I borrowed this one from Barbara Bond’s 75 Scrambles in Oregon guidebook. It’s about an 11 ½ mile completely cross-country loop partly in the Sheep Rock Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. There are two admonitions I should deliver before starting the narrative:
1) Bond claims this loop is all on public land (National Parks, BLM). I took her at her word. However, I encountered new, tightly strung fences on my outing and, consulting the Grant County Tax Lots map upon my return to Portland, found that most of the eastern section of the loop is on a ranch that belongs to an entrepreneur formerly of Portland. There weren’t any No Trespassing signs (otherwise I would have turned back), but this report is not an invitation to follow in my or Bond’s footsteps.
2) I deviated from Bond by diving down into Waterspout Gulch too early. A poor decision on my part, but another one of those lessons that will probably fade in memory and repeat itself in some ugly fashion.
The loop begins at a parking pullout just south of Highway 19’s Goose Rock Bridge over the John Day River. I crossed the bridge, walked past a National Parks gate on a remnant of the old highway, and began an ascent of the west ridge of Middle Mountain. The purple sage was blooming and views soon opened up to the broad, grassy benches across Deer Gulch and down to Sheep Rock. There were some bands of rimrock to negotiate. At one, a silent slithering caught my eye and a silent rattle tucked itself into coil position. I’m sure the snake was scared silly and that remaining half-hidden and quiet was its best chance of seeing the next sunrise. After snapping a photo, I moved on.
The summit ridge of Middle Mountain offers magnificent views into the Fossil Beds’ Blue Basin and the eye-catching exposed red clay slopes in Big Basin. However, Middle Mountain also had its own guardian spirit; this one was no doubt lazily basking without a care in the world until I almost stepped on it, whereupon it almost leapt out of its skin and maintained a loud and belligerent posture until I moved on. I scrambled up and around two rocky crags before hitting Middle Mountain’s true summit and then gazed across the expanse at the head of Deer Gulch to my next destination, Windy Point.
I descended Middle Mountain’s east ridge in what had become a juniper parkland, crossing a couple of fences, and reaching the broad grassy saddle at the head of Deer Gulch. Then I slogged my way up Windy Point’s steep north slope, turning right for the summit. Hedgehog cacti crowd this area in abundance and you have to be careful where you step. A couple were still blooming – at the end of May!
From the summit of Windy Point, I could look south and see the broad gully of Waterspout Gulch. After I descended, I kept to the east side of the gulch, sometimes on the ridge crest but mostly sidesloping on an even contour. There were lots of elk trails, and a couple of the animals duly trotted away at my intrusion. Waterspout Gulch makes a dogleg west at a dark ravine called Hole in the Ground. I was supposed to follow the ridge to the end (I later realized), but took a steep gully down into the main gulch, and began following it down.
One good thing was there was still water in the bottom - and I was running out and getting thirsty - so I was able to fill up from the shallow trickle. Another good thing was the day was heating up, with the radiant heat from the rocks creating an oven-like effect. Waterspout Gulch seems like a place that should be literally draped with rattlesnakes, but I knew the sun and heat would have them all deep into their cool crevices by this time of day. In fact, it all seemed good until I kept encountering “dry” waterfalls, a couple of them too high to safely clamber down, so I had to scramble along steep slide slopes to circumvent them. Then there was a dense thicket of stabbing hackberry followed by a swampy mess of teasel and cattails to thrash through. By the time I got to the mouth of the gulch near the John Day River, I was exhausted.
The way back to the car was along the John Day River, about four miles, and a somewhat unrelenting slog. There used to be irrigated fields here, so I followed old farm tracks, some of them taken over by waist-high sagebrush. I passed under Sheep Rock and could admire its colorful palisades and blue cliffs. Then the track left the river to circumvent the promontory of Goose Rock. In these low hills, I surprised a pronghorn antelope, which snorted at me for long minutes afterwards. I descended Deer Gulch and rejoiced at the welcome sight of my car parked across the river, just a few minutes away.
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