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Hells Canyon Hiking Oregon Trip report

Freezeout Saddle

Day two of our Memorial Day Weekend trip to NE Oregon was set to be our first visit to the Hells Canyon Wilderness. Our planned hike was a loop described by Sullivan as “rugged” starting from the Freezeout Trailhead and utilizing the Saddle Creek, Summit Ridge, and Freezeout Trails.

According to the weather forecast, day two was also the most likely to provide precipitation with a 90% chance of showers as the day wore on. It had rained a bit overnight at Wallowa Lake so we were pleasantly surprised to have a nice view of the mountains as we drove into Joseph that morning.
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From Joseph we drove to Imnaha where we turned right onto the mostly gravel Upper Imnaha Road for 12.3 miles. Just before a bridge we veered left from the wide gravel road onto a much narrower, steep, more dirt than gravel road for 2.7 miles to the large trailhead.
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Two trails leave from this trailhead, the Saddle Creek and Freezeout. We took the Saddle Creek Trail on the left side of the informational signboard.
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There was a decent amount of blue sky behind us to the east as we began to climb up the trail.
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Ahead of us the Sun was still rising in the east where a few lighter clouds filled the sky.
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We also noticed a few cows on the hillside ahead of us.
IMG_7343(The black dot in the center of the hill is one such cow.)

We were busy looking for flowers and ignoring the cattle.
IMG_7345Western stoneseed

IMG_7346Prairie stars

IMG_7352Lupine

We couldn’t ignore them for long though as we soon rounded a bend to find several of them in the trail. They began to head up the trail so we followed having played this game before (post). More cows began to hurry down the hillside and cross the trail and then we noticed the bull. He didn’t look overly please with us but he managed to get the rest of the herd off the trail and uphill a bit. We passed on by and then promptly heard several of the cows coming up quickly behind us. I knew this game too from my time moving irrigation pipes in Central Oregon as a teenager. I turned and they stopped then we repeated (like the school yard game “red light, green light”). Knowing this could go on for awhile when we got into a brushy section of trail we sped up and left them behind.
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IMG_7364Heather emerging from the brushy section.

We could relax and start enjoying the hike again. The trail climbed up through open grass hillsides with occasional stands of trees. Views abounded.
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About a half mile from the trailhead the Saddle Creek Trail made a wide arc into the tress to Saddle Creek.
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The trail crossed the creek only to recross it moments later.
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The forest hosted a few different flowers than the grassy hillsides.
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The trail climbed away from the creek and began a series of switchbacks leading back to the open hillsides.
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As we gained elevation the number of blooming flowers increased.

IMG_7415Blue Dicks

IMG_7417Balsamroot

IMG_7421Balsamroot, paintbrush and biscuitroot

The views also got better as we climbed but we also began to notice showers passing by. A bonus result of the showers was a faint rainbow that framed the snowy Wallowa Mountains to the west for a time.
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The Saddle Creek Trail kept climbing, sometimes via switchback and others up and around ridges.
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There was a good number of flowers in bloom with quite a few more to come.
IMG_7464Larkspur and monkeyflower

IMG_7474Paintbrush

IMG_7490Chickweed

IMG_7470Possibly going to be a penstemon

IMG_7459Unkown

IMG_7461Lupine

We finally arrived at Freezeout Saddle after gaining over 1900′ in what our GPS claims was 3 miles.
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A trail signpost marked the junction with the Summit Ridge Trail.
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Despite the showers nearby we had a pretty good 360 degree view.
IMG_7493West to the quickly vanishing Wallowa Mountains.

IMG_7496North

IMG_7497South

IMG_7509_stitchEast into Hells Canyon

We rested briefly at the saddle admiring the view.
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After the break we headed south on the Summit Ridge Trail passing more views into Hells Canyon and some different wildflowers.
IMG_7514Cutleaf daisy

