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North Fork John Day River Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Home Mines Cabin (Bigfoot Hilton), North Fork John Day River (bobcat)
Sticky geranium (Geranium viscosissimum), North Fork John Day River (bobcat)
View upriver, North Fork John Day River (bobcat)
Ponderosa slope, North Fork John Day River (bobcat)
Babbling brook, Crane Creek Trail (bobcat)
Elkhorns view, North Crane Trail (bobcat)
The loop hike using the North Fork John Day, Crane Creek, and North Crane Trails (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: North Fork John Day Trailhead
  • Ending Point: North Fork John Day Ford
  • Hike Type: Loop
  • Distance: 13.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1720 feet
  • High Point: 5,650 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: Mid-spring into fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

The North Fork John Day River was a hot bed of mining activity from small operations in the 1860s to larger, more industrial concerns beginning in the late nineteenth century. Production tailed off by the 1920s, but the Great Depression saw a number of small claims filed up and down the river. When the area became wilderness in 1984, the existing 200 claims were grandfathered in, and the last operation, the Blue Heaven Claim, was worked until 2004. Some of the old miner’s cabins remain, and rock pile tailings, as well as water trenches, are obvious in many locations. Miners used powerful water cannons to blast away whole hillsides, and the larger rocks were piled in small ridges so the finer material could be sluiced to sort out the heavy metals, primarily gold. This hike will take you down past several of these workings, but to make this a loop, you’ll have to ford at knee-depth the North Fork John Day (Bring water shoes and two trekking poles for balance) and hike up the Crane Creek Trail, which becomes indistinct in the long lush meadow near the source of the creek (Also, there are ticks in the meadows). Some sections of these trails are not regularly maintained, so you will probably have to contend with some downed trees.

It's a 5 1/4 mile round-trip hike to the Bigfoot Hilton if you want to do a shorter hike.

At the trailhead, an information board illustrates some of the salient features of placer mining. Hike down through a lodgepole pine-shaded meadow that blooms with cow parsnip, penstemon, and lupine. Pass miners’ rock piles and then go right across the big log that constitutes the Trail Creek Footbridge. Pass the wilderness boundary sign, and hike along a grouseberry-lined trail in shady lodgepole woods. Heliotrope, geranium, cinquefoil, and mertensia bloom along the path. Cross several boggy seeps, noting the white orchids, and enter a more mature woodland of Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, ponderosa pine, and some very large larch trees. Aspen trees shimmer on a talus slope above. Below the trail, you’ll see your first cabin with its attendant outhouse and shed. Rusty bunk bed frames remain in the main room. A little farther on, there’s a collapsed cabin with a shake roof. The trail then undulates high above the river among tall western larches. Pass the sign for the Blue Heaven Claim #2, validated in 1981. Soon, a spur leads down to the left to arrive at the Blue Heaven Cabin. The claim here was worked for 30 years by Guy Hafer, who passed away in 2007. A jar above the door holds the claim papers, and Guy’s tools are still leaning against the log cabin’s wall. On the main trail, cross a sweet-smelling snow brush slope. Across the river, you’ll see young larch trees dominating a forest recovering from a wild fire. Make a level traverse, and wind down to reach Trout Creek. Before the broken footbridge, a trail leads off to the left. Eight yards from the main trail, another spur goes left to the Home Mines Cabin, immortalized as the “Bigfoot Hilton” in William L. Sullivan’s account of his trek across Oregon, Listening for Coyote. Sullivan spent two days here during a snowstorm, but the two-room cabin is now a little worse for wear although there are still bed springs, a wood stove, and a two-door cabinet.

If you’re out for a shorter hike, this is where you’ll turn around. Otherwise, at Trout Creek, you have two choices: either to wobble across the broken footbridge or to slosh across at the horse ford downstream (It is current policy not to replace these bridges, so when this bridge goes, the ford will be the only option). Continuing on the trail, you’ll cross more open slopes that were burned a few decades ago. Younger ponderosas, lodgepoles, and larches have restablished themselves. Pass above a wide grassy flat which exhibits the detritus of a mining operation. Enter a wood of lodgepole pine with a lovely ponderosa pine parkland on the slopes above. Now travel high above the river where the only tall trees that have survived all the burns are western larches. Pass more miners’ rock piles in an area where the slope was blasted away by water cannons. Descend along a huckleberry-lined trail and pass a boggy spring and grassy seeps. Cross a meadow, and then hike along an open slope: here the trail follows an old road bed that serviced the Thornburg Mine. Cross a trickling creek, still 100 feet above the river, and then a sedge meadow where the tread gets obscured. Across the North Fork John Day, you’ll see the conical tailings of the Thornburg Mine, originally the Steuben Placer, which began operations in the 1880s. This more industrial concern harvested 8 – 20 cents worth of gold per cubic yard of gravel until the 1940s. Make two switchbacks up, traverse, and then descend in four switchbacks almost to the river level. A miner’s trench, dug to power the water cannons, runs next to the trail. Drop to cross and recross the trench several times, and hike above a flat. A rusting pipe crosses the trail before you pass between piles of tailings. Below are more rock piles and pieces of rusting equipment. Hike high above the river again, and then switchback down four times to the North Fork John Day-Crane Creek Trail Junction.

