Tuesday, May 4, 2021

More From Cottonwood Canyon

On my second day at Cottonwood Canyon State Park (read about day one here), I emerged from my cozy cabin into the pre-dawn chill, hoping to catch sunrise.  I walked up the Sage Knob trail to the park overlook toting my camera and tripod.  Although I enjoyed watching the day break from my lofty perch, sadly sunrise wasn't anything spectacular.  Oh well, I had another full day to explore this wonderful state park - time to move on!

More wonderful signage

Hoping that the bighorn sheep herd would return to the cliffs overlooking the Pinnacles Trailhead, I dropped my tripod at the cabin and hoofed over that direction.  On the way I passed another example of this park's beautiful and creative signage, this time at a fishing spot along the river.  

Tall cliffs along the John Day River

I retraced a bit of yesterday's hike down the Pinnacles Trail, hoping to spot some wildlife.  The only critter I saw was a lone Canadian goose sitting on the beach.  No sheep to be seen anywhere.

Rust-colored vegetation along the river

Even the cliff swallow nests high on the cliff faces were empty.  It apparently wasn't nesting season yet.

Cliff swallow nests

Coming up empty in my wildlife quest, it was now time to check out another hiking trail.  Today's trek of choice was the Lost Corral Trail.  This path headed in the same direction as the Pinnacles trail, except it was on the south side of the John Day River.  I drove across the highway bridge to access this trail via J.S. Burres trailhead.

Near the Lost Corral Trailhead

The parking area was huge.  Not only was this a hiking trailhead, it also provided parking for river rafters accessing a nearby boat ramp.  Besides fishing, rafting was also an extremely popular activity on the John Day River, especially in warmer months.  Although it seemed too early (and too cold!) to be riding the rapids, I noticed two vehicles with trailers parked in the lot.  

Interesting clouds

Grabbing my backpack, I quickly found the trailhead, marked with a tall ranch-style archway.  The trail started out on a gravelly road, through a huge field of sagebrush.  A couple of mountain bikers with their dog passed me, the only people I'd see on the trail all day.

John Day River along the Lost Corral Trail

Soon the sagebrush petered out, opening up views across the river.  I could see the ranch buildings on the opposite side.  After a bit more walking, I also spotted the cabins.  Then the path veered away from the river and took me underneath more tall basalt cliffs.

Evidence of ranch use

After walking under the cliffs for a mile or so my trail veered towards the river again for some sweeping views.  Then it plunged back into scrubby sagebrush once again.  The far point of this trail wasn't too exciting - a lot of sagebrushy hills.  Since this area used to be a ranch I'd sometimes spot traces of the former land use - fence posts, rusting tools, or a couple of arched gateways.

Here it is - the lost corral

Although 4.3 miles didn't seem like an especially long distance, it seemed to take forever to finally reach the famed "lost corral."  I was expecting a restored structure, much like the barn and farmhouse near the park's campground.  Instead all I found was a weed-choked, tumble-down wooden fence and corral - it had seen better days!

Not much to see here

There was also a fence covered with what appeared to be pieces of old advertising signs.  Again, kind of a disappointment - nothing spectacular and definitely not what I expected.

Return trip by the cliffs

There was a sign pointing to a side path called the "Esau Loop Trail."  It appeared to veer closer to the river, so I decided to check it out.  I climbed up a slight ridge, giving great views of the river and adjacent hills above the opposite bank.  I could even spot yesterday's turnaround point on the Pinnacles Trail.  Tall electrical towers poked up from the hilltops, carrying power from all those wind turbines I'd passed on the way to the park.  

River reflections

The trail then led downhill.  It was closer to the river all right, but meandered through a patch of tall grasses that blocked most of the water views.  And this being tick country, I wasn't real thrilled about walking in a grassy area.  Gingerly I tried to stay in the middle of the path as much as possible to avoid brushing up against any vegetation.

