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Criterion Tract Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

This page is marked as a Lost Hike. The "trail" may be dangerous and hard to follow and is not recommended for beginning hikers without an experienced leader. Beginning hikers should check out our Basic Hiking Information page.
View to Frieda Bend and Dant, Lower bench, Criterion Tract (bobcat)
Rough eyelashweed (Blepharipappus scaber), Lower bench, Criterion Tract (bobcat)
Sawleaf bush penstemon (Penstemon fruticosus var. serratus), Windy Gulch, Criterion Tract (bobcat)
Frieda Bend on the Deschutes from Stag Point, Criterion Tract (bobcat)
Thread-leaf phacelia (Phacelia linearis), Stag Point, Criterion Tract (bobcat)
The Mima Ridges, Criterion Tract (bobcat)
The route described using ranch roads and cross-country jaunts (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Google Maps
  • Start point: Criterion North TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Stag Point
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: Loop
  • Distance: 12.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1570 feet
  • High point: 3,175 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Spring into fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

The BLM’s Criterion Tract, acquired in 1995 for 1.3 million dollars, sits along Highway 197 at the highest point between the Columbia River and Redmond. Thus, there are expansive views in all directions, including of snowy Cascade peaks. This is wide-open country, but there are no hiking trails. You can follow old ranch roads, some of which are now mere scratches that are difficult to follow, but cross-country travel is not difficult. From the open crest of sagebrush and the occasional juniper, you can descend to grassy benches blooming with wildflowers in the spring. A rugged band of rimrock, with deeply incised ravines, offers views down to the Deschutes River and across to the Mutton Mountains. Keep oriented while you’re here, and also keep an eye on the time as it’s easy to get caught up in exploring this gloriously open expanse. Spring is the best season to visit: Winters are cold and windy, summers are hot and dry, and the fall sees an influx of hunters. Note that there is another trailhead just to the south of the Criterion North Trailhead.

Pass through the gate next to the information kiosk, making sure to latch it securely behind you. Cows and calves are run on this section of the Criterion Tract, so keep your dog under control as well. A microwave tower looms to your left. Follow the ranch road through a wide-open sagebrush landscape dotted with small juniper trees. Both Mount Hood and Mount Adams should be visible, and closer at hand are the Mutton Mountains, just across the Deschutes River in the northern reaches of the Warm Springs Reservation. Soon pass under a utility line, hiking close to the crest through blooming lupine and milk-vetch in the spring. You’ll also pass salt blocks and plastic tubs filled with a delicious mix of proteins and vitamins to beef up the bovines. Pass through (or step over) a barbed-wire gate and then continue to hike under the utility lines. Keep along the ranch road as it runs parallel to the line of poles. In this area, and to the north along the ridges, you’ll notice patterns of low Mima mounds, the origin of which has not been definitively explained. Past where the utility line turns south along a grassy promontory, look for the faintest scratch of a jeep road that drops down to a juniper-wooded gully. If you reach another closed gate, you’ve gone too far.

Follow this track down into the junipers, where it will eventually split, with the more obvious alignment going left. You will want to veer right, however, and follow the road bed across the dry creek. An off-trail excursion here allows you to get splendid views of Dixon Gulch (not an official name) from Dixon Gulch Dry Falls, a waterless plunge (most of the year) into this remote gorge. To the west, grassy slopes bloom with balsamroot and lupine in the spring. After exploring the rim of the gulch, which offers views up the Deschutes and across to the Mutton Mountains, resume the farm track where it heads west along the slope and then below a red rim with a skirt of scree. The route dips into a depression here, and you’ll probably lose the track. Pass a perennial spring with a couple of taller junipers, and head up a grassy slope, getting views of the Deschutes below.

Soon, you’ll reach a fenceline with a vehicle gate. Continue walking long the slope, but for better views of the river below, drop low to visit the viewpoints along the rimrock. In spring, sawtooth penstemon blooms here in bright clumps, and the balsamroot, white eyelashweed, and lupine add swathes of color. A massive promontory that juts out over the Deschutes’ Rainbow Bend looms ahead and, after crossing a draw, you can hike up the slope to rejoin a now more obvious road track. This will carry you to a broad bench, with the big headland to your left and more opportunities to explore the rimrock. Views extend up the Eagle Creek valley on the west side of the Deschutes. You can also see the scar of the Lady Frances Mine high on a hillside: This operation extracted perlite in the 1950s and 1960s. The few rooftops of the community of Dant glint below the mine.

The farm track, if you can find it, will be heading north to avoid Windy Gulch, but it’s best to hike straight across the rocky washes to the rim of the canyon and then follow it up to an earth dam and waterhole. Cross here, and then angle slightly left until you come to another ranch track, now sprouting sagebrush bushes, that leads west. There are broad views here north to Mount Hood and the wide plateau of Juniper Flat above the White River Canyon. Looking down the slope, you can see your goal, Stag Point, or Peak 2615 on topographical maps: the left mound, with its lone juniper, of two hillocks perched on the edge of the rimrock.

Follow the road down, passing through a fenceline, and parallel to Stag Point, leave the road to swish through the lupine and climb the hill. Stag Point is crowned by a pole with footholds which until fairly recently supported a communications antenna and some kind of wooden structure. An electrical cable still leads down the south slope and over the rim to the relative civilization below. This station has now been abandoned, however, and remains of the equipment and structure lie strewn about the east slope. Also here is a triangulation station and two geodetic survey markers. It’s very much worth scrambling down to the rim from here to get views down to Frieda Point, Dant, and the Lady Frances Mine high above the mouth of Eagle Creek. Scrubby junipers and windswept mountain mahogany trees obtain tenuous footholds on the rough rock, and you may enjoy the cascading tinkle of a canyon wren.

From Stag Point, you can head back up the road track and through the fenceline. Keep following the track up the slope through a juniper-dotted open parkland. Pass a spring down to the left, where you may notice sign of elk. Pass another grassy track coming in from the left: This leads all the way down to the Deschutes River at the Locked Gate picnic site. Reach a closed gate, and pass through it into another section of the tract which is leased to run cattle. At a lone juniper, you’ll come to the Criterion Crest-Stag Point Trail Junction. You can head back to your car here by going right, but for exploration of a different kind of landscape, keep straight on another farm track.

Walk through a lupine pasture, and then bend right among low Mima mounds to come to a fence line with private property. Follow this fence to the right, and reach a corner. From here, you’ll do a cross-country jaunt into the valleys below, making for the confluence point of several branches of the creek. These slopes are patterned with soft-earth mounds that form four- to five-foot-high lumps on stonier ground. Sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and clumps of fescue are the main vegetation, but down in the draws there are small woods of juniper, some of which was burned in a 2011 fire. There will probably be cattle down here but keep your eyes open also for elk, deer, and coyote. As you descend, you’ll have to decide whether to weave between the mounds or hike up over each one. The first draw you reach still has a running creek in the spring. There’s a small dam here that backs up a cattail pond busy with blackbirds.

Across the creek, a cattle trail runs down towards the confluence. You can cross over the next creek and then begin to head up the slope among sagebrush and the skeletons of dead junipers. Follow the crest of this ridge, again winding between the Mima mounds, until you sight the utility line on the main crest ahead. Then, begin to break left and angle upwards, crossing the head of another draw, until you come to the Criterion Crest ranch road. Going left here will take you through two closed gates and return you to your vehicle.


Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • Dogs under control when cattle are present
  • Close gates securely after you pass through

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • PDX Hiking 365 by Matt Reeder (different route at Criterion)

More Links


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.

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