Mill Creek Wilderness, May 24th to 26th

Memorial Day usually marks the start of the backpacking season. That doesn’t mean you can’t go earlier, it only means you should plan something and go. Depending on the year though, you may still have some lingering sucky weather up north and some areas might still be inaccessible due to snow. So it’s a great time to look south. In a report I read, I found about the Twin Pillars in the Mill Creek Wilderness in Central Oregon. This T-bone steak shaped wilderness is part of the Ochoco National Forest which has been on my radar for some time now so after a bit of research Val and I packed our stuff, dropped the cats and left Friday night. The drive was quick an easy and we got to the trail head in the middle of the night. As we were setting up our beds in the Subaru, we had a visit from the ranger just checking everything was ok. It was a bit scary at first but reassuring that they are there.

Day 1: Twin Pillars South to Whistler Spring via Wildcat

Very early on Saturday we woke up to a beautiful crisp day and after a quick breakfast and much stretching we hit the trail. The first portion of it, all the way to the fork with the Belknap Trail is pretty level as it follows the East Fork Mill Creek crossing it several times – we counted seven. Some of those are so close together that you could bushwhack from one to the next and save a couple of crossings. We did manage to do all crossings except the last one without taking our shoes off. The last one was a bit deeper and there was no big log nearby. The area as certainly a different kind of forest to what we’re used to though. Instead of the lush green, the forest in the area was very open with lots of gigantic Ponderosa Pines. The red bark with the green grasses and the blue sky made for some pretty interesting contrast.
We got to the Belknap Junction pretty quick and made the turn to start climbing. As you do, the Ponderosa forest is left behind and you get to a higher more exposed area where it’s easy to see the remnants of the 2000 fire that devastated most of the area. The other thing you find is more signs of cattle farming. Once the trail reaches the Wildcat Trail and turn on it, you follow a quasi-ridge with views of the Ochoco Mountains to the East and Desolation Canyon to the west. This trail can get pretty exposed and dusty in areas. At some point, with the heat and exposure we started running out of water but soon enough we reached the East Fork Mill Creek were we replenished and cooled down. From there, a short walk brought us to the upper end of the Wildcat trail at Whistler Springs. Kind of unexpecting it, this end if actually an unimproved campground just at the boundary of the wilderness. Certainly the big truck, camper and ATVs were a bit out of place. We followed the campground road to the end where we found a fence and a good water source. Further from there, we found a flat area where we decided to pitch our tent.
Since it was still early for dinner and we had some energy left in us, we decided to go exploring a bit. One of things I had found in my research was a picture from Whistler Point, a small rock outcrop pretty close by. We followed very faint paths as much as we could but in the end, we bushwhacked our way to the top were I found the exact same picture. It was very well worth it. The top itself is covered with red rocks and some dried trees with white barks. All that beauty in the foreground has the Mill Creek Wilderness as a backdrop. From up there you can see the wildcat trail and the ridge it follows and Desolation Canyon.
We spent there enough time to suck all that scenery in before heading back down to camp and a well-deserved diner.

Day 2: Whistler Spring to Belknap Junction via Twin Pillars

We usually wake up and go for a walk before breakfast, that’s or thing when we’re backpacking. Unfortunately, here, there wasn’t anywhere to walk or go check out in the morning (unless we went back up to Whistler point). So after checking the area around us, we had breakfast, packed and left. We knew we had to backtrack a bit to get back on the road as you need to hike on Rd27 to close this loop. Before we got all the way up though, we found what looked to be the road to take. We followed it for a bit until it pretty much disappeared under brushes and fallen trees. By then we knew we were not on the right track. One option was to backtrack again and the other, was to just bushwhack north to find the road. We opted for option two which took us right back and eventually showed that there was a road at some point.
Once on the road we followed it pass Moccasin Prairie to Bingham Springs were we turn to an unimproved campground where the Twin Pillars north trailhead is.
The campground was king of eerie as we found nobody there but a fire ring was still smoking. While putting it off with some water is when we noticed the fire extinguisher on the tree full of bullet holes and the leg of some animal hanging from it. Luckily we didn’t hear banjos. We crossed the campground and pretty soon were back on the trail.
We passed a planted forest full of smaller trees growing around fallen logs that looked like a giant game of sticks. A bit further scenery changed again when we reached the top end of desolation canyon.
Some of the old trees block part of the view but thru them you can see the rock formations that limit this canyon. It was quite impressive. After that, the trail started slowly going down and being around noon; we started looking for a place to stop for lunch. Back in a more forested area, we saw to the side what looked to be a clearing so we went off trail to find where we thought it was but noticed an outcrop to the side so we hiked up there and found a perfect spot. We had lunch sitting on red rocks overlooking the valley below us. Then I made the mistake to try a different way back to avoid a very dense part we passed on the way up. The problem was that we missed the trail. Not only that, we got in the fire zone so everything around us was burned and dead. We walked for a while in this very dusty and blackened soil towards the pillars which we could clearly see in the distance and knew it was our destination until we realized we were back on the trail. What used to be a forest is now charred logs shining under the sun and coper branches. Then we got to the Twin Pillars that, from this approach, doesn’t look too impressive and it’s hard to tell why the call them Twins. We continued down on the trail which pretty much goes around the pillars and once you get on the west side is when you really get the picture.

