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Bald Mountain Loop Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

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View to Bald Mountain from Little Bald Mountain (bobcat)
Herren Meadow from the Bald Mountain Trail (bobcat)
In Gibson Cave, off the Bald Mountain Trail (bobcat)
Heart-leaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia), Bald Mountain Trail (bobcat)
Ponderosa pine grove on the Hells Half Acre Trail (bobcat)
Tall mountain mertensia (Mertensia paniculata), Willow Creek Trail (bobcat)
The loop to Little Bald Mountain and Willow Creek, Umatilla National Forest (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: USFS/Caltopo
  • Start point: Coalmine Hill Trailhead
  • Ending Point: Little Bald Mountain
  • Hike Type: Loop
  • Distance: 7.8 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1595 feet
  • High Point: 5,678 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Spring into Fall
  • Family Friendly: Yes, as a short in and out
  • Backpackable: No
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

A triangular loop runs up to the sagebrush “balds” of Little Bald Mountain and Bald Mountain in an environment typical of the Blue Mountain foothills. The mixed coniferous forest here is recovering from the spruce budworm epidemic of the second half of the 20th century. The trail passes through numerous wildflower meadows and right over the summit of Little Bald Mountain, which offers views to the north and south (The summit of Bald Mountain is an off-trail excursion). At the beginning and end of the hike, you’ll cross the Smith Ditch, an irrigation channel dug out by the Civilian Conservation Corps. You’ll also visit Gibson Cave, a large rock overhang inhabited by a mountain man during the Great Depression but used by Native Americans for centuries before that.

The shorter in-and-out hike that takes in the main attractions of the Smith Ditch, Gibson Cave, and Little Bald Mountain is only about four miles round-trip from the Coalmine Hill Trailhead.

Begin the hike at the east end of the parking area, where there’s a new sign for the Bald Mountain Trail #3058. Follow a road track through a lush meadow in a lodgepole pine wood with taller larch trees. Go right at a junction in the route, and note the spring blooms here, among them camas, arnica, heliotrope, mertensia, woolly-head clover, violet, and wild strawberry. Cross the Smith Ditch, a 1930s CCC project that diverted water from Ditch Creek over the divide to Willow Creek to irrigate farmlands north of Heppner.

Now you’re on a singletrack footpath. Pass through a fence, and get views right to the vast green expanse of Herren Meadow, typical of the high wet prairies in this area of the Blue Mountains. Enter a forest of Douglas-fir, white fir, Engelmann spruce, western larch, and ponderosa pine. Turn up a slope to pass an old stock pond, and reach the signed Bald Mountain-Gibson Cave Trail Junction. Go right here for 0.2 miles, passing above a bouldery outcrop and then dropping through a lupine meadow to reach an old interpretive panel which no longer displays any information. For millennia, Native Americans used the large rock overhang above as a shelter. Now called Gibson Cave, this overhang was occupied during the Great Depression by a man named Gibson who walled it in, built a door and a window, and furnished it with a wood stove and other comforts. Nothing remains of his presence either; nowadays, you’ll see only the charcoal scratchings of visitors wishing to advertise their vandalism. There’s a hunter’s camp nearby.

Return to the junction, and go right to head steeply up through meadows of wax currant, arnica, and lupine. Reach a ridge crest, and get views down the Willow Creek valley. Hike along the stony crest; in late spring, you’ll see Tolmie’s onion, balsamroot, larkspur, little sunflower, arnica, and prairie star in bloom. Soon, you’re walking up a wide sagebrush steppe slope getting views back to Coalmine Hill and Penland Lake glistening to the south. Cairns help you follow the indistinct tread. Arrive at the summit of Little Bald Mountain, where a lone Douglas-fir shelters the summit register in a U.S. mailbox! You’ll get views north to Bald Mountain, Round Mountain, and the Willow Creek valley. To the south, you’re looking over several high prairies to the drainage of the North Fork John Day River.

Take the trail off the summit, and descend into a white fir/Douglas-fir woodland where you will find little sunflowers, Brown’s peonies, and horsemint. Make four looping switchbacks in a grouseberry/huckleberry carpet, and come to a saddle and the Bald Mountain-Hells Half Acre Trail Junction. Make a left on the Hells Half Acre Trail, and hike in shady woods on the south slope of Bald Mountain. If you wish to summit Bald Mountain, it’s a 450-foot easy scramble, but begin your off-trail jaunt as soon as you can see the sagebrush slopes above through the trees. Otherwise, keep going on the trail, and cross a creek in a stand of lichen-draped larches. Keep descending through a series of meadows to cross an AWD track. Make a traverse before rising to cross a creek, and then drop through a tumble of huge boulders known as Earth Shake, which locals claim was caused by a massive earthquake. Continue slowly dropping through a huckleberry carpet, and pass through a lovely stand of ponderosa pines. Hike along an old road track, and pass through a fence gate (Close the gate behind you!). Cross a quiet creek, and pass a junction to reach Willow Creek Road/FR 53.

Go left here to cross the cattle grid that marks the national forest boundary (To the right is Cutsforth County Park, which has a picnic area and campground). Pace out 25 yards, and find the trail leading down into the huckleberries. Use the two-plank footbridge over Willow Creek, and come to the Hells Half Acre-Willow Creek Trail Junction. Make a left here (The trail to the right leads into the county park) to hike in a shady forest of Douglas-fir, white fir, Engelmann spruce, western larch, and ponderosa pine. The trail undulates along in a grouseberry carpet, and you’ll get some noise from the highway, which is not far away. Eventually, the trail drops to cross Willow Creek on a one-log footbridge and then heads up to join an old road bed fringed by a dense stand of young conifers. Recross Willow Creek on a substantial bridge, and then pass over the Smith Ditch as you wend your way up across a lush mertensia slope. Switchback up and away from the highway, and wind up the south slope of Coalmine Hill. Then make two switchbacks down through a meadowy parkland at the headwaters of Willow Creek. Pass through a stand of young conifers, and reach a green gate on Forest Road 5350.

Go left to the highway, and walk 160 yards back to the entrance of the Coalmine Hill Campground. Continue down the gravel road to the trailhead and your vehicle.

Fees, Regulations, etc.

  • Information kiosk, vault toilet, picnic tables, campground (no drinking water)
  • Share trail with horses


  • Maps: Hike Finder
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Heppner Ranger District
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service: Umatilla National Forest
  • Pacific Northwest Recreation Map Series: Southern Blue Mountains

Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill

More Links

Page Contributors

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.