Day 1/Tuesday/May 27:
Just a few hours of traveling east in Washington will take you from fir, cedar, maple and alder forests to the pine and aspen variety. We left our home during mid-morning to avoid the “rush” hour on highway 20 eastbound. Most traffic was headed west including RVs and logging trucks. We stopped along the Magic Skagit River for photos of the blue green water tumbling over boulders along moss covered trees lining the shore to the salt water.
We also took a break at the Ross Lake overlook. Soon, we were hitting the passes (Rainy and Washington) then began our descent to the Methow Valley. Snow-covered peaks were replaced by irrigated fields although you could catch a glimpse of the east side of the Cascades occasionally.
In Winthrop, we bypassed the tourist shops to take a look at an old farm that has since been turned into a wildlife refuge. Sadly, the rustic red outbuildings had been removed leaving a rather dilapidated octagonal silo. Last time we were there, we could see owls hiding behind the openings.
Our campground for the night was Foggy Dew, a USFS facility in the Okanogan National Forest off highway 153. The turnoff is just past the very small dot of a town called Carlton which has the Carlton Mall. We traveled for about 5 miles on a one lane road that crossed a single lane bridge bringing us to the site. We chose number 10 which was more in the open. There was only one other camper at the other end in a tent. You won’t find the big rigs here. We paid our discounted senior rate of $4. The vault toilet in our part of the campground was just cleaned and was in decent shape meaning no bullet holes or recent graffiti. The campground is sited between 2 creeks: North Fork of Gold Creek and Foggy Dew Creek. We fell asleep to the creek that was flowing about 80 feet from our camper.
Day 2/Wednesday/May 28:
After breaking camp at 7:00 am, we drove down the single lane road returning to 153 aka the Cascades Loop. It was a quiet drive with little traffic. Highway 153 follows the Methow River as it winds it’s way to the Columbia River near Pateros where the highway ends at US Highway 97. Traffic was light and even lighter when we took Alternate 97. Alternate 97 is above 97 but both follow along the Columbia River along its western shore. Alternate 97 is higher allowing a better view of the River below. There was a road called the Apple Acres Road that was even higher paralleling 97 before it became two highways. It eventually ended at Alternate 97.
Speaking of apples, this is fruit tree country. Just before Pateros, there were patches of cherry and pear tree orchards. None of the fruit stands were open and it appeared that the cherries were just ripening. There was a sign that said Washington cherries are here but the building by the sign was closed. Maybe we can pick some up when we return in 3 weeks.
Alternate 97 passes through Chelan where we fueled up at a Shell station. Chelan is at the east end of Lake Chelan which is a popular recreation area. Progress seems to have found it as there were some high end homes up above the lake and condos closer to the shore. Just before Chelan 97 goes over the east side of the Columbia while Alternate 97 hugs the shore of Lake Chelan then goes through some hilly country until it begins to follow the Columbia on the west side.
We pass through the town of Entiat. All through this area are big fruit processing plants and the season seems to be gearing up as we saw not a few semis carrying new and old wooden fruit bins. By the way, both 97s have a lot of trucker traffic, but the alternate has fewer.
Just before Wenatchee, we head west (hey, I thought we were going east and south) on highway 2/97. But, 2 heads toward Seattle. Unless we want to head towards the Tri Cities area, we need to hook up with 97 south (the alternate has merged with 97 after crossing the bridge to Sunnyslope.). Confusing but several federal entities cluster forcing a pass through Yakima or the Pasco, Kennewick, Richland area which would put us further east than we want. The 3 areas are the Yakama Indian Reservation (not a misspelling), US Army Yakima Training Center and the DOE Hanford Site.
Between Cashmere and the tourist town of Leavenworth, 97 heads south. Before we made the turn, we stopped for a break at the Peshastin Pinnacles State Park. There are some toothy rock formations that unfortunately have huge power lines running through them. No camping but it does attract rock climbers. From 2 heading west you can see the east side of the Cascades which separate the western or wetter portion of the state from the drier east side.
97 twists and turns and loses and gains altitude heading south. Somewhere on one of the curves we go through Blewett Pass, altitude 4102′. We pass through Ellensburg, home of Central Washington University. Instead of following 97 to Yakima, we follow the super curvy highway 821 or the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway. There are a number of federal campgrounds and we stop at the first one: Umtanum Creek Recreation Site on the Yakima River. There is suspension bridge for foot traffic that crosses the river. We stopped partway over to watched a number of small blue butterflies along the shore congregating near muddy areas. We also saw a pair of goldfinches, our state bird.
