Memorial Day Camping along Oregon’s John Day River – Escaping the Rain!

30 05 2011

Lazy days in Mitchell, Oregon

2011 has been one of the rainiest/coldest on record in Oregon. With only a few sunny days in the 70’s, May has felt a lot like February! The summer season typically kicks off in Oregon’s Cascades around Memorial Day but in 2011, all the mountain campgrounds are still under snow!

Solution? Head east! Oregon’s reputation for rain belies the fact that most of the state is high desert.

When most Oregonians think “high desert” they think the Three Sisters / Bend region. While that area has great weather and is beautiful, it’s become full of tourists.

Truly beautiful and overlooked is the region between Condon / Service Creek / Spray and Mitchell. Head there and you’d think you were in northern Arizona. Plus, locals are really friendly, it hasn’t been wrapped in tourist trap coffee shops, wildlife art galleries and microbreweries. It’s as it was.

I got three days off from Alder Creek so I could spend some time out there, to help celebrate my upcoming 50th birthday. My longtime friend from college Tully Alford came along. We loaded up the bikes and overburdened my VW Jetta Wagon with campfire wood and headed east! We had great weather that first day.

I’d scouted the area in early May and found this BLM Campground called Muleshoe right along the river. That was our target. Once past Service Creek, along Oregon Hwy 19, we came to the campground. True to form, the road was empty, as was the campground. We had it to ourselves!

Some campgrounds offer both sites with drive-in parking and other sites called “primitive” or “walk in.”

I have always found the walk in sites superior to the others.

These sites are more separated, with more trees and shrubs offering a more privacy and outdoorsy experience. True to form, at Muleshoe’s primitive sites were far and away the best. In this region, shade is paramount, and we picked a site with a lovely juniper tree above the picnic table.

So we set up camp, including the QuickUp shelter borrowed from my neighbors Janis and Brent Campbell! That shelter is KEY. Not only does it provide much needed shade on hot desert days, but we wound up spending a couple hours underneath it our second night, during a rainy spell!

Yes, although these photos show the sun, we had all kinds of weather in three days. We began with sun in the high 70’s, with a warm star filled evening, but day two broke cloudy. No rain until after 5:00 though. Then a cold front swept through with some wind. We weighed down the canopy so it wouldn’t blow away. I had to don a winter parka. The following morning was 100% clear, warm and bright. I ditched the fleece for shorts. But on our return through Prineville, that same day, we had some snow flurries! That’s 2011 spring in Oregon…back and forth all day.

The area is geologically significant, and its geology made fossilization of millions of years of plants and animals possible. We were driving the Journey Through Time Highway.

Going back some 60 million years, repeated ash falls from volcanoes and basaltic flows covered the area.

The region is a pancake of layers of ash, basalt and other evidence of such activity.

Those layers have been uplifted by tectonic forces lying deep beneath Oregon, the North American and Pacific Plates, which intersect there.

All these layers are younger than the dinosaur era. So there are myriad early mammals that sprang up, evolved and became extinct.

We took a hike up one of the fossil bearing canyons. It was completely otherworldly in there. There were examples along the trail of turtle, saber toothed cat and bird fossils.

Later, we visited the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument Information Center. It’s worth visiting and we took in an 18-minute film detailing the rich fossil record found in the area. The ash falls fell on creatures and the chemical nature of the ash preserved them.

Our last day dawned clear and warm. After excellent breakfast of oatmeal, blueberries, banana, yogurt and a few strips of campfire bacon we headed back to Portland through Prineville. It snowed on the way to Prineville! Maybe we’ll have summer in Oregon…but when?