North Fork John Day River Backpack

26 08 2016
River Evening Peaceful

The peaceful nirvana of early evening at the Oriental Springs Campground

In July, Laura and I planned to backpack a 10-mile section of the North Fork John Day River in central eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. The entire river is a nationally designated wild and scenic river, so we were very excited! I had hiked the eastern portion back in 2014. This time, the plan was to try hiking from the western end. The whole trail, some 50 miles, is steeped in gold-rush history. Back in the 1870’s gold was struck in the area, and thousands braved the wilds to strike it rich. Today, although the big mines are mostly gone, there are still active mining claims with people panning for gold! I’ll post a blog about that next. But for now, it’s about the backpacking.

This hard-to-reach trailhead and backpack had been on my list for many years. It took about 5 hours from Portland. Even when you get off the state road, the dirt road/4WD track to the last campground and trailhead is many miles. Due to the long drive, we just planned to car camp the first night at Oriental Springs Campground. Arriving about 5:00 p.m., the heat of the day had passed. The river sits in a tight valley, and the shadows were already beginning to lengthen.

Oriental Campground We had the whole place to ourselves. There were lots of puddles on the road – and blow down. There must have been a recent thunderstorm. Though most of the area was dry and dusty, the evidence of rain was there. Despite the standing water, there were no mosquitoes. Lucky us.

Laura found the campfire to her liking! Laura Fire Oriental Campground

In the morning, we sipped coffee, ate breakfast and packed up.

It was a moderately cool morning. Very pleasant!

Not in a hurry, we didn’t plan on hitting the trail until maybe 11:00. Big mistake.

Laura packed for backpack

Packed up and ready!

With the car locked and packs filled, we hit the trail. My research revealed that this is bear and cougar country. So, we both wore jingle bells on our wrists and used trekking poles, which made us very noisy to any hungry or motherly creatures out there! And merry makers to others.

Bear Bells

Bear bells highly suggested!

The trail lies on the northern (i.e. sunniest) side of the river. The forest here is amber-colored bark Ponderosa pine. If you’ve never been in a Ponderosa pine forest – I need to describe. Instead of tightly laced tree branches typical of Douglas fir forests – which are shady and therefore offer a cooling effect, Ponderosa pines are spread farther apart, with not nearly as many branches between trees touching. Hikes in Pondersoa forests are more vulnerable to hot sun. This one is no exception.

The valley slopes reached skyward immediately from the northern side of the trail. Soon,  the place became a convection oven! We had no relief from the sun or the broiler-like hillside next to us. But there was more. There was winter blowdown. Packs on, we climbed over or slithered under fallen trees.

It didn’t take long for signs of large wildlife to appear. The recent rain and puddles left some flat, muddy areas. Anything walking over would leave footprints, betraying its presence. We noticed deer, elk, and then – bear and cougar prints!

Bear Track

No doubt about what left these prints!

Not long after, and right smack in the middle of the trail, we saw a pile of poop. Not just any pile of poop. Because whatever this creature ate it was full of seeds! Bear scat. Between the trail and the river at this particular point is an area full of blackberries. No doubt this bear was feasting.

Heat aside, it’s a very beautiful river. It winds lazily along, and except for some deeper pools, it’s about 2-3 feet deep. But the heat quickly got to us. We found an open place for lunch and discovered it was a camping spot. It didn’t look like it had been used recently because growth was starting to cover the fire ring. As hard as it was to accept, we actually decided to base camp here. It was a place that offered shade!


Feeling guilty and pretty annoyed about the heat and the fact that we’d only covered 2.5 miles, we decided to hike further up the river. What we discovered unexpectedly justified stopping to camp were we did.

We didn’t find anywhere suitable to camp. And grass plus brush had assertively grown across the trail, about knee high. We wore shorts. And I’d heard stories about lots of ticks from other hikers recently. So we pressed on, but were constantly checking our legs for critters.

Eventually we’d had enough and, frustrated, we started back. Just when we began to get cranky, I saw a possible wading spot. We walked down there and waded out into the river. This was the respite we needed. More, we realized, this what this day was all about. Sitting in the river, with it flowing over our overheated souls, we cooled down enough and it became almost meditative. Impossible to get out.

Laura on rock in river

We spent time here, and then back at camp, spent more time just enjoying the water! Well, what to do with the rest of our time out here? We decided to get on the trail early the next day, before the heat picked up, hike out, and then drive over to Anthony Lakes and car camp.

Laura on Anthony Lake

An end-of-day happy hour at Anthony Lakes!

Anthony Lakes is a year-round recreational area. In summer there is camping, hiking, boating, and fishing. And even some sailing. It’s elevation is over 7,000 feet, so it’s got dry powder snow in the winter. The Anthony Lakes Ski Area is popular with locals all winter long. Plus, there are lovely Cross-Country trails all around. The stars were really spectacular. All together, we had a nice trip!