IMG_7529A little white alpine pennycress

IMG_7533Largehead clover

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The view toward the Wallows had taken a hit though as some dark clouds and rain showers now lay between us and them.
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We began to run into quite a few yellow glacier lilies when we reentered the trees as we traversed around the west side of a rise along the ridge.
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There were also a few kittentails present.
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We ran into our first non-bovine obstacle in the form of a downed tree in this section.
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Oh if that had been the only other obstacle. As we came around the hillside and spotted a snowfield in the distance.
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The rain “showers” had made their way over to us and at an elevation of approximately 6200′ we were partly in the clouds.
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We hoped it would pass quickly and stuck to looking for more flowers which we found in a clump of hairy clematis.
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We arrived at the snow field and sized it up. There was a clear track crossing from the side we were on.
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We had brought our microspikes for just such an occasion but the snow looked narrow and the footprints were well established from what we could see so we eschewed the spikes and started across. Big mistake as the footprints had smoothed over on the far side of the snow (which was icy and even slicker than usual with the rain falling). I managed to heal kick some footholds and get off the snow without too much trouble but Heather had gone higher thinking it would be easier to get off by going up. Luckily she was able to kick in a little bit of footing and jam her poles into the snow to help keep her from sliding down the hill. I was able to the get a hold of her pack and we got her off the snow as well. Lesson learned, we carry the microspikes for a reason, use them!

A bit shaken we continued on stopping to admire a yellowbell.
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The rain was not letting up so we’d thrown on our rain jackets which we had put off putting on thinking that we were liable to get wetter from sweat while we climbed than wearing them in the rain. The trail had leveled off along the ridge now and we began encountering more patches of snow.
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Just under three miles from Freezeout Saddle we arrived at another signed junction.
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In our guidebook Sullivan has you go straight at this junction showing the fork to the right petering out after a short distance. The Forest Service map which is also on the GPS unit shows the right hand trail (Marks Cabin Trail) going all the way over to the Freezeout Trail. We initially headed straight but the footprints that we had been following through the snow patches disappeared and so had the trail. After about 450 feet we decided to go back to the junction and try the other way which would be shorter and we hoped less snowy. Incidentally the 450 foot excursion from the junction officially took us into the Hells Canyon Wilderness so we at least were able to mark off another wilderness area as visited.

Marks Cabin Trail was no easier to follow as it was faint even when there was no snow.
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We used the maps to stay close to where the trail was supposed to be having to correct course a number of times due losing sight of it under the snow only to find it again by spotting cut logs or a bit of tread.
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After crossing over a barbed wire fence we spotted a cairn in the grass but there was no sign of a trail anywhere near it.
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More map work led us to what at least looked like a trail.
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By now the rain shower had not only not passed over but it was now a snow shower. At some point we wound up a 100 feet or so above the trail and had to climb over a number of logs to get down to it.
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Luckily we managed to get back to it near the junction with the Freezeout Trail which was marked by a small piece of white flagging (not shown as my hands were too cold to unclip the camera from my waist) 1.5 miles (they route we took) from the junction. Heather kept asking where the cabin was which I thought was a strange obsession to see some private cabin while all I wanted to do was get down below the snow. A couple days later she pointed out that we might have been able to warm up at the cabin (if it had been open or if someone from one of the vehicles at the trailhead had been using it) or use it to orient ourselves and make sure we were on the right trail.

We headed down the Freezeout Trail which quickly became faint in the grass.
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The good news was it reappeared and the rain/snow was finally starting to let up.
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The bad news was that after passing over a ridge the trail headed into a gully that was holding quite a bit of snow among trees and other vegetation (again not pictured due to cold hands and a bit of frustration). The trail is described as an old cattleman’s trail in the guidebook and that description fit in the steep gully. We knew the trail crossed the gully but we couldn’t see where and we didn’t want to try and cross any of the steep snow even with our spikes so we picked our way through the best looking gap in the snow patches and found what turned out to be the trail somehow.

We were now done with the snow for the day and soon we were back traversing an open hillside with views albeit more limited than those from the morning.
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(The rest of the photos were a fight with moisture and numb fingers so please excuse the numerous water spots. 🙂 )
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Despite being cold and soaked we were still looking for flowers.
IMG_7668Brown’s peony getting ready to bloom.

IMG_7650Mariposa lily starting to open.

