On Saturday, like most in the area, I awoke to a cold relentless drizzle and, as on many of the past few weekends, decided to motor east. There was sunshine in The Dalles, but I decided I had the time to venture farther afield, so I headed down 197, about 50 miles south, in fact, to stop at the north trailhead for the BLM’s Criterion Tract.
The BLM owns this acreage between 197 and the Deschutes 1,800 feet below, and it’s open to hikers and horses. You begin on the Criterion Crest itself, where on a clear day, you can get vistas towards snowy Cascade peaks. On Saturday, low dark clouds were gathered and it was snowing up in the mountains, so I focused on the terrain at hand. Cows and calves are currently occupying a couple of segments on the crest. The mothers nervously shooed their offspring away at my approach. They had been let out here earlier in the spring, when the ground was soft and wet, and their four-inch deep postholes in the now hardened mud made striding across the level landscape a bit of a chore.
I kept along the crest for a while on a rutted ranch road, passing through one closed gate and by a couple of cattle licks. This is mostly sage and fescue with milk-vetch, phlox, and agoseris blooming. Where the very faintest jeep track led down into a draw, I followed it through a juniper wood and soon arrived at the head of Dixon Gulch (Please note that all “names” given to places on the tract are mine). This precipitous defile offered a window to the Deschutes, with slopes of balsamroot in full bloom above its crumbling rim.
I then made my way along a wide grassy bench, with the rounded crest above to the right and a rimrock cliff to the left. I was attempting to follow one of the ranch roads indicated in bold detail on the BLM map, but soon realized most of these were abandoned years ago and, in many places, the track has been completely obscured by the vegetation. I made occasional forays to the rimrock, with its blooming penstemon and gnarly junipers. Down on the river, I could see the Oregon Trunk Railroad from Rainbow Bend to Windy Flat, the handful of rooftops at the community of Dant, and the white scar of the Lady Frances Mine, where perlite was extracted for a couple of decades. The deeply incised valleys of Eagle and Lousey Hollow Creeks ran out of the Mutton Mountains on the Warm Springs Reservation and everywhere it was a bright, startling green. As I walked through the grass, a few pairs of chukars and gray partridges whirred up from my feet, and a herd of deer left the shade of a juniper and disappeared over the ridge.
I encountered Stag Canyon and hiked up to where I could cross it at an earth dam from an old livestock waterhole. The goal for the day was Peak 2615, a triangulation station marked on topo maps as ‘Stag.’ On the other side of the canyon, I picked up an old ranch road, now sprouting three-foot-high sagebrush bushes, that led gradually down an open grassland to two conical hills, which I will call Stag and Doe Points. I left the road and swished cross-country through blooming lupine, avoiding a few large badger holes. Stag Point is a mound that sports a lone juniper, but also a pole that once supported an antenna. The remains of this equipment and structure lay scattered about, as if they had been tossed off the summit by a violent windstorm. There’s still an electrical cable that plunges off the cliffs to (relative) civilization below.
To get out of the cold wind, I descended to nestle myself among the rotten rimrock and ate my lunch looking down on Dant and Windy Flat and the verdant Mutton Mountain slopes. I was surprised to notice a few mountain mahogany trees clinging to the battlements. Later, I found this is the northwestern part of their range although to the northeast they grow as far as southern Montana. Mountain mahogany is a rugged species and is considered one of the longest-lived angiosperms (flowering plants), with some individuals exceeding 1,000 years.
From Stag Point, I hiked the vestige of a farm road across a wide open grassland up to the crest. Here, I passed through another gate and entered cattle range again. The whole Criterion crest and its attendant ridges are composed of rows of Mima mounds, soft hillocks of earth four to five feet high that are surrounded by stony ground. I followed a fenceline to reach the only sign of the day and then dropped down a slope to where several draws converged near a cattail pond. A couple of elk trotted up the hillside at my approach, and a lone coyote seemed puzzled by my presence. I hiked back up to the crest along one of the ridges, and then followed the ranch road back to the trailhead.
Apparently, I was the only human on the tract that day, and my '87 Accord spent a lonely day at the trailhead. About 12 ½ miles in all, no snakes, and the only tick of the day appeared on my wife later in the evening and was swiftly dispatched.
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