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Spring Basin Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

View to the palisades below Horse Mountain, Spring Basin Wilderness (bobcat)
Purple sage (Salvia dorrii), Spring Basin Wilderness (bobcat)
View to Iron Mountain from the west side of Spring Basin (bobcat)
Looking to the mouth of Spring Basin Canyon (bobcat)
Plains pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha), Spring Basin (bobcat)
The loop in the Spring Basin Wilderness: solid red = trail or jeep track; dotted red = cross country; orange = Clarno Road (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Spring Basin TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Horse Mountain
  • Hike type: Loop
  • Distance: 9.1 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2115 feet
  • High point: 2,827 feet
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Seasons: February through October
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

One of the new wildernesses created by the Omnibus Public Lands Act in 2009, the 6,382-acre Spring Basin Wilderness occupies a series of dry canyons and ridges of welded tuff on the east bank of the John Day River near Clarno. A trail of sorts leads up a gulch into the wilderness, but after that you’re left to navigate often faint jeep tracks or simply strike out cross-country. The center of the wilderness is 2,827-foot Horse Mountain, from which you’ll get views of various peaks and valleys in the John Day country. April is the best month for wildflowers, including the pretty pink hedgehog cactus. The route described here entails a loop over the top of Horse Mountain, returning via Spring Basin Canyon and Clarno Road to your car.

Find a trail leading up to the left of a brown BLM marker through wheatgrass, tumble mustard, and toadflax. Balsamroot blooms here in April. The route keeps to the left (north) side of a dry draw, and the landscape is dotted with junipers. You can look back down on the irrigated fields along the John Day River. As you get higher, you’ll cross and recross the draw until the trail keeps to the south side when the gully deepens. Emerge from the draw at a junction on a saddle (there’s a small cairn here), and make a left.

Follow this old jeep track past bright pink April-blooming hedgehog cacti, clumps of buckwheat, and balsamroot. Ahead you’ll see a knoll topped by a cairn. Looking east across Spring Basin itself, you’ll see the outline of Horse Mountain. The track drops to offer a full on view of the John Day River flowing north past Clarno. Then the trail swings right across the face of a hill to drop and rise steeply. You’ll skirt the north end of a juniper parkland in Spring Basin itself before the track disappears at a small draw. Head left up the draw, and then make a right to pick up the track again. Keeping to the ridge crest, you’ll pass between a pair of rock piles that once supported a rangeland gate. Drop to the left as you keep making for Horse Mountain’s north ridge. When you reach an east-west ridge, walk east and descend to a saddle before rising to the north ridge of Horse Mountain.

Leave the jeep track here, and head up the grassy slope. Skirt a rocky knoll on the east side to get views down into Hay Bottom Canyon, and keep making your way up the ridge. More hedgehog cacti are living in this area. When you reach the summit of Horse Mountain, enjoy the 360-degree view. To the east are Sheep Mountain and the dark crags of Jennies Peak and Black Top. The pyramidal hill of Amine Peak is to the south, and beyond that is Round Mountain in the Ochocos. To the southwest, Wagner Mountain can be seen above the John Day River.

If you’re not into steep scrambling, head back the way you came. If you’re making the loop, drop off of Horse Mountain’s southeast ridge and then turn due south. This is steep scramble down rimrock, but you’ll soon reach an outcrop of welded tuff palisades, a legacy of ancient volcanic eruptions. Continue past the palisades down the grassy, rounded south ridge as Wagner Mountain rises to the skyline. Soon, you’ll spot a jeep track on a ridge above a deep draw. Cross the draw where it meets Hay Bottom Canyon, and scramble steeply up to the old vehicle track.

Head right, following the track as it becomes just a pair of indentations in the rabbitbrush steppe. Turn left down a crest, and pass above a steep-sided bowl. The trail becomes more obvious as it drops into a draw and passes a campfire circle in a shady glade of junipers. Cross a teasel-infested spring (which may not hold any surface water), and then enter Spring Basin Canyon, which comes in from the right. The route passes another campfire circle and a small cairn as it heads down the sandy canyon bottom.

Before Spring Basin Canyon becomes a sheer-sided ravine, you’ll see a jeep track peeling up to the right. Follow the track as it rises. A short off-trail detour to the left gives you good views over the mouth of Spring Basin Canyon to the John Day River. The jeep road descends from here past a brown gate to join gravel Clarno Road at a trail post. Make a right on the road, and walk down to a large gate. There’s a hiker gate on the left, and a large sign stating in no uncertain terms that public vehicle access ends at this point. Then you’ll just be following Clarno Road past farmsteads, irrigated fields, and tuff palisades for 1.6 miles to your vehicle.


Regulations or restrictions, etc

  • No fees
  • Mostly off-trail hiking
  • Very hot in summer

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this hike

  • 100 Hikes: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes by Andy Kerr

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.

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.