It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day

After nearly a mile, the loop connected back to the main Lost Corral Trail, and I pointed myself towards the trailhead.  By now it was early afternoon and the sun had burned off the morning clouds.  Under full sun, it was downright toasty!  I got so warm I stripped down to my short sleeve t-shirt - first time this year hiking without a jacket.

Adjacent riverbank color reflected in the river

About halfway back to the trailhead the trail passed an overlook perched high on the riverbank.  A wooden bench was strategically placed here giving visitors commanding views.  Of course I had to take a photo break.  The blue sky, puffy clouds, and lovely rust-gold colors of vegetation lining the John Day River made for some spectacular images.  These gold colors reflecting in the river's waters provided an opportunity to capture a few abstract photographs.

North side of the river

Not used to hiking in the heat, my final two miles were long, slow, and tiresome.  Afternoon light on the on the river's north canyon walls was most amazing, but sadly by the point I was too exhausted to care.  All I could think about was a cold drink and hot shower waiting for me back at the campground.  I ended up logging 9.4 miles on the Lost Corral Trail, and needless to say, I was ready for some rest.

A final potty run before bedtime (no bathrooms in the cabins) provided an unexpected delight.  The previous night had been overcast but tonight's sky was crystal clear - highlighting millions of stars twinkling overhead.  It was an absolutely amazing sight!  Although the air was chilly I stopped in my tracks and gazed upward, enthralled by this dazzling sky show.  Living in an urban area with ubiquitous light pollution prevents me from seeing much of the night sky.  Here in the middle of nowhere galaxies blazed in the darkness, without any competition.

Sunrise over the cabins

The following morning, my final day at Cottonwood Canyon, I rose early to photograph sunrise.  Instead of climbing up to Sage Knob again I hung out on my cabin's porch.  It faced eastward so I reasoned why not catch sunrise from my front door?  Actually, the best sky color happened due west that day, so I turned my tripod around and captured my neighboring cabins in the frame.

Hard Stone Trail

Since I was up so early, I decided to go on one final hike before the noontime check out.  I decided to check out another official trail in the park, the Hard Stone Trail.  This shorter path followed the north side of the John Day but in the opposite direction of the campground.

John Day River along the Hard Stone Trail

It was a cold, but gorgeous morning.  Birds chirped and sang as I wandered along Hard Stone Trail's abandoned gravel road.  Soft light illuminated the John Day River and adjacent hills, providing excellent photographic opportunities.

Morning light on the adjacent hills

This trail also had several excellent overlooks of the mighty John Day, complete with sturdy wooden benches to sit and contemplate nature.

Another view of the river

The trail took a sharp turn at the river's bend and meandered under several high basalt cliffs.  A couple of vultures circled overhead, gliding on air currents.  I turned around soon after, retracing my steps back along the riverbank, enjoying the solitude, beautiful light, and spectacular scenery.  I even spotted my first balsamroot wildflower of the season, high on a bluff overhead.  I decided the Hard Stone Trail was my favorite of the three trails I'd hiked at Cottonwood Canyon.

First balsamroot of the year!

Back from my morning walk, while approaching the cabins, I noticed some white specks on the cliffs near the river.  Were they the bighorn sheep herd?  The campground host, who happened to be cleaning the cabin next door, confirmed my suspicion.  She encouraged me to go over to the Pinnacles Trailhead, explaining I'd get a much better view from there.

Finally some bighorn sheep! 

Quickly I grabbed my zoom lens and hightailed it towards the cliffs.  Although the herd was quite a far distance away, my 100-400 lens with a 1.4x extender helped immensely.  I was so excited - finally, on my last day, I was able to see some bighorn sheep!  

I spent a good hour watching the herd through my zoom lens.  Although they spent most of the time grazing, a couple of the younger sheep began butting heads (which I tried to capture but it ended up too small to show adequately).   When the last of the bighorns slowly began wandering over the ridge and out of view, I shut off my camera and headed back to the cabin to pack up.

