Hiking on the North Fork John Day River Wilderness Trail has been on my bucket list. So I made plans with my friend Tully to head out there and explore the river, and to check out the central northeast Oregon area – also known for its place as Oregon’s Gold Rush region.
The North Fork John Day River is a National Wild and Scenic River for good reason. It’s remote, it’s to-die-for beautiful, and it’s got historical gold miner’s cabins sprinkled along the way. One can do out and back hikes, or circular routes, or even through hikes where one car sits at the beginning and the other at the end.
An ideal spot for exploring the area is the North Fork John Day Campground. It’s on Forest Service Road 52 and is right at the intersection of the Elkhorn Scenic Byway and the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway.
When we arrived, there were only three campsites occupied of the twenty available. Instead of camping at a drive-in site, we picked a walk in site right on the river. It had plenty of real estate and we couldn’t see anyone from the site. Our first dinner was a skewer bbq – chicken with veggies on skewers and some rice.
Next morning it was time to hike the trail by the river. The trail wends its way sometimes right along the river and often climbing 100ft above. But always it’s really beautiful.
We saw a lot of wildflowers along the way.
Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, Columbine, and others I can’t positively identify.
There were popcorn clouds, so the lighting in the river valley varied as we walked along.
The breeze was refreshing.
We came upon some strange things in the trail. It looked like hair. Lots and lots of hair. Or fur. Light brown fur. But no skin. What could it mean ? And then, not long after, we saw the remains of a large animal down upon the bank of the river.
Was it a horse? Or an elk? Its head was nowhere to be seen. What killed it? It might have been a cougar. Hunting season was back in the fall.
In any event, the carcass had been picked clean. Nothing left but bleached bones.
So along the trail we walked. Further down the river we glimpsed some history we’d heard about.
This region, which includes the towns of Sumpter, Bourne, Greenhorn and Granite, was a Gold Rush area in the late 1800’s and even into the early 1900’s. Even today, there are claims along some of the creeks.
The first thing we encountered was a miner’s cabin. It looked like it had just been abandoned.
There was still some structure to it. It even had a kitchen counter and rusty remains of beds.
I sure wouldn’t want to stay in it!
One has to wonder what was going through the minds of the people that built these places.
The windows definitely were not from 1890. They looked like they were 1970’s vintage.
It must have been a rat and bug infested sleeping experience for sure.
The place had an outhouse not too distant. Peering into that structure gave me the creeps, as if Hannibal Lechter from “The Silence of the Lambs” lurked somewhere down below.
The North Fork John Day River Trail is a beautiful experience. I did not backpack it this time – as Tully doesn’t backpack. But I will return here and do a backpack for sure. It’s got to be the best way to experience the area.
The following day we decided to drive out to Granite, Sumpter and even Bourne. This is the heart of Oregon’s Gold Rush Territory.
Leaving the campground, Granite, Oregon is only seven miles away. It has a population less than 50 and struggles to survive as a recognized town. But it does have a gas station and a store. Only not open when we were there! Interestingly it has a free Internet wireless antennae right in the midst of the 30 or so homes littering thee hill it lies on.
We drove on to Sumpter, Oregon. There are countless mining claims lining the road. We never saw an
ybody mining but there were hundreds of piles of “tailings” where people had piled rocks and sand in their efforts to find the gold.
On the way we decided to explore a dot on the map called Bourne. Driving up its little side valley, one wends through countless 15-ft high piles of tailings from past mining endeavors. Almost when you think it’s time to turn back, you find Bourne. Sitting at the end of the road, in a valley, are maybe two dozen homes some of which have actual mine shafts on their property.
Not much going on there these days. We got out of there pretty quick.
After Sumpter we decided to head over to Anthony Lakes, on the other side of the Elkhorns. The road climbs to 7,450 feet before descending to the lakes. The Anthony Lakes Ski Area was long closed for the season, but I just had to drive my car up to the ski lift to see if I could catch a ride!
All in all we had a good trip up there. It’s quiet, remote and there’s quite a bit to see if you make the effort! You will not find Disneyland crowds for sure.