North Fork John Day River and Granite Oregon – Gold Country!

31 10 2014

north fork john day river, camping, oregon, hikingHiking 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.

north fork john day river, columbine, wildflowers

Columbine

indian paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush

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.

DSCF1577 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.

DSCF1573DSCF1575There 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.

DSCF1566The 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.

IMG_1073

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.

anthony lakes ski area

IMG_1072





Oregon’s Ochoco Mountains and John Day River Picture Gorge: Journey Thru Time Oregon Scenic Byway

30 08 2013
Journey Thru Time Car

Uh Oh! Am I going back in time?

Planning my trip was a bit of an effort. The route I wanted to see in inner NE Oregon wasn’t all that clear – I had no less than four maps and guides. Some showed route numbers, and some just gray lines on the map. Others showed possible ghost towns, like “Greenhorn,” “Granite,” “Sumpter,” or “Susanville.”  And others still showed tent icons where one might camp along the way. So, I pieced together a route from all these sources. Looking at it in total, I decided the most rewarding way to head out there was to use Oregon’s highway 26. That would take me past Mount Hood, into Central Oregon, through Prineville, and up and into the Ochoco Mountains.

From there, the road would meander along the John Day River and the Journey Thru Time Oregon Scenic Byway. What better way to get to inner NE Oregon? The other way would take me via I-84 which I have seen so many times. Highway 26 meanders through farms, ranches, and small towns such as Mitchell, Dayville and Prairie City, all the way to its connection with the Elkhorn Oregon Scenic Byway.

I’d need to get an early start. So the night before, I packed the 2013 Ford Escape SE. The weather forecast looked great. I would be on the road by 8:00 a.m. And what a day it was. Sunny and bright. I’d just had the car’s first oil change, so it was ready. Packed up, iPhone 4S plugged in with 1,840 songs, ready to go!  No kayaking this trip so I removed the roof rack to get max mileage. I’ll have grilled pork chops tonight with mashed potatoes and salad. But I dunno where I’ll be camping. Just figure it out. See how it goes.

On my way. Up and over the Oregon Cascades, through Blue Box Pass, about 4,400ft. Then into the Central Oregon Plateau past Madras. From here, I can see Mount Bachelor (9,068 ft), the Three Sisters (10,358 ft),  Broken Top, Mount Washington (7,800 ft) Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson (10,450 ft) Olallie Butte, Mount Hood (11,241 ft) and even Mount Adams (12,280 ft)!

I climb the Ochocos. These are high dry mountains. It’s pretty up here. Ponderosa pines are everywhere.

OchocoDescending toward the John Day River Valley, the view is unlimited, the sky crystal clear.

The road eventually drops into a crack in the earth – the Picture Gorge. In the Picture Gorge, the John Day River has followed a fault line for millions of years. That is right.

And it has flowed here for so long that it is older than the mountains themselves. When the flood basalts erupted and flowed all over eastern Oregon millions of years ago, the John Day River kept on cutting through on its way to the Columbia. Thousands of feet of basalt layer caked one upon another but the John Day continued cutting.

Today, the John Day river flows north right through the ascending basalt layers, even as the highway descends in the opposite direction. There are few places on Planet Earth where a river seems to flow INTO a mountain, rather than out of it. This is one such place. I saw another in New Zealand, when I was there in January 2013.

Not long after the Picture Gorge, highway 26 opens up into a beautiful valley filled with farms and ranches.

It is here one finds the entrance to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and Oregon’s Painted Hills. I’m not here to see these treasures, my quarry lies beyond.

But I am enjoying the view, and by noon getting hungry. The town of Mitchell comes within striking distance, so I decide to Stop in Mitchell, Oregon and grab a bite for lunch. Mitchell1

Like a lot of eastern Oregon towns, Mitchell has seen better days. Yet, it has enough character to hold up all its own. Townsfolk lazily walk the street, stopping to seek shelter and converse under a shady porch or tree.

Mitchell2Nobody is in a hurry in Mitchell!

My lunch spot today is to be the Little Pine Cafe, right on main street.

Its customers this lunch are myself, a family from Portland, and a mother with toddler. Mom and toddler regularly go behind the counter to pick up condiments or change the station playing on cable TV.Mitchell3

I pick the Mushroom Swiss burger and a side of macaroni & cheese. Turns out to be fine and dandy!

Adorning the walls are pictures of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gene Autry, plus locals over the years. There are a lot of dollar bills with various scribbles thumb-tacked to the walls. One says, “Brought my boyfriend from CA up here. He says, this explains a lot!”

I can only imagine. I depart feeling satisfied, planning to return on my next pass through.

Today’s drive will take me through the towns of John Day, Prairie City, and into the Elkhorns, into Sumpter and Granite.

Check back on the next blog post for Elkhorn Mountain trip journal entries!