Bighorn sheep posing for my lens

I really didn't want to leave this beautiful river canyon.  I loved the scenery, the wild, wide-open spaces, and the peace and quiet.  It was a wonderful break from the modern world.  Each cabin had a guest book, and during my final hour before noon check-out I sat and read all the entries from the past two years.  After some thought, I composed a paragraph of my own.

All the way home I thought about how much my husband would've loved this place.  Upon my return, I consulted with my better half, and then got online and reserved another cabin for a weekend in October.  I'm coming back and this time I'll be bringing my hubby!  

(And hopefully next time those bighorn sheep won't be so shy.)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Three Days at Cottonwood Canyon

Oregon boasts a large number of wonderful state parks.  Over the 30-plus years of living here, I've visited quite a few.  But one had lingered on my bucket list for awhile - Cottonwood Canyon State Park.


Established in 2013, Cottonwood Canyon is Oregon's newest state park.  Located in the north-central portion of the state, it's area encompasses 8000 acres, giving Cottonwood Canyon the distinction of being the second largest state park in Oregon.  Located in a winding canyon along the John Day River, it's wide-open views and drier climate appeal to folks hoping to escape the rainy Willamette Valley.  

My cute cabin

I'd heard glowing reviews about Cottonwood Canyon SP.  The stunning scenery, abundant wildlife, and wild remote nature of the area appealed to me.  Several picturesque hiking trails had been established that I was eager to explore.  Also, I'd heard spring was a great time to visit, before the sweltering heat of summer.

Loved the custom signs

The only lodging at Cottonwood Canyon was a 21-site campground and four primitive cabins.  Since I wasn't keen on tent camping in the chilly spring, I'd tried to obtain a cabin reservation.  But with only four cabins total, competition was stiff.  I discovered securing a coveted cabin reservation was difficult, especially on the weekends.  Last year, I decided to take some vacation time and go during a weekday, and was finally successful.  But....my reservation was for late March.....right when COVID reared it's ugly head.  Unfortunately all camping reservations were cancelled and Oregon ended up closing all state parks from March through June.  It was looking as if I'd never get to visit this place!

Old barn

Fast forward to early 2021.  Most of the state parks now reopened, I decided to try again for a cabin.  Now retired, I had much more flexibility and could pick any weekday that might be open.  I found making a weekday reservation much easier (as long as one plans ahead a few months) and scored a cabin for two nights in mid-March.  Yeah!  Cottonwood Canyon, here I come!

Nice place to relax

Although on the map Cottonwood Canyon seemed a far distance from Portland, in reality the drive took just under three hours.  Climbing a high ridge above the town of Wasco, I was met with a bizarre sight - hundreds of modern wind turbines spinning and views of Mt Adams.  The last place I'd have cell reception, I then descended down a long, winding hill to the John Day River.  Turning into the park entrance I felt waves of excitement.  I was finally here!

Old corral with artwork

The parking area for cabin visitors was a short walk from the cabins, so the park had thoughtfully provided a metal wagon for each occupant to haul their gear.  Unloading was done quickly and painlessly.  Each cabin had a wildlife-themed name, after the predominant animals found at the park.  My assigned cabin was named the "Cliff Swallow."  And, let me tell you, I was blown away by how nice it was!  The cabin had two rooms, one with two bunk beds and a double bed.  The second room had a table and chairs, a futon, shelves and a rack to hang clothing, and an armoire with a mini fridge.  The cabin had electricity, heating, and air conditioning.  Outside each cabin had a picnic table and gas grill (cooking was not allowed inside).

More cool signage

After unpacking and admiring my home for the next two nights, I grabbed my sandwich and sat out on the covered porch, taking in the wide open spaces.  From my cabin's porch I had a great view of the river and surrounding canyon walls.  

Old homestead 

The only downside to the day - high winds were whipping through the area.  The winds were so strong and cold, I  had to bundle up when going outside.  But after so many years of trying to get here I wasn't about to let a little bad weather stop me from exploring!

