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Starvation Bend Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

Looking down on the Coy Place from Starvation Crest, Cottonwood Canyon State Park (bobcat)
The mouth of Sage Hollow from across the John Day River (bobcat)
Pearhip rose (Rosa woodsii), Starvation Bend (bobcat)
Antique grass cutter, Starvation Bend (bobcat)
Desert yellow daisy (Erigeron linearis), Starvation Crest (bobcat)
The loop at Starvation Bend, Cottonwood Canyon State Park. Farm roads are solid yellow; dotted lines are off trail (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Google Maps
  • Start point: Starvation Bend TrailheadRoad.JPG
  • End point: Gibson's Gate
  • Trail Log:
  • Hike Type: Loop or in and out
  • Distance: 4.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 880 feet
  • High point: 1325 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Spring through fall
  • Family Friendly: Yes, the in and out option
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

The topography of the lower John Day River consists of the several layers of Grande Ronde and Wanapum Basalts capped by an icing layer of rich wind-blown Pleistocene loess that supports the grain industry of the Columbia Plateau. An off-trail loop in the northern part of Cottonwood Canyon State Park allows you to appreciate these features as you admire the canyon of the John Day River. You’ll be using an old farm road in the bottomland, visit the remains of a farm homestead, and then scramble up the sides of the canyon to the sagebrush grassland on the plateau. Of course, on the last leg you will need to pick your way steeply down again to get back to your vehicle. The gravel road that takes you out to these parts, Starvation Lane, has recently been upgraded to an all-weather track, but you’ll need to take care on the hairpin bends leading down to the canyon bottom.

If you’re not into ascending cross-country more than 800 feet up a steep slope, you can simply walk back the way you came.

Note also that rattlesnakes are not uncommon out here, the canyon gets very hot in the summer, and invasive cheatgrass, whose pointed spikelets will penetrate your socks, is everywhere.

Walk about 125 yards back up Starvation Lane, and go left past a gate to begin the hike on an old farm track. Pass a second gate, and get a view across the river to the mouth of Hay Creek Canyon, also in Cottonwood Canyon State Park (See the Hay Creek Canyon Loop Hike). Drop from the sagebrush slope almost to river level, and pass a grove of Russian olive trees, an invasive species from the Middle East, but very aromatic in the spring when blooming. There are also native netleaf hackberry trees near the old farm fields where barley continues to reseed every year. Pass a third gate and a sign which announces you’re now in a hunting area. Across the river, you’ll see the open-sided hay barn near the mouth of Hay Creek. The local power lines cross the John Day River here, and then you’ll see the Mouth of Sage Hollow at the end of a deeply incised ravine.

The farm track here is easy to walk on except for one thing: cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), the plant which gives these hills their russet hue and blankets the ground among the sagebrush bushes. It is a Eurasian invasive, and the seed spikelets will insinuate themselves into any clothing on the lower parts of your legs (Wearing gaiters will help with this). After you pass what might be an antique grass cutter, you’ll arrive at the George W. Coy place. Coy first settled these acres planted with a poplar windbreak in 1883, but it is unknown who left the old Chevy, the camper turned chicken coop, the collapsed wooden structure, and the rusting equipment. Past the Coy Place, you’ll see more hackberry trees, and the river braids. At an electrical box, look left to the brushy riverbank, which blooms with pearhip roses, to a section of irrigation pipe and an abandoned pump. Finally, reach a closed gate: Beyond this is a private inholding, which we’ll call Gibson’s after the original landowner.

If you’re game to do the loop, you’ll need to head up a gully wash from here. When you see a 15-foot dry waterfall ahead, go up the slope to your right. Balsamroot blooms here in the spring. You’ll reach a vertical layer of Grand Ronde basalt, so find your way left along a ledge of reasonable width until you're above the dry waterfall. From here, you can scramble your way up to the nose of a ridge. Hike up this broad ridge. Yellow desert daisy blooms brightly among lichen-decorated basalt. When you crest the rim of the plateau, you’ll be looking north to a distant horizon of wheat fields, windmills, and snowy Mount Adams. Begin walking right (east) towards a gentle high point. Once again, you’ll be wading through sagebrush and cheatgrass, with phlox, milk-vetch, and both shaggy and cushion fleabane among the spring bloomers.

Passing over Starvation Crest in a large patch of sagebrush, head out to the rim of the canyon to where you can see down to the river. Then hike below the rim on an even contour, getting views of the basalt ramparts above the John Day and the plateau wheat fields beyond. You’ll get another view of the Mouth of Sage Hollow, and then the abandoned fields at the mouth of Hay Creek hove into view. You’ll walk around at about the 1200-foot level, and come to a vehicle track. Take this out to a fence; then hop over the fence to get views straight up Hay Creek Canyon. You’ll also see down to your car at the end of Starvation Lane.

Now comes the descent, which will be steep any way you go. The easiest option is to head back along the vehicle track about 450 yards, and drop down to the north a short distance to reach an old farm track. This will angle down the slope towards the river to reach Starvation Lane. A more direct approach would be a steep descent off the nose of the ridge, angling back when you can to intersect Starvation Lane just above the trailhead.


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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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