Mill Creek Wilderness Loop - October 8-10, 2021

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Mill Creek Wilderness Loop - October 8-10, 2021

Post by teachpdx » October 11th, 2021, 4:54 pm

While late spring tends to be the most popular hiking/backpacking season in this area of the Ochocos, October in the Mill Creek Wilderness certainly does not disappoint. I'd argue it's even better.

Quick Stats:
Length: 18.2 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 3140 ft
Humans: 3

Jerry's field guide description starts at Wildcat Campground and uses semi-developed campsites, creating a 3 day loop with a couple significant branches that add about 10 total miles. We decided to shorten the loop by starting at Twin Pillars North TH/Bingham Springs and doing the no-branch pure loop anticlockwise.

Day 1: Twin Pillars North Trailhead (Bingham Springs) - Twin Pillars | 3.3 miles | 500 ft gain

Day 1 started with a lunch-hour departure from Portland and arrival at the Twin Pillars North TH around 4:30 PM. Any passenger car can make it to within 100 yds of the trailhead (when dry), but some clearance would be helpful for the final spur road off FR 27. Temperatures in the low 60's in Prineville gave way to a trailhead temperature of 43 degrees at 5500', and we were soon on the trail racing the setting sun to Twin Pillars.

The trail between Bingham Springs and Twin Pillars is in very good condition, all blowdown is clear and the forest is showing great signs of recovery from the 2000 wildfire that burned most of the Wilderness. After staying on the level for the first mile, the trail climbs along the rim of Desolation Canyon, offering fantastic golden hour views. The young larches at this elevation are already beginning their autumn show. Soon the trail crests the ridge and then descends through mature forest before emerging back into recovering burned forest at the north saddle of Twin Pillars.
Young forest on the Twin Pillars Trail
There are two possible places to camp here, and since this was our first time in the area we spent a little time exploring for the best spot. There is one spot for a couple of tents directly upon the saddle, right where the trail makes a 120 degree bend to the right. A better spot, in my opinion, is a few hundred feet north and a bit uphill from the saddle, on a little flat spot overlooking Twin Pillars. This landing on the ridge is flat enough for 2+ tents and has views out to Steins Pillar and Prineville (and AT&T service). Just a reminder for this particular spot... there is no water so you need to pack in enough.
Panorama from campsite north of Twin Pillars
While my friend did some light bouldering on the lower reaches of Twin Pillars, I stayed back and watched the sunset while setting up camp.
Sunset at Twin Pillars
The sky was crystal clear, the milky way cut across the entire sky, and the temperature plummeted quickly. It was already below freezing by 8:30 PM when we called it a night and bailed to our tents.
Milky Way with Twin Pillars and Prineville Lights
Day 2: Twin Pillars - Mill Creek - Cougar Rock | 9.6 miles | 2080 ft gain

I stayed in the sleeping bag a little later than usual for a backpacking trip, waiting patiently for the sun to warm up my tent before getting up. By 8 AM the sun was starting to thaw out the frost left behind after a night in the low-20's. We were slow to make breakfast and coffee, stopping often to soak up new views created by the ever-changing morning light.
Sunrise behind Twin Pillars

We hit the trail right at 10 AM and descended through the frosty shadow of Twin Pillars. It looks like quite a bit of work has been done recently to keep the snowbrush back from the trail, and there were only two trees over the trail on the descent, both were an easy climb-over. As we neared Brogan Creek (which still had water flowing), we startled 7 deer that took off running uphill through the snowbrush. After a quick 100 ft rise and another drop, we stopped at the Mill Creek crossing to tank up on water and have a quick break before climbing back out of the valley. The crossing was an easy rock hop.
Sunrise behind Twin Pillars
Descending from Twin Pillars, getting smaller and smaller
Once we each had about 6L of water onboard, we continued past a couple nice campsites and hit the junction with the Belknap Trail, taking a sharp left at a meadow followed by 1200 ft of elevation gain in the next 1.5 miles. The climb was steep but it wasn't bad, the trail was very easy to follow.
Twin Pillars from Belknap Trail
As we neared the switchback where the trail turns from due-east to due-south, we saw a relatively fresh pile of scat on the trail. I'm not the best at ID, but it seems too big for coyote, and since there are plenty of cougars in the area I assume it's cougar scat (please correct me if I am wrong).
Relatively fresh (cougar?) scat.
After this point the grade eased substantially and about a mile later we reached the junction with the Wildcat Trail and turned left (northeast).
The signs have been here awhile.
The trail for the next few miles was a really pleasant ridge walk, with a great variety of ups and downs and flats, and the tread was surprisingly defined and easy to follow. All blowdown was cleared. It was about 2 miles north of the previous junction that we saw our first other human, a solo hunter heading south. Then as we took a quick rest on a ridge, we saw an orange hat down the slope, the second solo hunter.
Mill Creek Wilderness from Cougar Rock
We hiked to the base of Cougar Rock, which is the northernmost point along the ridge, 2.4 miles shy of the north trailhead. There is a great flat landing just east of the trail as it passes Cougar Rock with sweeping views across to the central Ochocos and north toward Mitchell. We set up camp at 3:30 PM and spent some time enjoying the sun and views from the summit of Cougar Rock, an easy trek up from the campsite (with AT&T service, as well). The sun set but the temperature didn't drop nearly as quickly, allowing us to stargaze and watch a few clouds roll in. And again as a note, this is also a dry campsite. There were no water sources available since our fill-up at Mill Creek.
Sunset at Cougar Rock
Night Sky from Cougar Rock