Another view of the barn

The current state park property was the site of a former ranch.  Some of the ranch buildings had been left in place, and preserved for the public.  With camera in hand, I wandered around the old ranch, taking photos of the weathered, red barn and windmill.  Along one fence, an interpretive display had been created, explaining the history of the area, starting with the local Native American tribes.


The old ranch house had been converted into a visitor center, and the mask-wearing public were allowed inside.  I perused the brochures and photos on the wall and then headed back outdoors.  Not only did the state park have beautifully crafted metal and wood signs everywhere, there were also custom made log chairs outside the visitor center, if folks wanted to sit and relax.

Campground view from the ridge (my cabin is the one furthest to the left)

Across the road from the park sign, I spotted a trail heading up the adjacent slope.  Following it uphill I came to an overlook, complete with bench and flowering fruit tree.  The views from up here were wonderful.  I could see the entire ranch, campground, and four cabins in a row.

One of the nicest trailheads I've ever seen!

After a bit of exploring, it was time to check out one of the hiking trails.  After all, that's what I'd come here to do!  I was also hoping to catch some of the wildlife this park was famous for - most notably the bighorn sheep.  I walked through the campground to the trailhead for the Pinnacles Trail - and found one of the nicest trailhead signs I think I've ever seen.

John Day River

The Pinnacles Trail followed the north bank of the John Day River for 4.3 miles.  However, due to Golden Eagles nesting in the nearby cliffs, the trail was currently closed at mile 3.  No matter, there was plenty to see as I ambled along with the river on one side and tall rocky cliffs on the other.  Although I'd hoped to see some bighorn sheep on these cliffs, the blustery weather seemed to keep them away.

Rocky trail next to cliffs

I'd read that cliff swallows made their nests on these rocky crags.  On my return trip, I spotted a few of their empty nests stuck in the rock crevices.  No birds yet though - it apparently wasn't nesting season for them.  

Sticky weed

Funneled through the river's canyon, the wind absolutely howled.  It was bone-chilling and I'd donned my down jacket, knit hat and gloves.  The cloudy flat skies made terrible conditions for photography.  But, again, I'd traveled here to see the sights and no amount of bad weather was gonna stop me.

Sweeping river scenery

For mid-March I hadn't expected to see so much color from the vegetation.  The adjacent hillsides were beginning to turn green, and bushes along the John Day River's banks were a stunning orange-rust hue.  Dried grasses sported lovely shades of gold.

Colorful vegetation along the river

Being midweek, there weren't many people staying at Cottonwood Canyon SP.  I did encounter a couple of fisherman (apparently fly fishing is popular on the John Day River) and one group of hikers that included the camp host, who told me she'd seen bighorn sheep on the cliffs every day but today.  

View from the Pinnacles Trail

After hiking the Pinnacles Trail out and back from the Eagle closure, I logged about 7 miles.  Adding that to my earlier wanderings I was tuckered out.  I'd considered capturing sunset from the overlook, but the overcast skies didn't look promising.  So I returned to my cabin to heat up some soup for dinner.  

Amazing sunset my first night

Imagine my surprise when the skies later erupted in a blaze of orange, pink and blue!  And best, of all, I was able to capture it from my cabin's front door.  A great way to end my first day at Cottonwood Canyon.

I had another long hike planned for tomorrow, and hopefully I'd see those elusive bighorn sheep!  Coming in my next post......

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Central Oregon Snowshoe

My wintertime travels to Central Oregon have been almost exclusively for skiing.  However, from multiple trips between Bend and Mt Bachelor, I've passed several sno-parks and always had the desire to check out their trails.  But with limited weekend time, skiing had always taken precedence over hiking or snowshoeing.  That is, until this year.

Kim and I ready to hit the trail!

My friend Kim and I were trying to schedule another ski trip to Mt Bachelor.  However, this year in an attempt to limit crowds (COVID, you know) Mt Bachelor had instituted a parking reservation system.  When reservations had opened up in November, I'd been lucky enough to grab three weekends.  However, now wishing to ski a fourth weekend, we discovered all the Saturdays and Sundays in March solidly booked.

