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Cottonwood Canyon Pinnacles Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

View from the D and H Trail, Cottonwood Canyon State Park (bobcat)
Golden current (Ribes aureum), Pinnacles Trail, Cottonwood Canyon State Park (bobcat)
Overhang, basalt cliffs, Pinnacles Trail, Cottonwood Canyon State Park (bobcat)
Pinnacle, Pinnacles Trail, Cottonwood Canyon State Park (bobcat)
The Pinnacles Trail at Cottonwood Canyon State Park (shown in red) (bobcat) Courtesy: Google Maps
  • Start point: Murtha Ranch TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Pinnacles Trail End
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 8.6 miles
  • High point: 550 feet
  • Elevation gain: 65 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: All year
  • Family Friendly: Yes
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No
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Contents

Hike Description

Cottonwood Canyon State Park is one of the newest additions to Oregon’s much admired state parks system. The park opened in 2013 and immediately became the second-largest in the state (Silver Falls State Park is the largest) at over 8,000 acres. Most of what is now the park was once part of the Murtha Ranch, a property that ran on both sides of the John Day River and encompassed a variety of habitats: river bottoms, canyons, basalt palisades, grassland, and sagebrush steppe. The park also hosts Oregon’s largest herd of California bighorn sheep – around 600 – 650 animals. There is a developed area, with campground, day-use facilities, and an interpretive trail. The river-level hike described here begins near the visitor center and follows one of the old ranch roads below colorful basalt cliffs and palisades through sagebrush flats until the tread peters out on the north side of a "gooseneck" peninsula.

Cross the paved campground road and take a trail up to reach the junction with the Sage Steppe Trail. Go right here and hike along a slope looking down on a wide irrigated field. Near a parking area and restrooms, take a gravel trail which leads below a hiker/biker camp on your left. Pass along the edge of the Lone Tree Campground and reach a kiosk which displays a map, information about invasive puncture vine, and a trail register. This is also the Pinnacles-Willow Flats Trail Junction, with the wide path leading right continuing along the river to the Murtha Ranch buildings (See the Murtha Ranch Loop Hike).

Keep straight (left) here to pass through a fence near a large netleaf hackberry, which offers welcome shade in the heat of the day. Walk through a sagebrush flat where pungent desert parsley and prairie star bloom in the spring. Then walk by an enclosure in a field and reach an overhanging basalt entablature where you can spot the nests of cliff swallows and, in spring, swarms of busy parents flitting to and fro. Go through a gate and continue under the overhang, passing a user trail leading up slopes to the left. Hackberry trees line the bank of the John Day River. Hike under basalt cliffs with a trickling waterfall and reach a four-way junction with the D and H Trail and a shoreline trail for hikers. A huge locust tree offers shade. Take a left here to get a somewhat elevated view over the river (On the return, you can take the road track or the hiker trail along the shore).

Heading up, you can see across to the willow-lined opposite bank of the John Day. Long-leaf phlox and woolly-pod milkvetch bloom trailside in the spring. You can see the Pinnacles Trail below passing a copse of white alder. Gently descend to rejoin the Pinnacles Trail at the Pinnacles-D and H Trail East Junction and continue around a bend in the river that loops below a 1,000-foot-high gooseneck peninsula (Another peninsula officially named the Gooseneck is farther upstream on the John Day and outside the state park).

Pass below a dry gully and see basalt fortifications and an exfoliating pinnacle above as you pass through a gate. Continue hiking along below the grassy slopes at this wide bend in the river. Low cliffs opposite shade the Lost Corral. To its left is Esau Canyon and, straight ahead, you can get a view of the mouth of Rattlesnake Gulch with its intermittent waterfall. Under the basalt ramparts you’ll notice a small bank of wind-rippled sand near a bench. The river braids here around a large willow bar. Past the nose of the gooseneck ridge, hike through tall big-leaf sagebrush and Scotch thistles. Red cliffs loom across the river to your right and there are high basalt walls ahead. Pass a gate post and walk below these cliffs, passing through a stand of poison hemlock. The river bank here is lined with golden currant, netleaf hackberry, and white alder. The track narrows and you’ll see a basalt pinnacle piercing the sky above. Blackberries close in on the track as you round a point at a riffle in the river. Soon reach an open green gate at the Pinnacles Trail End (around River Mile 34 on topo maps), and turn back.

For a more adventurous off-trail loop using the Pinnacles Trail as the return leg, see the Gooseneck Loop Hike.


Maps

Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Dogs on leash
  • Share trail with cyclists

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • PDX Hiking 365 by Matt Reeder
  • Oregon State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide by Jan Bannan

More Links


Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

Hiking is a potentially risky activity, and the entire risk for users of this field guide is assumed by the user, and in no event shall Trailkeepers of Oregon be liable for any injury or damages suffered as a result of relying on content in this field guide. All content posted on the field guide becomes the property of Trailkeepers of Oregon, and may not be used without permission.