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Hay Creek Canyon Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Looking down the John Day River from above Sage Hollow, Cottonwood Canyon State Park (bobcat)
Desert shooting star (Dodecatheon conjugens), Shooting Star Gulch (bobcat)
Deer pair above Shooting Star Gulch (bobcat)
Hackberry tree, mouth of Hay Creek (bobcat)
Rock formation, Twenty-nine Mile Cliff (bobcat)
The suggested loop out of Hay Creek Canyon at Cottonwood Canyon State Park (all cross-country off of Hay Creek Canyon Road) (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Google Maps
  • Start point: Hay Creek Canyon TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Twenty-nine Mile Cliff
  • Hike Type: Loop
  • Distance: 8.1 miles
  • Elevation gain: 930 feet
  • High point: 1,310 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Spring through fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

Hay Creek Canyon is located in the northeast section of Oregon’s vast Cottonwood Canyon State Park. You can drive two miles down the canyon and park, but restricting yourself to the canyon road is a fairly dull hike, so you are better off working out a cross-country jaunt that involves hiking up one of the side valleys on the south side of the canyon and then making your way up to the crest of the ridge. This is all very open country, so a good topo map might be all that you need. The area was affected by the 2016 Scott Canyon Fire, and you need to make sure you stay on public property: Keep your distance from any of the adjacent wheat fields. Also note that the access road, Devils Butte Road, can be soft and muddy in winter and undergoes a seasonal closure, so this trip is best made in the spring or fall.

There are plans to build a boat launch at the mouth of Hay Creek. If/When this happens, the road down Hay Creek Canyon will be improved, and you will be able to drive all the way to the John Day River.

Walk through the gate and, a few yards later, take a break in the fence to hike across a farm field towards Hay Creek. Cross a fence, and drop down to the creek: In spring, this might be a rather soggy crossing. On the other side, walk up the bank, and duck under a fence. You're now on a bench above the creek with dense clusters of cattails below. The bank is severely eroded, so keep at least three feet away from the edge. Above you on the slopes, prairie stars will be blooming in large numbers in early spring. Arrive at the mouth of a small valley, which we’ll call "Shooting Star Gulch."

Find an old cattle trail leading up the middle of the valley through a carpet of tiny-flowered whitlow grass. Continue up the center of the wide rocky creek bed, which may still be flowing weakly in mid-spring. Continuing up, the valley narrows, and you’ll have to follow cattle/deer trails on one side or the other. Pools here and there provide watering holes for the deer that you might surprise. You will also see a couple old plastic watering tubs for stock. The north side of the creek exhibits several layers of rimrock where balsamroot blooms, while on the south side there will be seeps and benches that support colonies of prairie stars and shooting stars. Individual bushes of big sagebrush dot the landscape. Pairs of gray partridge, an introduced game bird, will fly up suddenly at your approach. As you continue up the valley, the rimrock formations on the north side disappear: This is your cue to angle up the slope to the ridge.

Once you’re at the crest of the ridge, you’ll meet a rough track. Go right first to a high point, Peak 1284, from which you can see snowy Mount Adams past a horizon of windmills. The John Day River snakes lazily below. From this vantage point, you have two options: a fairly quick descent down grassy slopes ahead of you to the old ranch property at the mouth of Hay Creek, or backtrack to make a descent to the isolated valley below.

If you take the latter option, walk back along the crest until it dips. From here, descend gradually to your left, and cross a shallow gully. Then descend the steep grassy slope to the left of the gully (The right side is much rockier). Head for the creek below - we’ll call it "Sage Hollow." You’ll pass blooming prairie stars, shooting stars, and yellow bells in the spring. Clumps of tough fescue grass also thrive on this slope. Reach the creek bottom at its confluence with the gully, and scramble up the steep bank to an obvious cattle trail. This trail will take you above the creek on an even contour as you follow it downstream. The cattle path rises from a basalt ledge and continues towards the mouth of the canyon, with the John Day River hoving into view. Scramble up the slope a little to get an expansive view downriver. You should probably descend to the creek bottom for the easiest passage out of the canyon; otherwise, keep to the north side.

When you reach the Mouth of Sage Hollow, walk out to your left towards the John Day River. On the opposite bank, a line of telephone poles marches towards a poplar windbreak at the site of an old homestead. Backed up against the cliffs is a grassy expanse shaded by netleaf hackberry trees and sagebrush. The banks beyond this are choked with riparian thickets, so passage may only be possible at very low water.

Return to cross Sage Hollow Creek, and cross a fenceline to follow the fence and a line of hackberries that parallel the river. To your right is a wide field. You’ll angle your way across this field to a large open-sided shed, the only intact structure on the property. Between the shed and a stone wall, there’s a grassy track that leads toward the mouth of Hay Creek Canyon. The track fetches up at a concrete foundation. Continue walking north past a scorched scattering of equipment parts, and follow a line of poplars. To your left, a crop seeder rusts in a field. When you reach Hay Creek, you’ll have to hop across it and scramble up the opposite bank to a road.

Go left here along the track as it follows the creek before bending away from it. A line of telephone poles marches across the slope above. Pass a sign denoting the former location of the Hay Creek School and then a plastic lick tank: cattle would lick one of the four “wheels” on the tank to get their protein and vitamin supplements. The track pushes through the sagebrush as Twenty-nine Mile Cliff looms ahead. Pass a grove of netleaf hackberry trees on a lush riverside bank, and then walk along below the sheer walls of the cliff. You’ll reach a gate and a No Trespassing sign marking the northern boundary of the park. There are homes on both sides of the river just downstream.

Return the way you came, and start hiking up the wide Hay Creek Canyon on the access road. The fencing that separated fields of alfalfa and hay from cattle is now being removed. You’ll see the impression of the creek across the fields and to your left, grassy slopes ease smoothly down to the tumbleweed-lined road. Soon enough, reach the parking area and your vehicle.


Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • No overnight camping

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • none

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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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