Hiking an Eastern Oregon gem

By Jayson Jacoby/WesCom News Service June 28, 2013 10:37 am

The North Fork John Day trail never strays far from its namesake river. The wilderness trail is lined with wildflowers. (Lisa Britton/WesCom News Service)
The North Fork John Day trail never strays far from its namesake river. The wilderness trail is lined with wildflowers. (Lisa Britton/WesCom News Service)
 

The North Fork of John Day offers trails for hikers of all skill levels 

If you relish the poetic silence of the forest primeval, the North Fork John Day trail might disappoint, and perhaps even annoy, you.

There’s plenty of forest, to be sure.

And as for primeval, suffice it to say that unless you enjoy reading the message “searching for service” on your cell phone’s screen until the battery gives out, you’d as well leave the thing home.

But about silence, well, this hike is about as quiet as a jet engine on takeoff.

The source of this noise, however, is considerably more pleasant.

Plus it can fill your canteen if you get thirsty.

The North Fork John Day River, which is the namesake not only for the trail but also for the wilderness area through which the trail passes, is a particularly fetching stream — an archetype, really, of the spring-fed, salmon- and steelhead-sheltering mountain river.

That you might have to bellow occasionally to compensate for its liquid cacophony likely will seem a trifling penance for the vistas of the North Fork’s crystalline water tumbling over boulders and swirling into eddies where trout gather.

And if you hike the trail later in the summer you might see some of those chinook salmon or steelhead, battling their way upstream to their ancestral spawning grounds.

The North Fork trail is one of the longer paths in Northeastern Oregon, at a backpacker-friendly 25 miles, but it’s also well-suited for day-hikers.

And because, like most river trails, its grades are gentle, even young hikers should be able to cover a few miles.

The North Fork’s upper trailhead is the more convenient, both because it’s closer to Baker City (50 miles) and La Grande (60 miles), and because the access route, unlike with other trailheads, is by paved roads. 

The upper trailhead is within the North Fork John Day campground. 

Although this is part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, both the campground and the trail are managed by the neighboring Umatilla National Forest.

Although you could, of course, walk as far as you’d like, most people out for a day hike prefer to decide on a destination.

A reasonable choice — and a tantalizing one, given the unusual name — is the Bigfoot Hilton.

This dilapidated miners’ cabin is about 2.6 miles from the trailhead, making for a round trip hike of 5.2 miles. The elevation difference is about 300 feet.

The North Fork trail, No. 3022, crosses Trail Creek, a major tributary, just past the campground. There’s a bridge, although most of the span lacks a handrail so you might want to give little hikers a guiding hand.

Beyond the bridge the trail, which follows the river’s north bank, enters a forest where lodgepole and ponderosa pine, tamarack and Engelmann spruce predominate.

The tamaracks and ponderosas are especially impressive, some with trunks as thick as a bridge abutment.

In addition to the conifers there are occasional thickets of alder, willow and aspen. The North Fork John Day Wilderness was created by Congress in 1984.

The wilderness includes 121,800 acres in four units, the largest of which, at 85,000 acres, encompasses the North Fork drainage itself.

Although relatively small compared with the Eagle Cap, Oregon’s largest wilderness at 365,000 acres, the North Fork John Day’s location makes it at least as remote, if not more so.

The nearest town is Granite, more than a dozen miles away, and it’s hardly a metropolis.

Moreover, the North Fork John Day trail, because it rarely strays more than 50 feet or so above the river, never reaches a pass or ridgetop that lets you get a long view of the terrain, as in the Wallowas or the Elkhorns.

The sense of scale — a dense, mostly untouched forest that extends farther than most people can walk in a day — gives the place an aura of wildness that is palpable.

The solitude is brightened considerably, though, by a profusion of wildflowers.

The palette is extensive, ranging from purple lupine to red-orange Indian paintbrush to pink sticky geranium to yellow cinquefoil.

The delicate, orchid-like columbine, which combines orange and yellow, is unusually prolific.

According to the Umatilla National Forest’s website the trail hasn’t been maintained this year. But on June 23 there was only one obstacle — a spot just past the Trail Creek bridge where a trio of lodgepoles fell across the path.

It’s not much of an impediment, though.

The trail is obvious throughout, with no confusing junctions to lead hikers astray. 

There are, though, a couple of muddy sections, where a trailside seep temporarily shares the tread, and two short stretches with a steep drop to the water.

As with the Trail Creek bridge, you’ll want to keep a close eye on younger hikers here.

Just before the trail descends a couple of switchbacks to Trout Creek, you’ll see the Bigfoot Hilton below.

It’s one of several cabins built by miners who plied the North Fork for its placer gold deposits starting in the 1860s.

William L. Sullivan, the dean of Oregon’s hiking guidebook authors, immortalized the Bigfoot Hilton in “Listening For Coyote,” the account of his 1,300-mile hike from the Pacific Ocean to Hells Canyon in 1985.

Sullivan spent two nights in the cabin during an early October snowstorm.

Although he marvelled at how well-kept the cabin was, it has deteriorated much since. There’s a couple of metal bed frames inside, and a wood stove, but unless you don’t mind sharing your sleeping bag with mice and packrats you’d be wise to pitch a tent outside were you inclined to camp here.

Both the cabin and the surrounding area are public land, and open to camping.

A much more inviting cabin is at the Blue Heaven mining claim, about half a mile upstream from the Bigfoot Hilton.

The late Guy Hafer of Cove, who died in 2007, mined there for 30 years, and he left his cabin unlocked.

It still is, and it looks like the sort of place Grizzly Adams might have hewn from the woods. There’s a solid-looking stove, chairs and a table, several bunks and even a selection of magazines.

And little evidence of rodents.

Even though you’re not likely to need shelter on a day hike the cabin is worth a short visit, even if only to sign the guest book. 

The cabin stands beside the river, just a couple hundred feet off the trail and reached by an obvious spur trail.

If 5.2 miles seems too brief an introduction to the wilderness, you can make a loop of about 13 miles by continuing downriver past the Bigfoot Hilton for about four miles, then hiking the Crane Creek trail upstream to its trailhead beside Road 73 at Crane Flats, between Granite and the North Fork John Day campground.

The loop does include two bridgeless crossings of the North Fork, however — a chilly proposition at any season.