Off through the forest

What to do?  Noticing that parking spaces were available most weekdays, I asked Kim if she could spare a few vacation days.  When Kim confirmed she could take time off, I scored spots for Monday and Tuesday.  (Which turned out to be so much better than weekend days.  Way less people!)  But driving over on Saturday gave us an entire free day on Sunday.  I suggested to Kim that we check out a snowshoe trail.  Having never snowshoed before, Kim was a bit hesitant.  She didn't want to tire herself out and not be able to ski the next two days.  But when I promised I'd find an easy trail, she was all in.

Cute snowshoe trail marker

From many trips back and forth between Sunriver and Mt Bachelor I'd passed the Edison Sno-park and always wondered what was there.  For this reason it rose to the top of my list, and I searched the internet for information.  The digital highway is a wonderful thing - I quickly found a detailed trail map of the entire area.  It indicated lots of trails, separated for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling.  And I loved the electrically-themed trail names - High Voltage, AC/DC, Supercharger, Light Bulb Loop.  Despite all the cool names, I picked a trail unimaginatively called the "Short Loop."  But it was three miles total distance, perfect for a beginner.

My brother spies something!

So on a sunny, beautiful Sunday morning Kim and I met my brother at the Edison Sno-park.  My brother brought an extra pair of snowshoes for Kim so she didn't have to rent a pair.  I showed Kim how to put on her snowshoes, consulted the nearby trail map, and posed for a few photos.  Then we were on our way!

Edison Shelter

I wasn't sure what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised by the wonderful scenery along the Short Loop.  A thin coating of new snow covered everything, and it sparkled in the sun.  Huge ponderosa pines lined our path - their bark a lovely shade of reddish brown.  I was used to the dense forests around Mt Hood, so was appreciative of the large gaps between trees.  Enough to see the beautiful blue sky!  Although there wasn't any huge elevation gains, the path did have a few mellow ups and downs, traversing a bit of snow-covered lava rock.

Snack break at the shelter

Our destination was the Edison Shelter, about 1.5 miles from the parking area.  It was a cute log structure complete with covered porch and wood burning stove inside.  We were lucky and arrived just as another group was leaving, so had the place to ourselves!  (Even more desirable in these times of COVID).  

Heading back

The day's temperatures had warmed enough that there wasn't a need to huddle inside around the stove (and it wasn't burning anything either).  Instead my brother, Kim, and I sat on the porch and enjoyed a snack, while taking in the lovely forest scenery.

Huge ponderosa pines!

Hearing voices on the trail to the shelter was our cue it was time to get going.  So my brother, Kim and I packed up and retraced our steps back to the main "Short Loop" trail.  At the junction, there was a bit of discussion about which trail was the continuance of the loop.  After heading one direction my brother discovered a smiley face I'd earlier traced into a nearby snowbank, which clearly indicated we'd gone the wrong way.  So back to the junction we went, this time taking the correct trail. 

Final junction (and Kim is happy)

The loop continuance was just as wonderful.  More gigantic ponderosa pines and small snowy humps.  By now the temps were warm enough for the snow to stick, and my brother amused us by throwing snowballs up these small hills and watching them roll downhill while increasing in size. (Yes, I'll admit it, I'm easily entertained!)

Snowdrifts over lava rock piles

By the final trail junction, Kim was starting to tire.  She admitted that three miles might have been a bit ambitious for her first snowshoe outing.  But with only 3/4 mile left to go, we slowed down and made our breaks more frequent, so she toughed it out.

The trailhead is in sight!

As we approached the parking lot, our eyes were treated to a glimpse of nearby Mt Bachelor through the trees.  A wonderful surprise - and great way to end our day in the woods.  

Kim was such a trooper.  Although she was later sore from our outing it didn't stop her from skiing the next two days straight.  Kim even said she'd try another snowshoe trek!