Go left here, and pass the sign for the Crane Creek Trail #3011. Follow the trail past a campsite and pass through a boggy area. Keep hiking up the river bank until you see the mouth of the Crane Creek valley opposite. Cross here at the North Fork John Day Ford: It’s about 30 yards and knee-deep in places, but the water is already quite warm in early summer (See Tips for Crossing Streams). Come out where the trail leads across a boggy flat and leads to a large campsite where various users have collected a few relics of the mining era. Proceed to the right side of the camp, passing across a bog, and then finding the Crane Creek Trail as it follows the north slope of the valley on a dry hillside.

You wouldn’t know it, but the Crane Creek Trail actually follows, at least some of the way, a single-lane road track that was constructed during the Depression era to reach the Thornburg Mine. The trail reaches the creek in several spots, so at any one of these you can refill your water bottle. Switchback up twice in a ponderosa pine parkland, and then drop steeply to cross a tributary stream. Hike up along Crane Creek, which is brushed in by alders and red osier dogwood. Columbine, lupine, and geranium bloom along the trail. Pass through thimbleberry and cow parsnip thickets, and then hike a path lined with grouseberry and huckleberry. Make a fairly level traverse, cross a small creek, and switchback twice up a rocky slope. Traverse up an extensive granite talus field with Crane Creek cascading below. Cross and recross Crane Creek, and switchback up. Drop for a third crossing of the creek, and then ascend a steep slope. Make your fourth, and last, crossing of the creek: This one may involve a ford. Wind up away from the creek among lodgepole pines and taller larches. Then cross a grassy parkland to meet Crane Creek again. Cross a boggy meadow blooming with elephant’s head lousewort. The trail veers way from the creek and then returns to meander through a lush meadow. This is the beginning of the mile-long Crane Creek Meadow, where the trail may become lost at times. Keep close to the creek itself, and you should be able to pick up the tread in conifer stands between the different patches of meadow. Elk and deer also hang out here, so be careful not to get distracted by their trails! Eventually, you see FR 73, the Elkhorn Scenic Byway, up ahead. Close to the road, the trail swings left and heads up to the Crane Creek Trailhead.

There’s an information kiosk that details archeological findings on nearby Crane Flats, but for the North Crane Trail #3171, which will take you the last 2 ½ miles back to your car, find the sign outside the fence at the southern end of the trailhead area. The grassy trail rises and the levels in a dense lodgepole pine woodland. Cross your first meadow on this trail, where small cairns will locate the trail route. Get your first view of the peaks of the northern Elkhorn Range. Pass above another meadow and gradually rise, crossing two small meadows before beginning your final descent into a shady forest of western larch, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, and grand fir. Cross a miner’s trench and then a trickling brook. Traverse a slope and then cross a meadow that offers another view to the Elkhorns. Descend across a series of rockpiles from the Klopp Mine operation, and then hike down across a meadow. Pass through an area of heavy mining activity next to Onion Creek, which runs between the trail and FR 73. See a gate to your right, and walk out past it to the road. Go left to cross the bridge over the North Fork John Day, and then turn left into the North Fork John Day Campground.

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Trail indistinct in places, especially through meadows
  • Fords required of the North Fork John Day and Crane Creek
  • Campground with restrooms (no drinking water); information kiosk


  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Umatilla National Forest, North Fork John Day Ranger District
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Umatilla National Forest

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Hiking Oregon’s History by William L. Sullivan
  • Oregon’s Wilderness Areas by George Wuerthner
  • Eastern Oregon Wilderness Areas by Donna Ikenberry Aitkenhead
  • Hiking Oregon by Donna Lynn Ikenberry
  • Oregon: The Creaky Knees Guide by Seabury Blair, Jr. (partial)
  • Best Hikes With Dogs: Oregon by Ellen Morris Bishop
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill
  • Pacific Northwest Hiking by Scott Leonard & Sean Patrick Hill

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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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