Eventually, we came to Interstate 82 which is also 97 and 12 to skirt Yakima on the east side. We pass by Wapato and Toppenish, then Goldendale where my grandfather spent a part of his childhood 100 years ago. He rode a buckskin horse to school and played in the rock piles where the rattlers hung out.
Soon, we can see the Oregon side of the Columbia River. However, we are stalled for awhile as traffic backed up due to a motor home having missed a turn taking out a lamp pole landing sideways in a ditch. We crossed 97 on the bridge to the gas station town of Biggs to fuel up. Diesel was $3.89 a gallon at the Union 76. We left 97 to the truckers taking the Biggs to Rufus highway. At Rufus we turned south on 206 through Wasco.
There are rolling hills being farmed but there are also windmills everywhere. Where there are no windmills, there are huge transmission lines. These wind turbines are huge; they are not your father’s windmills. They were all turning, some more slowly than others.
After winding through the lumpy hills, we arrive at the new Cottonwood Canyon State Park along the John Day River. It was a ranch at one time. Now it is an 8,000 acre state park. The campsites aren’t very private as the trees are newly planted where the fields once were (there are some volunteer grasses in rows). There is garbage (no recycling), vault toilets, water, picnic tables and fire pits. We passed through here in April 2013 when it was being built. The area is beautiful between basalt cliffs and volcanic hills. There are trails for people and horses. Very clean and new. There were 5 campers here among over 25+ sites so it is not crowded.
The canyon runs southeast to northwest but the lighting was soft due to hazy western skies and canyon walls began to block the sun at around 7:00 pm. There was no dramatic sunset or light on the cliffs along the river afterwards. Tired from the long day, we had supper and were in bed soon after dark. The stars are out and can be seen very clearly.
Bird tally for the day: several blue herons, peregrine falcon, red tail hawks, bald eagle, red wing blackbirds, swallows, goldfinches, magpies, flickers and we saw a marmot running across the road to a pile of rocks.
Day 3/Thursday/May 29:
Since yesterday was such a long grueling duel with semis on 97, today we chilled by driving slowly on county roads and 3 digit highways. Since this morning was cloudless and the light didn’t hit the canyons the way I wanted it to, we took our time decamping. Oddly, we camped a site over from a couple from Bellingham.
I spoke with a ranger about how the park came to be. The Murtha brothers ran an 8,000 acre ranch along the John Day River. One had children who had moved away and weren’t interested in hard scrabble ranching. The property was purchased by a river conservancy who sold it to the state piece by piece for a total of $8 million, $1,000 per acre. It was purchased with Lotto earnings which is what funds the Oregon state parks. It opened last September.
We stopped in Condon, a ranching community to buy a few items from the grocery store. The town businesses recently changed their facades to reflect their roots from the early part of the last century. On 206 we noticed more wind turbines and either abandoned farms or, for those ranchers who had the turbines on their property, new machinery, trucks and a tennis court. We did stop by one old home for photos.
From Condon, we continued east on 206 toward our eventual designation of the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day National Monument. We saw a turnoff for Lonerock, so decided to drive the 17 miles to explore. The road was paved for a good portion but then became a graded road. From an overlook we could see the very small community that was still populated (35) nestled in a valley. There was a church, school, jail (1891), community center and a number of homes. It was a very quiet town with no apparent stores. We turned north on the Buttermilk Road driving through canyons and scattered ranches. We saw a few deer and many birds including magpies and doves.
We drove out to 207 passing by the Treo Ranch holdings. We ended up at Hardman, a town down on its luck with a small cluster of homes and a towing shop. From there we drove through the Umatilla National Forest. The road had many switchbacks and elevation changes. It was also very narrow with steep drop offs so thankfully we encountered no logging trucks or semis and little other traffic. We turned east on 406 at Kimberly to check out several campgrounds on the John Day River. We turned into the first one, Lone Pine and picked a sunny site, L5. There are 5 sites, one of which was occupied. Vault toilets, fire pits and a picnic table are standard issue for USFS campgrounds. For all these amenities, we paid $2.50.
Day 4/Friday/May 30:
This morning was a bright, sunny day so no photography although we were in a beautiful setting along the John Day River. We drove south down 19 through the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. I shot a few from the side of the road of the various multi-colored layered rock formations. We turned left onto 26 continuing on the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway.
Just past Dayville, we left the highway to venture south along the South Fork of the John Day River on 42, a county road. It soon became the South Fork Road and a gravel surface. There were scattered ranches among the valleys. We also saw columnar basalt along the way and some beautiful gentian blue flowers on tall stalks with several pink ones. Hummocks of small yellow daisies and puffy pale yellow blooms were growing from the rocky scree.
