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Hike in Spring Basin: Oregon's newest Wilderness Area

by John Howard

Jul 07, 2010


n March, 2009, the federal Omnibus Public Lands Management Act was passed, adding three new Wilderness Areas in Oregon. One of the three is Spring Basin, a 10,000 acre parcel beside the John Day River, just southeast of Clarno.

We visited Spring Basin over the July 4 holiday and were pleased with what we discovered: rolling hills of grass and wildflowers, dotted with junipers and scored by rugged little canyons. No official trails have been developed in the Wilderness Area as yet, but we were able to use a game trails and an old Jeep road for part of our journey.

Beginning at a BLM sign on the west side of the Wilderness Area beside the Clarno Road, we headed up a grassy draw following a faint trail between cliffs of weathered rhyolite. At the ridge top, we found the parallel tracks of a dirt road, one that had hadn’t felt the weight of tires in years and had nearly been reclaimed by vegetation. We followed the sketchy road clockwise along the ridge top as it made a long arc along the northern boundary of the Wilderness Area. At viewpoints we looked down on the John Day River as it wound northward past fields of alfalfa and carrot seed. We hiked through meadows of tall native bunch grass and patches of cheat grass, gone to seed. Pretty mariposa lilies and sunny arnica bobbed in the breeze. Farther along the rim, we looked across to the palisades of the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

After several miles, we left the old Jeep track and headed south, up and down along an ascending ridge to the summit of Horse Mountain. Standing in the middle of the Wilderness Area, the 2,827-foot summit provided a lovely vantage point to take a bite of lunch and scan the vast area for game. Grassy hills and ridges speckled with juniper trees extended as far as the eye could see in every direction – lots of intriguing peaks and canyons for future trips. A brass USGS benchmark dated 1946 showed that at least one other party had stood on the isolated peak before us. Maybe a few ranchers, hunters and desert hikers like us had visited the lonely but spectacular spot, but probably not many.

From the mountaintop we zigzagged down through rock bands and areas of waist-deep grass into Spring Basin Canyon. The shade of scrawny trees was welcome as we followed a dry streambed southward. Two mule deer bolted at our approach. We came upon a tiny spring, the only seep of surface water we would encounter all day. Near the spring on a rock panel we noticed a faint reddish pictograph – an abstract figure probably hundreds if not thousands of years old.

We took advantage of another faded 4WD track to continue in a southwestward direction for a couple miles until the canyon opened up and the John Day River came into view. Back on the Clarno Road, it was a matter of hiking a hot mile and a half to complete the nine-mile loop to our starting point.

Spring Basin is a wonderful addition to the Wilderness system. Quite unlike the lush and wooded Wilderness Areas of the Cascades or Wallowas, it is dry, open country with patches of drought-resistant sagebrush and juniper. The best time to visit is April through June when the grass is green and the spring wildflowers are in bloom. By mid-July, this country gets pretty sun-baked.

Be aware that rattlesnakes and ticks infest these hills – although we encountered neither during our trek in early July. Ground-hugging hedgehog cacti grow in large numbers here, too, so watch your step. (We’re told they bloom gloriously in early spring.) The biggest nuisance we encountered was the burrs of cheat grass. Nylon gaiters, like those worn by mountain climbers, provide the best protection against these itchy, hitch-hiking botanical pests.

To get to the Spring Basin Wilderness from Portland, drive 104 miles east on I-84 to exit 104 at Biggs, then drive 60 miles south on US 97 to Shaniko. From there it is 24 miles down Highway 218 to the Clarno Bridge. The hike described in this article began beside the Clarno Road, about three miles south of the bridge.

For further information contact the BLM office in Prineville, the administering agency for the new Wilderness Area. You might also contact the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) for information about this and other wild lands in Central and Eastern Oregon.

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50 SW Bond Street, Suite 4,
Bend, OR 97702
Tel: (541) 330-2638

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