Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Honeycombs Loop

Faithful readers of my blog know that I like to hike and then write silly blog posts about the experience. I have absolutely no idea where the posts go once they are released into the blogosphere or who reads them except those who should, like my mom and wife, don't. However, I know of at least one reader as I was recently contacted by Nicole from Mrs. Lowe's 6th grade class in Colorado Springs regarding outdoor recreation. Apparently Richard Hikes, the greatest hiking blog ever (I know, I did say "silly" earlier) was part and parcel of a research project about enjoying outdoor activity. Anyway, Nicole shared a link with camping safety tips that I'll pass along here. By the way, Mrs. Lowe, I think Nicole should get an A+ for her fine research and her good taste in hiking blogs. And speaking of children enjoying the outdoors, six such grown-up children went on an incredible and challenging backpack trip in Oregon's remote and and rugged Owyhee Uplands.

Kyle takes in the Honeycombs view at sunset
This was one of the tougher hikes I've ever been on. The three-day backpack trek in eastern Oregon had no trail, no shade, no clean water, and no post-hike back rub. However, it did provide cow patties, cow patty polluted water, a confusing maze of canyons, and rattlesnakes. It was an epic and a totally awesome hike!

Rick uses some of those routefinding skills
The Owyhee Uplands straddle the Oregon - Idaho border in a place where borders don't really mean much. Think of the remotest place you know, and the Owyhee Uplands are a hundred times more remote. It was so remote, it took us 3 hours to make the 24 mile drive on rutted dirt roads from the paved highway to the trailhead. On the drive in, we stopped to frequently check GPS's and maps just to make sure we were on the right trail...oops, I mean road. I didn't really anticipate needing to use routefinding skills to start the hike where we would need to use routefinding skills.

Day 1

Rick, Lane, Kevin, Kyle, and Mark
From a dried up livestock watering trough, we began walking up a very rough jeep track that gradually dropped down to the head of Painted Canyon. There were no trees around for at least 1,000 miles, or so it seemed, just miles and miles of sagebrush with sweeping vistas of barren hills and mountains. While cloudless and sunny, a cool hangover from the prior day's snow and sleet storm still remained.

Hey, Culligan Man!

A half-dozen 10 gallon water bottles were neatly placed at the end of the dirt road, left by some unknown trail angel. And since we were now out of road to follow, the real hike started with a scramble down a steep slope into Painted Canyon. The canyon was dusty and arid, and the "trail" was the dry creek bed on the canyon floor. And lest we would think the hiking easy, within the first 100 yards the first of many sheer drops presented itself.

The canyon floor was fairly level and was easy to walk on for the most part. But the canyon was descending and when it lost elevation, it lost it all at once. The first drop over what I call a "dry waterfall" was only a couple of feet but the further we went, the higher the drops. We wound up taking off our packs and passing them down hiker-to-hiker like a bucket brigade from the 1800's.

It would only get better
As I mentioned, Painted Canyon was dry and brushy and was not very painted. That all changed when the route finally bottomed out. The canyon widened a bit and orange rock spikes began to poke out of the sagebrush here and there. Before long, the here and there morphed into a solid ocher wall, the orange of the rocks contrasting nicely with the cobalt blue sky above.

Carlton Canyon
Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, it did. Painted Canyon, ran into much larger Carlton Canyon and we'd follow the defile down to Lake Owyhee, our camping spot for the night. Everything was bigger and better in Carlton Canyon: The towers were taller, the walls sheerer, the minarets more ornate, and the spikes pointier. We could scarcely believe the wonderment of it all and awestruck Kyle commented "...this is national park worthy". His statement was apt because I was thinking Carlton Canyon reminded me of the Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park.