Once we came to Black Canyon, we stopped along the road to investigate the bird condos. There were several kinds that were living in the cracks and fissures of the jagged rocky canyon walls. The river, much smaller than where we camped, flowed below. We saw a ruddy duck fly back and forth along the river while swallows were nesting in the cracks and pockets. Many butterflies we saw were dining on a bush with small white blooms in clusters.
But, the coolest of all was when we spotted a herd of mountain sheep up above us on the cliffs on the other side. There were 4 newborns among the herd of at least ten. They knocked a few rocks loose as they climbed to higher ground. We were very quiet although it was pretty exciting. This is a time when I wished I had a bigger lens (and deeper pockets). But, I did get a group portrait.
The river had become noticeably smaller and we were nearing the headwaters of the many creeks that feed it. It had disappeared from immediate view into a small canyon. Suddenly, in the clearing, we saw it tumbling over some big boulders. There was a turnout for it that ended a few yards from the top. It was also a great place to camp. The wildflowers, mainly lupine, were bunched among the rocks.
We drove by the site of a former mill evidenced by scattered collapsed buildings and rusted ruins of machinery. Further down the road was a group of mature lilac bushes and orange poppies. There were no “no trespassing” signs but we backed up and returned to the main road.
Somehow, we missed a road and ended up teeing into a Highway 395. We kept looking for Izee but never found it, the reason being that we took a turn too soon. There was a rest area across the road, an old growth forest area with vault toilet and picnic tables and paths wandering through some large pines. While we were having lunch, a volunteer for the USFS stopped by who was researching gravel biking routes. He was curious about the road condition which was good as it was graveled and graded last year. He said he had lived in the area since the early 70s and had only seen the mountain sheep once. He also explained that the falls used to be steeper and denser with boulders until it was blasted to allow the steelhead and salmon to travel further upstream.
Once down 395 we encountered few cars and more than a few log trucks. We passed by the towns of Seneca and Silvies. The Silvies Valley Ranch, a huge modern ranch, took up a large portion of both sides of 395 for miles. Tony was getting tired so we drove into the Idlewild campground, a USFS facility right along 395 with the usual vault toilets, fresh water, campfire rings and a picnic table. There was just a class C with a toy hauler and a Tundra/toy hauler combo. We parked at the further end in seclusion. There was some wood in the fire pit so we had a campfire because it was only 4:00 pm and a fire was practically laid. Dry pine burns fast and hot.
After our dinner of soup and sandwiches by the fire, we sat for awhile then went to bed. The traffic had died down for the night. Tomorrow, we go into Burns for fuel and to ask whether Steens Mountain Loop is open.
Day 5/Saturday/May 31:
We really had the best intentions of breaking camp early to do our fuel stop in Burns. Really. But, I overslept and then Toller needed a long walk. We had just finished adding water to our tank when we encountered the camp host. He and we were on the same page on just about every topic. He also informed us that the white-headed woodpecker we saw was only seen here in this area. And, that the mountain goats were actually mountain sheep. The pine forest we were in had trees up to 800 years old. The following floored us: $5,000 ferro-cement picnic tables, $800 fire rings, $35,000 single vault toilets, $55,000 double. Pretty unbelievable. Kinda like the $800 toilet seats.
Our human contact satiated, we went into Hines to fuel up at the Hines Shell and buy a few groceries at the Thriftway across the street. We drove toward the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve taking the Center Patrol Road, a gravel road that tended toward washboard. We saw many red-winged blackbirds, not so many yellow-headed blackbirds, many ducks, harrier hawks, cormorants, and a white egret.
At Frenchglen, we headed up toward the Steens Mountain Loop which the Thriftway checker said was closed at Fish Lake. We passed through rangeland and fields of wildflowers. Soon we could see Steens, a bulky mountain longer than tall. It had patches of snow. The aspens were stunted and had smaller leaves. The BLM or USFS was conducting a juniper management program to see which method could reduce the number of juniper that were crowding out the aspens for a more balanced ecosystem to protect the watershed.
After checking out Fish Lake campground, we headed back toward 205. Once on 205 then 202, we began to look for a place to spend the night. We passed through Fields then Denio just over the border. It was looking bleak as there were few roads that led to other than ranches or dead ended in snake infested grasses (we saw 3 dead ones on the highways that saw little traffic). Finally, past Denio Junction, there was Ninemile Road that looked promising. We saw another camper about ¼ mile away so we found a level area off the gravel road and set up camp. There were mountain ranges all around us, typical of Nevada, barren and buff colored. Windy but not cold and not too out of our way.
A quick dinner of sandwiches and a blog entry then time for bed.