This portion of trail alternated between grassy open areas and ponderosa pine forest.
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After the first mile from where we’d turned onto it, the Freezeout Trail steepened a lot as it headed downhill fast to an unsinged junction with the Long Ridge Trail.
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Shortly beyond the junction we crossed a scenic unnamed creek that refused to sign a waiver forcing me to blur out its identity.
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The trail leveled out somewhat beyond the creek and at another opening we were able to look back up towards the ridge where we’d come from.
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We were now traversing a hillside above Freezeout Creek and gradually making our way down to it through the forest.
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Along this strecht we spotted this cute little flower.
IMG_7721Small flower miterwort

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As we neared Freezeout Creek we passed a junction for the Morgan Ridge Trail.
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Our final obstacle of the day was navigating around Freezout Creek which has claimed a chunck of the trail as its own. A scramble path led up and around a tree which was lucky because the water actually looked quite deep where the trail had been.
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From there it was just over a quarter mile back to the trailhead where we were more than happy to put on some dry clothes and warm up. The GPS tallied a 13 mile hike and it felt every bit of one with approximately 3700′ of elevation gain. The climb up really wasn’t all that bad but we were feeling the steep decent in our knees.

The day had one more bit of adventure in store for us as we headed down the narrow road from the trailhead. A pair of trucks, one with a horse trailer, were heading up and where we met the road was too narrow to pass. Heather had to back up a good distance until we found a spot where they could pass.

After the trucks went by we were able to get back to Joseph with the only other excitement being a pair of turkeys along the road.
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In Joseph we stopped at the R & R Drive In for some comfort food which really hit the spot. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Freezeout Saddle

Categories
Hiking Oregon Trip report Wallowas

Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge & B.C. Creek Falls

We took an couple of days off for an extended Memorial Day Weekend in order to take a trip to NE Oregon in hopes of checking off a few more hikes of our to do list of Bill Sullivan’s 500 featured hikes (post). The plans included our fist visit to the Hells Canyon Wilderness which would leave us with just seven more wilderness areas to visit in Oregon (post).

We also recently added a third goal of hiking in each of Oregon’s 36 counties. I had recently been looking at a map and began wondering how many of the counties we had hiked in and realized that there were only 5 in which we hadn’t as of the start of May this year: Columbia, Umatilla, Union, Gilliam, and Morrow. We checked off Columbia with our visit to Sauvie Island (post) and we have hikes planned in Umatilla and Union later this year. That left Gilliam and Morrow which are adjacent to one another in the north central portion of the State with the Columbia River acting as their northern borders. Neither of these counties are home to any of the 500 featured hikes but the John Day River acts as the western border for Gilliam County. We had been in Sherman County on the west side of the John Day during our visit to Cottonwood Canyon State Park (post) and remembered that there was a trail on the other side of the river, the Lost Corral Trail, which I quickly added to our future plans. That left Morrow County.

Sullivan does have a couple of additional hikes in the back of his Eastern Oregon book that are located in Morrow County but neither seemed to fit into our future plans. I turned to the map to see if anything would turn up and noticed that the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge was located in the county just NE of Boardman just off Interstate 84. We would be driving that by on our way to Wallowa Lake so I did a little research on the refuge. The Heritage Trail is the only official trail there but other areas are open to foot traffic and we were just looking for something that would allow us to stretch our legs and would allow us to check Morrow County off our new list.

We took exit 168 from I-84 and followed Highway 730 for 3.7 miles then turned left onto Patterson Ferry Road at a sign for the refuge. We drove 2.7 miles along Patterson Ferry Road past a parking area with restrooms to left at a large sign marking the start of a short driving loop.
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We had a map of the refuge with us, but the parking areas weren’t marked which was a little confusing. We followed the gravel road around a field parking at a lot on the right just under 1.5 miles from the start of the loop. A green fence blocked what looked like an old road bed.
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We decided to follow this track thinking that it might lead us to the Heritage Trail. There were a few wildflowers amid the grasses and a pleasant scent in the air coming from the trees.
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By the sound of them there were a whole lot of birds around but we weren’t having a lot of luck spotting them aside from a red-tailed hawk screeching in the sky above and a couple of western kingbirds.
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Several signed tracks split off from what appeared to be the main track that we were following. We aren’t sure but think they were pointers for hunting blinds.
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The track led us toward McCormack Slough where a bald eagle was keeping watch.
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At the slough we tried following a fainter track to the left thinking it might hook up with the Heritage Trail but there was no discernible path around the slough so we made our way back to the main track and returned to the car. Along the way we spotted two coyotes, several deer, a great blue heron and a pair of white pelicans.
IMG_7065First coyote in the grass.