Oregon’s Gold Rush Region! Sumpter, Oregon and Granite, Oregon

6 09 2013

Route MapMy interest on this trip was focused on the areas around the North Fork John Day River Wilderness Area. I’d be driving Oregon’s Route 7, Route 73, Route 20 and Route 52. Today, I’d pass through Prairie City – on state highway 26, on my way to Sumpter, Oregon. This is 100% marked as scenic on the maps!

I’d be camping at Anthony Lake, though I didn’t know it when I began. I will tell you the drive along Oregon’s Highway 26, the Journey Thru Time Oregon Scenic Byway, is serene and calming. It wends its way through ranches and farms and small towns like Mitchell and Dayville, with less than 250 population. Absolutely nobody is in a rush here.

A few dozen miles east lies Prairie City. They’re making an effort to refresh main street here, and it looks pretty. I fill the tank with gas, and here they still clean your windshield! Then Oregon Route 7 intersects, and I’m on my way up to the Elkhorn Mountains, climbing all the way.

This is GOLD RUSH territory! In 1883 Sumpter was founded. By 1897 a railway reached the area, and the population grew to 2,000 as gold mines and claims proliferated. There were 12 miles of underground tunnels. Even today, I saw staked out gold mining claims!

Fort SumpterThese days Sumpter is preserved as a tourist attraction of Gold Rush history. Much of it has been restored to look as it was. I even saw a fort. I wondered if that fort was supposed to look like the Civil War Fort Sumpter? To me, it looked like it was right out of the 1960s TV series “F-Troop.”

Two of Sumpter’s main attractions are the Sumpter Valley Railway and Sumpter Valley Dredge. The railway, opening in 1890, was built to haul lumber 22 miles to Baker City. Within two years it was hauling passengers and freight. Today, it is a 6-mile narrow gauge tourist ride.

The Sumpter Valley Dredge is a monument to capitalism and 19th century technology. These 4-stories-tall dredges floated in ponds, and as they dug, the ponds moved with them. They consisted of conveyor belt of buckets to dig earth and carry inside for processing, the internal processing machinery, and another conveyor out back to dump out the waste. There were three of them in the valley. Ironically even though they only employed three workers each, they ended their machine-lives $100,000 in debt. Sumpter Dredge

Climbing out of Sumpter, the road switchbacks ever higher. I drive along a high altitude creek lined with mining claims, and with piles of rocks which could only have been left by days-gone-by gold prospectors.

Then I reach Granite, elevation 4,695. Granite’s population is 38. It looks bigger than that. It’s got a “Welcome to Granite” sign over the road. It’s got a fuel depot and a hotel. Still, it has a look and feel of a genuine frontier town. Founded in the 1880’s, granite boasted a population of 86 gold miners by 1940, but in WWII, the government ordered gold mining shut down to make miners dig for “esseFire Crew Signntial war effort” materials. Granite collapsed, and never recovered.

Past Granite, I made up my mind that I would camp at Anthony Lake, some 40 miles distant. I’d be cruising the Elkhorn Oregon Scenic Byway. On my way to that byway I ran across something unsettling – a Forest Fire Camp. During this trip there was a giant fire threatening Yosemite National Park, so forest fires were in the news.

Yet I didn’t know that the Forest Service established camps supporting hundreds of firefighters even before a fire started. Wow. That is serious.

Fire Crew StationThe camp I saw was several acres, high in the mountains, in a big meadow. And as big as it was it was clear that there was room for probably a thousand men up there.


Fire Crew2That made me much more aware of the gravity of the situation.

Beyond the Fire Camp, I ran into something I came out here for. It is the trailhead for the backpacking trail on the North Fork of the John Day River. I had heard about this many years before and now I was here. Too bad I am injured now, and can’t do it. But I will be back.

NF John Day SignIt’s very very pretty up here, and there are just not a lot of people to bother you. That is the beauty!

I decide to push east and camp at Anthony Lake. I have been there to ski in the winter, but never seen it without snow. I just have to check it out. On the way I reach a high point in the Elkhorn Moountains, about 7,250ft.Elkhorns 7250

The view goes on forever. It seems a high plateau goes on from here and one could backpack quite a ways.

Then I descend down into the Anthony Lakes area.

The lake is much smaller than I remembered, as I had cross country skied around it two times in the past.

Anthony Lake PanoramaI had imagined it would have campsites on it. But nope. The campground is to one side, and it has day use areas on the other. There are walk-in sites to another side.

I also paid a visit to Anthony Lakes Ski Area.Anthony Lakes Sign


Without snow, it looks so different. I quickly realized I could actually drive around the lodge and onto some of the lower slopes I had skied!

