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.)


  1. I am guessing that this place would be colorful in fall.

  2. ...it not very colorful, but it sure is beautiful.

  3. Glad you saw your sheep! You should try photographing the night sky.

  4. That sounds like a great getaway. Ugh, ticks, I've found a couple already.

  5. Hello,
    Your visit to Cottonwood Canyon does sound nice. I like the view of the cliff, the river and the big horn sheep. Great trip report and photos. Have a happy day!

  6. So desert like, yet not all that far from dense forests on the western side.

  7. Does not look like the most inspiring of landscapes but you made the hike interesting. Is the lens you use an RF one or the old EF with adaptor

    1. I hadn't bought my R6 yet when I went to Cottonwood Canyon, so all these photos are from a 5D Mark IV and either an old 24-105 mm lens or my 100-400 mm lens.


Don't be shy! Please leave a comment.