IMG_7066Second coyote racing off through the grass.

IMG_7070One of the deer running off.

IMG_7072Great blue heron flying off.

IMG_7073White pelicans circling overhead.

We continued on the driving loop and just about a half mile later spotted the parking area for the signed Heritage Trail on the right.
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The paved trail follows an old road between a portion of the slough.
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We followed this trail for about a half mile where it joined an open road and then turned around and headed back. It was a short hike but we did see some more wildlife and a few flowers.
IMG_7076Bald Eagle

IMG_7080Wild Rose

IMG_7086Butterfly

IMG_7090Killdeer

IMG_7093An egret on the other side of the slough.

IMG_7097Sagebrush lizard

IMG_7099Another butterfly

IMG_7100Deadly Nightshade

IMG_7102A goose in the reeds.

Each of our stops here consisted of 1.1 mile hikes with a nice amount of wildlife. We drove back to the Interstate and continued east onto Wallowa Lake and our second hike of the day.

We had made reservations at the Eagle Cap Chalets near Wallowa Lake, just under 3/4 of a mile from the Wallowa Lake Trailhead and the start of our next hike. We decided to see if our room was ready and it was so we unpacked the car, threw on our packs and road walked to the trailhead.
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We started a 5 day backpacking trip here in 2016 (post) so the first quarter mile of trail was familiar before turning off of the West Fork Wallowa Trail onto the Chief Joseph Trail.
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The first section of trail may have been familiar but being two months earlier in the year the flowers were different.
IMG_7111Anemone

IMG_7115Fairyslipper

IMG_7122Arnica

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Rock Clematis

We turned onto the Chief Joseph Trail at the signed junction following a hand written pointer for B.C. Creek Falls
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The trail descended through the forest to a footbridge over the West Fork Wallowa River.
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On the far side of the river the trail climbed a series of switchbacks past more wildflowers and views down to the bridge below.
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IMG_7161Bluebells

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IMG_7172Prairie stars

IMG_7173More rock clematis

IMG_7178Paintbrush

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IMG_7191Larkspur

The trail then leveled out a bit as it traversed the hillside above the river passing a viewpoint of Wallowa Lake 3/4 of a mile beyond the bridge.
IMG_7206Area near the viewpoint.

IMG_7207Looking further into the Wallowas.

IMG_7242Wallowa Lake

We arrived at B.C. Creek a tenth of a mile from the viewpoint.
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After two bridges were washed out here the Forest Service stopped replacing them.
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After admiring the falls we turned back, not being tempted at all to attempt a ford to complete a possible loop back via the abandoned portion of the Chief Joseph Trail beyond the creek.
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Sullivan describes a second possible loop option by taking a spur trail through a private Boy Scout Camp. He noted that this trail could be closed to the public at any time but we decided to check it out turning left onto the unsigned but obvious trail .4 miles from the creek.
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After just a tenth of a mile a rocky viewpoint offered another look into the mountains and some purple penstemon.
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We also spotted a sign stating that the trail beyond was closed to the public and warning of surveillance cameras. We returned to the Chief Joseph Trail and headed back down to the bridge and recrossed the river. We then noticed another well used trail and followed it left along the canyon rim above the West Fork Wallowa.
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Flowers dotted the rocky terrain here.
20190523_152152Shooting star

IMG_7292Old man’s whiskers

IMG_7298Possibly a checkermallow

IMG_7274Paintbrush

We kept following the path along the rim to a viewpoint above a small unnamed waterfall.
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The user trail kept going beyond the falls so we did too eventually hooking back up with the West Fork Wallowa Trail a little over 100 yards from the trailhead. We then road walked back past the ground squirrels patrolling Wallowa State Park to the Eagle Cap Chalets, but not before stopping at the Khao Neaow Food Cart to get some Thai food to take back to our room for dinner.
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The food was great and after dinner we walked down to Glacier Grill and General Store to pick up some food and drinks for the room. On the way back we noticed a group of deer in front of the old Edelweiss Inn.
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They were a rowdy bunch.
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Our outing to B.C. Creek Falls was a modest 5 miles and a nice reminder of how much we loved our 2016 trip to the Wallowas. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Umatilla WLFR & B.C. Creek Falls