This was pure devilish fun! Well, with that bucket list item checked off, I returned to the campground and made my meal. I grilled a pork chop, made mashed potatoes, had an awesome campfire, and salad. Then, off to sleep.

I had hoped to see a million stars – but that was not to be. The smoke from the Yosemite fire partially obscured a picture perfect view. Next time I guess!



Skiing Anthony Lakes, Oregon

25 01 2011

Lunch in the lodge

MLK Weekend 2011 was spent out in La Grande, OR, and we planned to ski and enjoy the outdoors around Anthony Lakes Ski area. Our friends Craig and Lisa moved out there in 2010 and had bought a house downtown.

My friends Kent, Alex and Stacy all planned on heading out with me for the weekend. Craig & Lisa were very excited to have us in town and show off their place! They had a nice one-story place – real cute with a new metal roof. Craig had just bought a new 55″ LED 3D TV…holy cow it took up half the back room! We’d spend a lot of time hooking it up for Blu-Ray and Netflix streaming movies.

Ready to head out...

Situated in the Elkhorn Mountains about 45 minutes from La Grande, Anthony Lakes is a combined alpine and Nordic ski area. The alpine area only has one triple lift. Small, but it’s known for dry powder. Its base is about 6,000ft and the summit 8,000ft. The lakes themselves make for nice cross country skiing. And one can park at the alpine lodge and do an XC ski from there. Very pretty area!

It’s very low key, something I love. The lift tickets are sold out of a little shack, and are only $35, good for both XC and alpine. If you only want to do XC, it’s $13. Better yet, you can get $5 off if you bring a season pass from another ski area! The lodge is 1970’s retro. And I got a sharpen and wax in 20 minutes for $15.

Just before we left for La Grande, the weather forecast was gloomy and I was afraid everyone would cancel. A massive “pineapple express” – a warm front, was coming and rain predicted even up to 8,000ft. Winter in recreation in the Cascades would be ruined, and maybe as far as Anthony Lakes. Because we wanted to visit Craig & Lisa we rallied and still headed out. We were rewarded Saturday because instead a wintry mix, it snowed all afternoon! Even though the downhill skiing conditions weren’t ideal we felt really fortunate!

Kent, Alex, Craig and I did lots of the groomed runs. The non-groomed runs were passable, but not worth bothering that day. Craig showed us some of the views and I could definitely see that on a powder day Anthony Lakes offered some sweet terrain.

I got a nice shot of Alex at a craggy tree at the summit. It was fast snow and I was tempted to tuck all the way to the bottom!

By noon, I had my fill of the alpine terrain. If the snow were typical powder, I’d have done more downhill.

Lisa and Stacy skied the Nordic area in the morning. By now it had started snowing in earnest! I decided to check out the cross country ski trails for the afternoon…

Cross country skiing at Anthony Lakes is a treat. Trails follow routes around small lakes and these lakes lie below some craggy peaks of the Elkhorn Mountains.

I headed out with Kent, Stacy and Lisa, and we all split up because we had different XC goals for the afternoon. The trails had some twisting downhill sections, and I fell three times! I rarely fell in downhill skiing. In fact the ONLY time I have ever come out of my current ski bindings is when I was hit by a snowboarder, dislocating my shoulder, in 2009! But not so in Nordic. There, I am more of a novice I guess!

Saturday night we had a relaxed dinner in La Grande at Ten Depot Street. It’s one of the nicest restaurants in town, kind of Western grande style, but you don’t have to go for the $26 entree. You can still get something for $12.

Then we headed back to the house for a night of fiddling with the new Samsung 55″ LED TV and the Blu-ray player. Blu-ray is very nice! But these streaming and 3D systems can be problematic …I won’t go into a lot of details, but it was a wireless system, 3D, capable of streaming movies over Netflix, etc. To get this to work you have to get yourself the right accounts set up, your passwords handy, have your manuals ready, have your wireless router signal strong, have your Internet connection fast, etc. etc. etc. If one piece of the puzzle isn’t up to the task (and that includes the human techies) it can get problematic. In our case it took Internet research to find out the TV had a software bug and couldn’t connect to the Internet – so we used the Blu-ray for that. In the end, it was the bandwidth. We needed a faster Internet connection. But the time spent gave a window to make a marionberry cobbler, which was a good reward.

The 3D was interesting, especially amusing to look at people wearing the 3D glasses…

I’m not ready to say that 3D for HD TV is ready for prime time. But it is a fun toy I guess! Those glasses cost $129…

Sunday broke with heavy rain courtesy of the warm front – dousing any winter recreation plans. We spent the morning reading the paper at a La Grande coffee shop and then decided it was time to make our way back to Portland…we got Kent some new windshield wiper blades for the monsoon-soaked drive back…see you next time Anthony Lakes…when the powder returns!