Day 3: Cougar Rock - Twin Pillars North Trailhead | 5.3 miles | 560 ft gain
Cloudy Sunrise from Cougar Rock
The Sunday forecast called for the wind to really pick up in the late morning with an approaching cold front, so we wanted to be packed up and on the trail quickly. And the night was much warmer, right around freezing, which allowed us to wake up warm and hit the trail at 8:45 AM. From Cougar Rock, the trail drops a couple hundred feet to a saddle before climbing alongside the far ridge in heavily burned forest. We saw a solo hunter (maybe the same one as the day before) heading south and turning off-trail before we met.

The wind whistled through the standing snags with a low, eerie howl and about a dozen ravens squawked while making circles overhead. We climbed then dropped again to the upper crossing of East Fork Mill Creek, where there is still plenty of flowing water and enough room for just one tent. Then it was the final mile push to the north trailhead, with an obvious, flagged branch that heads over to the Whistler Campground.
Wildcat Trail south of Whistler Campground
As we reached Road 27 for the 2.9 mile walk back to the car, the wind began to pick up. We passed a large hunting camp with a giant tent and a wood stove, looked pretty permanent for the season. Only 4 vehicles on that 3 mile stretch of road, all hunters or ranchers and we got back to the car at exactly 11 AM.

This was my annual backpacking trip with my best friend, and I had been talking up Tiger Town in Mitchell as having the best combination of beer and burgers in the state. So instead of heading back toward Prineville, we headed east toward Mitchell, taking the unmaintained FR 27 back east to Highway 26 at Ochoco Summit. In dry conditions, the road is passable with just some clearance, but all bets are off once the rain hits. So we ended the trip in the same way I end pretty much every other hiking trip in central or eastern Oregon, with the latest seasonal release beer, and a bacon cheeseburger with epic flat fries, at Tiger Town.
Beers at Tiger Town in Mitchell
instagram: @robo_remy

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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness Loop - October 8-10, 2021

Post by retired jerry » October 12th, 2021, 5:20 am

nice trip it looks like

I've been pondering a trip there myself, nice time of year

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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness Loop - October 8-10, 2021

Post by BurnsideBob » October 13th, 2021, 10:16 am

Thank you for an engaging trip report. Followed your route on AcmeMapper, toggling between topo and sat view.

I have taken the USFS 27 road to Whistler Spring but have never gone into the Mill Creek Wilderness, so thanks for the insights.

I keep making protein shakes but they always turn out like margaritas.

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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness Loop - October 8-10, 2021

Post by bobcat » October 13th, 2021, 2:35 pm

Great report and photos, especially the Milky Way shots! Glad to hear the trails seem in good order. That elevation gain on Day 3 surprises me - almost negligible.

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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness Loop - October 8-10, 2021

Post by ioscode » October 14th, 2021, 10:04 am

Nice, I followed the same route as you back in May of this year, just with different camp locations. We found a little spot near where you found the scat to refill on water from belknap creek before the second night dry camp.

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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness Loop - October 8-10, 2021

Post by teachpdx » October 14th, 2021, 1:30 pm

bobcat wrote:
October 13th, 2021, 2:35 pm
Great report and photos, especially the Milky Way shots!
Thanks! It's amazing what the latest iPhones can do, handheld.
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Re: Mill Creek Wilderness Loop - October 8-10, 2021

Post by proxie » October 15th, 2021, 7:34 pm

Nice report. Curious for the Milky Way... was it that visible to the naked eye, or is this just a lot exposure from the camera over a length of time? I've been in darker places in Oregon and don't think have seen the night sky quite like that to my eye.

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