of Belknap Crater which was visible across the valley.

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From this vantage point we could also make out Little Belknap Crater.

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After a short break we headed back through the meadows and returned to our car.

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The 12.4 mile round trip had proved to be a lot more entertaining than we’d expected. We hadn’t really known what to expect having selected the hike from the back of our guidebook in the additional hikes section, but it had been a thoroughly enjoyable outing. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Mount Washington Meadows

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High Cascades Hiking Oregon Three Sisters Area Trip report

Matthieu Lakes

After finally successfully hiking Canyon Creek Meadows the next day we headed to McKeznie Pass to visit the Matthieu Lakes. We had been in this part of the Three Sisters Wilderness the previous October on a dreary day that left us without any views of the mountains and too late in the year for flowers. We arrived at the trail head at about 6:30am and were quickly reminded of how cold it is in the Cascades early in the morning. Looking behind us from the parking area we could see the spire of Mt. Washington as the morning sunlight reflected off the volcanic rock. We had already seen one more mountain than we had the previous year and we hadn’t even started hiking yet.

A short path led to the Pacific Crest Trail which we turned left on and started a gradual climb up to the start of the Matthieu Lakes loop. At the loop junction we kept on the PCT and headed toward South Matthieu Lake. As we climbed the tress began thinning out giving us glimpses to the north and west. The further we went the more we could see and soon a string of volcanoes was lined up on the horizon.

Belknap Crater, Little Belknap Crater, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood from L to R
Belknap Crater, Little Belknap Crater, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood from L to R

When we reached South Matthieu Lake North and Middle Sister had joined the visible volcanoes to the south. They rose above the small lake making for a pretty scene.
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At the north end of the lake was a trail junction for the return loop, but first we continued on the PCT heading for the meadow at the Scott Trail junction. In October we had come from the other direction on the PCT and then taken the Scott Trail back to our car and we could see the potential for the meadow to be a beaut at the right time.
This section of the PCT started along side a lava flow where we spotted a Pika who seemed to be as interested in us as we in it.
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The trail then passed over the lava flow and headed for Yapoah Crater, one of many cinder cones that helped create the volcanic landscape. The Sisters got larger as we neared and to the north the view became even better as we gained elevation. As we contoured around Yapoah Crater we could even see the top of Mt. Adams in Washington join the volcanic line beyond Mt. Hood. Here the crater hid the Sisters, but as we came around they came into view joined by The Little Brother.
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A short while later we reached a ridge looking down into the meadow. The purple patches of lupine were visible from above and as we descended other flowers became evident. Pink heather, red paintbrush and several different yellow flowers were joined by a single western pasque flower at the meadows edge. Here we also ran into our first mosquitoes of the day but they were not too bad. The meadow itself was filled with flowers and a view ahead to the Sisters.
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Here is the same meadow from our visit last October:
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We crossed through the meadow on the PCT enjoying the display of wildflowers. Had the mosquitoes been less it would have been a perfect lunch spot, but as it was we just turned around and passed back through.
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When we reached South Matthieu Lake we took the North Matthieu Lake trail to visit that lake and complete our loop. North Matthieu Lake was much larger than South Matthieu, but being lower in elevation meant almost no view of The Sisters save at the very north end and then only just the tip of the North Sister was visible. What it lacked in mountain view it made up for in color. The water went from blue to green depending on where you looked.
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Past North Matthieu Lake we encountered a number of small ponds. The last of which was teeming with birds. We spotted a variety of birds in the trees around the pond and sometimes in it.
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Finally we passed through a small meadow beside a lava flow that was home to a number of butterflies. Here we saw our first California Tortoiseshell.
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It was a great hike and really nice to be able to visit a place we had been before at a different time. It’s amazing how much timing can change the experience. It was a good reminder that it can be worth going back to a previous hike at a different time of year to see how things have changed. Happy Trails.

Facebook photos: https://www.facebook.com/deryl.yunck/media_set?set=a.10201705197258876.1073741845.1448521051&type=3
Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/9319235@N02/sets/72157634853318672/