Carlton Canyon was utterly fantastic
It was several miles of spectacular canyon scenery as we followed game trails braiding on the canyon floor. It was almost tragic when the canyon widened and ended at the willow trees surrounding Lake Owyhee. To say we were disappointed in the lakeside campsite would be an understatement, for underneath the trees was a herd of perpetually pooping cattle. The poopitude was astounding as cow patties were everywhere, you really had to watch your step or where you pitched your tent. The lake's water was suspiciously murky and most likely tainted. Everybody treated, filtered, or boiled their water and Mark took no chances, doing all three. Me, I just added several extra purification tablets to the water which then flavored my water with the sweet and intoxicating blend of medicinal tasting iodine combined with an earthy hint of cow dung. Rick and I took a stroll further down the shore to see if we could find a less tainted camping spot. We could not.

Day 2 

Morning at camp
The original plan was to day hike from camp and then head out the third day. However, we didn't trust the overly curious cattle to respect our boundaries so we decided to do the out leg on this gray and overcast day. And here I thought it was only deer that I needed to worry about! So north along the lake we went before stark and barren Saddle Butte got in the way.

Lake Owyhee
The route called for us going up and over a high pass next to Saddle Butte but there were several deep canyons in the way. So it was down then up then down then up on soft slopes that shifted and slid under boots. It was hard work, and from the distant lake we could hear the derisive moos of the cattle watching us.

In Painted Canyon, we had noticed large heaps of horse poop, seemingly purposefully arranged. Turns out, wild stallions (and some humans) mark their territory by pooping in the same spot and building up a large "stud pile" The poop piles spotted in the canyon were an indicator of the presence of wild horses. After contributing to the stud pile, the stallions (and some humans) turn around and sniff their handiwork. And is this more than you ever wanted know about horse poop? If you want to see a stallion make a stud pile, just click on this link. And if you don't, it's OK, I understand. Anyway, from a breezy promontory, we noticed a small herd of horses hanging out with the cattle. The occasion just called for some photography and I whipped out the camera and went to work.

On my way back to rejoin my comrades, a dry rattle to my left got my sudden and very undivided attention. I knew exactly what it was but was somewhat discomfited to find the rattlesnake about two inches from my foot, I had nearly stepped on it! A neat pivot away from the buzzing serpent took me out of harm's way, the snake slithered backwards away from me and the whole incident was over just like that. I was really pleased with the cool, calm, collected manner with which the encounter was handled, except for one thing: everybody heard me yell out "Yowzah!" Lane shrieked like a little girl and did a week's worth of cardio when running from his snake, but I said "Yowzah" and was therefore subject to cruel ridicule for the rest of the trip. Most unfair.

Faint trail on Saddle Butte

Once on the trail, we continued to the pass on Saddle Butte, walking on a faint trail in dry grass. Another herd of horses grazed on a grassy slope far above us on the mountain. And from the pass, it was back down to the lake. We had expended a great deal of energy going up and down the canyons, only to make small progress along the lake shore. And in the process, I had risked my very valuable life and limbs, vis-a-vis the rattlesnake encounter.

Wrong canyon with a right view
We had arrived on Bensley Flat, a relatively popular campsite for the boating crowd. Well, as popular as it gets in this lonely little corner of the Oregon sandbox. Judging by the numerous cow patties "decorating" the lake shore, the cattle are equal opportunity poopers, befouling lake for hikers and boaters alike. A small canyon entrance signaled our route away from the lake but it was a rather prodigious climb up a simultaneously rocky and grassy slope just to get to the narrow slot canyon. After struggling just to make the canyon's portal, we were dismayed to find the canyon dead-ended shortly thereafter. Turned out that when faced with several canyon choices seen from Lake Owyhee, we would naturally take the wrong canyon.

Honeycombs in the late afternoon
All that climbing up to the canyon had been very hard work and we did not want to give up our hard-won elevation gain, so a traverse across to a wide and very obvious (in hindsight) canyon mouth was in order. This particular canyon ran into the heart of The Honeycombs, so named for all the rock formations with holes in them. The Honeycombs lie on the face of the earth like a large slab of stale orange Swiss cheese. Sure enough, pillars, minarets, pillars, and battlements showed up, flanking either side of the canyon. And yes, there were rock walls with more holes in them than a philanderer's alibi. All that up and down stuff had us all pretty tired so we set up a dry camp several miles into the canyon.

