A golden day

September 21, 2019, Day 17
Upper Mitchell Spring to saddle west of Harney-Malheur County Line, ~22.9 miles, ~236.6 miles total

Gabriel’s Day 17 pictures are here.

Today was one of those beautiful, pleasant trail days. A golden day figuratively and literally.

We rose in the chill morning before sunrise. But quickly warmed up as we ascended into the folds of the Oregon Canyon Mountains. Conditions were just right for a golden light show. To think, last night I was frustrated with myself for not wanting to hike further. Now, I’m elated to be right here. Ascending this ridge. Right at this moment. Experiencing a wave of gratitude for being here, able to be out here in the mountains of Eastern Oregon this morning. (Now that is a much more marmoty thought than the grumbles about lightning and rain.)

Lovely, mellow cross country and animal trails brought us into the drainage of Cottonwood Creek. There we saw the first curl leaf mountain mahogany of the trip. I was thrilled and couldn’t resist stopping and taking pictures of these – to me celebrities! I’d pet the trees leathery leaves as we brushed by, inhaling deeply of their sweet and spicy aromatic perfume.

Up, up, up we went. Having gained a ridge with good vistas and rocks with fine lichen composition we enjoyed some breakfast. The dance of rising clouds with glimpses down to the basin floor below matched the classic imagery in mind of all that I hoped such desert mountain landscapes can be. But within a few minutes, our breakfast views turned to a wall of clouds that soon covered the summit of Oregon Canyon Mountain.

We proceeded onward hoping the clouds would blow over by time we reached the turn off for the summit. In the process, we even strolled by a few snow patches as our route joined a rough jeep track. Alas, when we got to our turn off for one of Oregon’s High Hundred peaks the summit was in a cloud. Sigh. No peak and summit views today.

Heading westward the skies looked brighter and with more sucker holes. By late morning, it was a beautiful blue sky day. A pleasant afternoon on jeep roads that feel more like double track trails looking at vistas of aspen studded hillsides, the snow capped Trout Creek Mountains, and Steens Mountain.

Mellow, rolling terrain and such pretty country. Passing some mountain bee plant, rabbitbrush, cherries and currants to add color to the day (some invasives like whitetop draba around also). But besides ravens flying over – surprisingly little sign of wildlife. Where is everyone? It’s the last day of summer, do they know something we don’t?

As we dropped out of the Oregon Canyon Mountains around 15 Mile Creek we were delighted by pronghorn running up a slope not far from the gurgling stream. Then more pronghorn zooming another mile down the way in a scene reminiscent of the Serengeti’s grasslands.

We kept walking westward and eventually crossed out of Malheur County and into Harney County. Goodbye Malheur, you don’t feel far flung to the mind as you once were. These last 200 miles or so have me feeling more attached to you. And now I’m able to cultivate my own sense of place.

We set up camp in a lovely golden grassy notch just before the sun left the meadow and just before the road rises into the Trout Creek Mountains. In shadows for only a few minutes, we quickly felt the cool of the evening. If we’d kept going, we’d have ended up camping above 8,000 feet. With a forecast for freezing temps at that elevation, we’ll take a few more degrees of warmth down here at 6,800 feet. Even if it is psychological warmth.

The mid set up for warmth, we ate dinner looking at the rhyolite formations near our camp, and watched the stars appear in the east. It’s been a golden day on the ODT.



Headed up into the Oregon Canyon Mountains in early morning light.


Anticipating sunrise.


The Oregon Canyon Mountains are starting to light up.


Desert alpenglow on Oregon Canyon Mountain (8,027 feet). If all goes well, we’ll be on the summit later this morning.


Hiking upward toward the 8,000 foot ridge (camp was down at 5,400 feet).


As we head up Cottonwood Creek, it’s not the willows that I’m excited about, it’s the…


It’s the curl-leaf mountain mahogany! Cercocarpus ledifolius! I’ve been day dreaming about encountering this tree species for years in the mountains of Oregon’s high deserts. Today is the day! At a distance the mountain mahogany reminds me of acacia trees on the plains of the Serengeti.


Curl-leaf mountain mahogany! A broadleaf evergreen with curled leaves and feather-like seeds. This marvelous tree sometimes exhibits shrub-like growth due to mule deer browsing is found on the rocky, dry hillsides and peaks of desert mountain ranges across the West. Its fragrance is a sweet and spicy vanilla the catches the nose as you brush by a grove of trees. So aromatic! One Nevada study (1990) notes that the oldest KNOWN curl-leaf mountain mahogany tree was 1,350 years old (but there could be older trees); which makes it one of the oldest known flowering plants (up there with olive trees and flowering figs). Mountain mahogany has long been used by Northern Paiute for traditional medicines – crushed up dried or slightly burned bark can be used as a dressing for burns. Decoctions of bark or wood can be used to treat many ailments, including: coughs, colds, cuts, wounds, stomach aches, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and even an “unfailing cure for syphilis.” (Source: Natural History Museum of Utah)


Ripening chokecherry (Prunus virginiana).


Erosion around Cottonwood Creek.


The cow stamp of approval is nearby.


Heading up in nice sunshine.


Gabriel is meandering in a non-straight line up the ridge, I’ll do my best to avoid his tracks!


Lovely lichen on rhyolite rock outcrop.


Breakfast views. As we sat down the clouds started to rise up and over the surrounding peaks.


I wonder what you looked like in the spring time.


By the time we made it to the turn off for the summit of Oregon Canyon Mountain the clouds had rolled over the ridge. The summit is about one mile to the east of us. While it had been in the plans we decided we didn’t want to walk up into the clouds for peak with no views.


So we headed west on route to the distant Trout Creek Mountains, noting that some of the peaks have snow on their slopes. How much snow will remain tomorrow when we are in the area?


Rhyolite outcroppings and mountain mahogany dotted hillsides. The mountains of southeast Oregon have a different feel from the desert landscapes we often roam. It’s marvelous to take in these novel but familiar ecosystems. All the better if we’re moving toward blue skies.


A regenerating aspen grove. A large extent of the Oregon Canyon and Trout Creek Mountains burned in the 2012 Holloway Fire North (~165,000 acres). These aspen are doing what aspen do so well after fire, growing anew from existing root networks (suckers). Some more information on aspen ecosystems can be found here: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/aspen/ecology.shtml


Wax current (Ribes cereum).


The sunshine came back in the afternoon and we took the time to dry out the tent and have some lunch. It’s dewy out here in the desert!


Refilling our water bottles at Gopher Spring. The springs and streams aren’t free flowing around these parts, but the water is still cold and delicious.


Mountain mahogany how I admire you so!


Leaping pronghorn.


Pronghorn amid burned mahogany – this landscape really makes me think of the Serengeti.


Gabriel is walking toward Disaster Peak and the Trout Creek Mountains, we can see a little snow on the northeast facing hillsides – some of it melted during the sunny afternoon.


Steens Mountain and perhaps the top of Flagstaff Butte (or maybe it’s Whitehorse Butte).


Setting up camp on the saddle between the Trout Creek and Oregon Canyon Mountains – just to the west of Malheur-Harney county line. Tonight we have the tent up for warmth and to prevent dew from soaking our sleeping bags. Photo by Gabriel Deal