From the side you can see that there 3 or 4 outcrops but two of them are higher and more prominent that the others. Together whit Whistler Point these are the highlights of this area.
Once you go around the pillars, the trail continued on a little ridge on the south side before it starts climbing down into the oven. As you loose elevation, you get deeper into the canyon with very little vegetation and still remnants of the fire. It’s hot and dusty but eventually you hear a creek, make a turn a quick downhill and you are back next to the South Fork of the Mill Creek. It didn’t take us long to find a good spot for our second night. After setting up camp, we spent some time refreshing ourselves in the creek and exploring around.

Day 3: Belknap Junction to Twin Pillars south trailhead

Last day we wanted to back in the car at a reasonable time for the drive home. Being about 3 miles and 7 creek crossings, we were able to do it pretty quickly while still enjoying, one more time, passing thru the Ponderosa Pine forest. Once out and on the road we got an extra bonus as we were able to admire the scenery that we didn’t see on the drive in including the Steins Pillar.

You can check the pictures here



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Hardy ridge, Apr 26th

Hardy Ridge is an area that has some fairly new trails. About two or three years ago I remember volunteering with the Washington trail Association (WTA) to build one of the connector trails in that area. After that I never went back to check it out. Looking at the weather forecast, Val and I noticed that it was going to be rainy and quite crappy pretty much everywhere. We still wanted to get out and do some hiking so this came to mind. The trail system is actually some old jeep roads and connector trails that open two approaches to the upper trail that leads to the top of Hardy Ridge. The most common way to do this hike is up one way and back the other so it’s an out and back with a loop in the middle. I guess we can call this a candy hike instead of a lollipop. The hike itself is not very difficult and offers some pretty nice rewards. With the weather we thought that we would not see anything but where surprised to be just under the cloud ceiling. From our side we could see the gorge and the rain going from one place to another. At some point we got some pretty dark clouds on top of us but never a drop of rain. We got lucky. It was a great day out.



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Dog Augspurger loop, Apr 12th

This is the hike that never fails, unless you have really bad weather in the Gorge. Soon after you start you get to the first open vistas of the Columbia Gorge and the further you go, the better they get. On this particular instance, we were a bit early for the wild flower display when the side of the mountain is painted bright yellow. That would have been a bonus. We did the normal way up to the summit were we found tons of people. On the way down though, instead or retracing our steps, we did the slightly longer route taking the Augspurger trail back. That gave us a bit of different scenery and fewer hikers. Splendid day



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West Zigzag Mountain, Apr 6th

If you are looking for a hike that can be clearly described as a training hike, this one is it. Actually is almost like this trail should not have the name Zigzag attached to it. With that I’m not saying it is a really nice hike but if you are expecting the views you would get from any of the other approaches to Zigzag then you are in for disappointment… or a much longer hike. The trail starts from the lowest point of the ridge on the west side very close to Lolo Pass road so access is very easy and fast. Once you start, it doesn’t take long for the innumerable switchbacks to get repetitive. In the first couple of miles, the trail climbs steeple towards the ridge but it never stops ascending. At some point and once you’re on the ridgeline it becomes more gradual. From the map it would seem you get some views but if there are any, is from within the trees and mostly down towards Rhododendron. The west Zigzag summit is the first “destination” to which you do most of the elevation. The day Val and I did this hike weather was not cooperating much so we opted for turning around at his point and retracing our steps back to the car. If you continue on this trail, eventually you get to the open ridge that does offer magnificent views of t Hood



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Dome Rock, Mar 22nd

I found this hike by chance and what a surprise it was. While looking at some recent trip reports in several hiking sites, I found one that was particularly interesting. It wasn’t about Dome Rock but a saddle and a ridge line right across from it. I started looking at maps and soon found the saddle they were talking about. Then, in one of the pictures the pointed out that it was Dome Rock across the valley. I also found that on the map and noticed a trail which prompted me to research a bit more and plan this hike. Getting there couldn’t be easier. While other hikes require some complex directions sometimes driving on forest roads with no signs, this trailhead starts from a highway pull off. The first part follows an old service road along Tumble Creek. Soon after you start, a trail veers off to the right and climbs towards the ridge and things change. For a while the trail meanders thru the forest gaining elevation quite rapidly until everything opens up with a side view of Detroit Lake and the ridges around Tumble Lake higher up. But these views are just a teaser of what’s coming. Several switchbacks after and some interesting rock formation appear as you go. Then the trail takes a weird turn and the angle of the views change direction. Another opening, very similar to the first one offers views of Mt Jefferson, three Finger Jack, Sisters, Coffin Mountain and all the other peaks in that area. We had a hard time naming the different mountains we could see. Finally we got to a fork and our last push to the summit of Dome Rock. At this point the trail becomes exposed as it circles a couple of times and climbs the on a narrow path towards the top. Once there, it easy to understand why there used to be a fire lookout tower there. We stopped there for Lunch having trouble deciding in which direction to sit. Views were spectacular.



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