Saturday, May 14, 2016

Cottonwood Canyon State Park

Why have I never heard of Cottonwood Canyon? Why haven't I been here already? How come none of my many hiking acquaintances have ever let me know this place existed? Why, why, why? For the life of me I can't understand why the second largest state park southeast of The Dalles is not more renown, because the scenery here is unrelentingly spectacular and world-class.  Take a look for yourself on the park's website: the pictures of the deep canyon with the John Day River snaking its way on the canyon floor have to be seen to believed. Or even better yet, take a look at your humble blogster's photos in Flickr. Sweeping views of the canyon with grassy slopes and basalt walls can be attained by scrambling up to the canyon rim high above the river. The park is fairly undeveloped and is mostly without trails. A couple of formidable side canyons invite cross-country exploration. Poison ivy grows in abundance along the river and the arid hills sport a healthy population of rattlesnakes. I think I might have just answered the question of why the park is not so popular but still, why have I never heard of this place?

Impressive hill across the canyon
The original plan was to backpack in to Lost Corral but the drive took longer than I thought it would. I arrived in either the late afternoon or the early evening, take your pick. At any rate, a slight adjustment was made to the plans in that I set up camp in the hiker/biker campground, in which I was the lone hiker or biker. The short backpack trip plan was amended to two day hikes.

The Murtha Ranch
Since there was a late afternoon or early evening to kill, an enjoyable post-dinner walk of a couple of miles around the park oriented myself to the general layout. From camp, a well-maintained path through the sagebrush linked up with the camp headquarters, where some barns, farm machinery, and outbuildings from the original Murtha Ranch still exist today.  

The canyon is calling to me and I must go...
After exploring the old buildings and rusting farm equipment, a path along the John Day River returned me back to the campground and provided a tantalizing view of the undeveloped canyon calling out to me as the sun set. The campground's official name is Lone Tree Campground and there is actually a large juniper tree there and yes, it is very lone as there are no other trees around for several time zones. Makes one wonder how Baby Juniper came to be born here. 

Morning yoga routine

The next morning dawned overcast and breezy. Rain and thunder was in the forecast but it was still dry early in the morning. After a quick breakfast I headed out to the Lost Corral Trail which runs along the east side of the John Day River for 4.5 miles. The other option was to hike the Pinnacles Trail which does the same thing as the Lost Corral, but on the west side of the river. I liked the sound of "Lost" in Lost Corral so Lost Corral Trail it was.

Trail into Cottonwood Canyon

The trail is an old road bed and was pleasantly level. The first mile or so runs past the park buildings and campground and then from there, it was nothing but wild canyon in front of me. I cannot overstate the grandeur of the scenery here. The John Day River silently coursed along on the canyon bottom, flanked by tall walls and bare slopes of basalt. And best of all, the deep and formidable canyon has a Lost Corral Trail to lead hikers into further exploration thereof.

Snake in the grass
Dragonflies and wasps flitted ahead of me as I walked and several gopher snakes were spotted, sunning themselves on the trail. Several times in the outer limits of my peripheral vision, I caught glimpses of scaly creatures slithering into the brush along the trail. I'm still thinking gopher snakes, it makes me feel better that way. I ran into the only other hiker I'd see, a fellow from Portland who bragged about watching carefully for rattlesnakes. "Oh", says I, "care to see the snake you just stepped over?" Yes, he had walked right over a 4 foot gopher snake stretched motionless across the trail. When prodded with the tip of my hiking pole, it quickly disappeared into the sagebrush. After a moment of stunned silence, he said "Wow, if that had been a snake, it would have bit me!"

World-class scenic
The river banks were lush and green and for me, quite exotic as it was all desert vegetation which we don't normally run into in western Oregon. However, I wasn't all that excited about spotting canes of poison ivy. On the landward side of the trail, it was all sagebrush, though. The trail did pass through several pastures, the end result of an ongoing tumbleweed eradication project.

I'll refer you to the previous photo caption
As the miles clicked by, each bend of the river revealed with exquisite slowness, more and more of the canyon. Occasionally, several small side canyons came in at right angles to the main canyon of the John Day. It is possible to explore these canyons and attain the high ridges above, but that will have to wait for a subsequent trip. For today, it was enough to gawk at all the riverine and geologic wonders.

Basalt cliff detail
And speaking of geologic wonders: around the 4 mile mark,  a series of pronounced cliffs rose up from a bend in the river. Beyond the cliffs, large Esau Canyon met up with the John Day. At the base of the cliffs, piles of little bones indicated the presence of raptors nesting in the imposing basalt wall. The cliffs were comprised of layers of layers of basaltic pillars, a formation created when molten basalt cooled and solidified.

View up Esau Canyon
Just beyond the cliffs was the actual corral of Lost Corral, I was only slightly disappointed the corral wasn't all that lost. Spring water ran from a pipe into a pond full of cattails. Although always near the trail, the John Day is not all that accessible due to the thick vegetation flanking the river, so a piped-in spring makes Esau Canyon a very viable backpacking destination. I'll definitely be back!

Dancing shadows and light
On the return, the dark clouds broke up while sunlight and shadows danced a romantic tango upon the hillsides and canyon slopes. Much photography ensued. And of course, the weather turned to the nasty after that little sunny tease. The rain started just as the hike ended and that was it for the rest of the day and night. Let's just say I got plenty of tent time during my stay at Cottonwood Canyon State Park. In the night, the wind picked up and I wondered if it was going to knock my tent down but fortunately, my little Eureka Spitfire held up to the onslaught. And if that wasn't enough, thunder boomed down the canyon and by the time morning came, I waved a white flag of surrender and headed back home to Roseburg a day early. But I'll be back!

Why have I never heard of Cottonwood Canyon before?
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the following Flicker albums:

Cottonwood Canyon State Park

Lost Corral Trail