Perfect end to the day

Day 3

Let's go hiking!

We were only about 5 miles from our cars so it didn't figure this day's hiking would be so tough. Wrong, again! Getting off to an early morning start, we set out, following an obvious path up the canyon. The head walls of the canyon loomed overhead, looking as easy to surmount as the Empire State Building. However, we needed to get up and over the canyon head and there was no obvious route. The guidebook said to angle to the right, so we did that very thing.

Kyle looks like he might be enjoying this
Wrong again, sigh! We angled to the right up to an obvious pass. The slope was very steep and we were exhausted when we staggered to the top. We were also quite cheesed to see we had worked so hard to attain a clifftop with no way down to the canyon below. Besides which, we didn't want to go down into the canyons anyway, as what we really wanted to do was attain the gentle rolling slopes of Juniper Ridge. I almost didn't appreciate the magnificent view of the Honeycombs from our clifftop aerie but upon later viewing, the photographs made it seem like we had fun.

Rocky chute out of here
So, down the incredibly steep slope we go where we dithered at length about how to get out of here. Finally, Kyle volunteered to scramble up a rocky chute to see if he could find the mysteriously missing Juniper Ridge. And better yet, the chute did wind up getting us out of the canyon and three cheers for Kyle. However, getting up the steep gully was very hard work. If anything, it was harder than our first wrong-way attempt. After attaining the ridge behind the canyon, we all plopped down in grateful respite.

View from atop Juniper Ridge

Juniper Ridge has no juniper trees on it. In fact, there was nothing higher than knee-high sagebrush growing on the broad ridge. It had no trail on it either, and we began wading through the sagebrush over and around a series of round high points on the ridge crest. The views from Juniper Ridge were just tremendous as we hiked. The morning cloud cover had burned off for the most part and cloud shadows danced on the surrounding countryside. Wide, sweeping vistas entertained and the higher mountains of the Owyhee Uplands were flecked with snow. Deep canyons carved their way virtually at our feet and occasionally we caught glimpses of Lake Owyhee. Way cool!

Lane drops down into Painted Canyon
As we rounded a hill, a trail came into view. It was a real trail with meaning and purpose and it was kind of like getting on the Interstate after driving all day on a jeep track. We made good time which was a good thing because one by one, we all ran out of water. At a saddle below prominent Sheepshead Ridge, the route dropped off Juniper Ridge and we walked down a grassy slope past some bemused cattle. After descending into Painted Canyon, it was time for a joyous reunion with the Culligan-Man water bottles. The simple pleasure of guzzling water is not overrated and it's a luxury oft taken for granted. Soon all hikers in our party sported distended bellies that gurgled and sloshed with any movement.

Sheepshead Ridge
Kyle and I hiked the last mile or so of jeep track to retrieve the vehicles and pick everybody up. The road was awful but that's OK because Dollie was not there to see where I took her precious Jeep. The atrocious road was merely one more thing that made this hike epic and totally awesome!

Epic and totally awesome!
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. Wish I had been along. Sounds like a memory-making hike, Richard.

  2. What an incredible place that must be! But also one of the most incredibly hard places to hike!
    Good Job!

    1. It's funny, several weeks after I only remember how cool it was, forgot all about the pain, misery, and woe

  3. Sounds like a hard but great time for all of you. One of these days you are going to have to drag me along for a backpack trip. Did it once when in junior high, but don't have the gear now. In regards to the Stud Pile thing (yes, I did click on the link to verify if that really did happen), I think that sounds like something your older grandsons would think is a cool thing next time you take them backpacking.....kind of a boy thing!

    1. Anytime, you want to go for a backpack trip Glen, just give me a holler. As of Friday, I will be retired and will have time to make my noble sacrifice and go hiking with friends

  4. Hey, I read these!