Spring Basin/Badlands

April 30-May 3, 2010

The inaugural Obsidian Spring Basin Wilderness extended trip was deemed a great success by the 17 participants. Great weather, scenery, food and company all contributed to a weekend that offered plenty of activities to all levels of hikers.

Accommodations were at the Hancock Field Station, a science camp owned by OMSI (Oregon Museum & Science Industry) that is adjacent to the newly designated Spring Basin Wilderness. HFS is in the midst of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Clarno Unit, and has about ten miles of trails extending from the camp that explore parts of the monument. Most participants were housed in small A-frame cabins that had originally been part of the former Rajneeshian settlement in Antelope. Meals were served in a large dining hall, and upstairs from the dining area we could enjoy browsing through a variety of books and other informational pieces in the ‘library’ that was furnished with (unfortunately only a few) comfortable chairs. This was a popular place for after dinner relaxation.

Since Hancock is about a four hour drive from Eugene (nearest town is Fossil, 15 miles further on), we broke the journey with a hike on the Grey Butte trail that Bill Sullivan, in his Eastern Oregon hikes, calls “a secret back-door entrance to…Smith Rock State Park.” This turned out to be a great leg stretcher along an easy trail that immediately had extensive views looking west to a grand vista of the Sisters and their neighboring peaks covered with new snow.

After settling in at the Field Station, the group enjoyed a delicious dinner (the vegetarians and gluten-free diners were well catered to) and a brief introduction by the camp manager.

The next morning, after a substantial and varied breakfast, the group drove the four miles to the trailhead for Spring Basin. The trails are actually old jeep tracks that lead all over the rolling hills and valleys of this wilderness. After climbing to a great viewpoint that gave us a 360 degree view of the John Day River valley as well as the surrounding hills and valleys, some of us headed for another promontory while others decided to head back down to their cars. We had already seen blooming hedgehog cactus (although thanks to a very cold wind that was blowing hard, the blooms were still closed up tight), and brilliant yellow balsamroot, amongst several different plants. We had a very windy climb to our next viewpoint and huddled down amongst rocks for a quick lunch. More of the group headed back down, while the remaining few decided to forge cross-country to climb the highest peak in the Wilderness, Horse Mountain. This proved quite a challenge, but after scrambling up a narrow canyon we achieved the summit with the reward of extensive views and shelter from the wind. We also found more cacti that were fully open. This group figured it had hiked probably no more than 8 miles, but had climbed close to 3,000' and had experienced a rewarding day of hiking.

On Sunday some opted to hike the local trails around camp, looking for the advertised petroglyphs and a fossilized tree, while others went to explore the Pine Creek Ranch area that abuts Spring Basin.

In 1999, the Warm Springs Tribes, with Bonneville Power Administration funding, purchased the 24,304-acre Pine Creek Ranch 12 miles south of Fossil. The Tribes have embarked on an ambitious restoration program, including riparian planting, and controlled burning. The area covers much of the Pine creek Watershed, and area of about 42,000 acres. The area is home to 36 animal and plant species listed as threatened or endangered, and provides spawning and rearing habitat for one of the few native steelhead populations in the John Day River.

This turned out to be a superb hiking area as we climbed gently up a wide canyon that took us into vast meadows leading up to the border with Spring Basin. We found ourselves close to Horse Mountain, only on the opposite side to the one we had climbed. The wind had dropped and we ate lunch basking in sunshine with views of the amazing Palisades rock formations of the John Day Clarno Unit and surrounding countryside.

Later that day, ten of us headed for Bend and our optional day of hiking in the Badlands east of Bend, another newly minted wilderness. The others headed back to Eugene. Unfortunately, a dramatic change in the weather caused Central Oregon to experience incredibly strong winds (I heard gusts up to 60 mph) so the next day’s activities were curtailed abruptly after we had attempted to hike into raging dust and sand storms.

Overall, everybody agreed that the Spring Basin Wilderness is a beautiful area that offers much to visitors. The Hancock Field Station makes an ideal headquarters as it is so close to everything. We found the staff to be incredibly friendly and helpful, and we all felt the food was delicious and varied. Many indicated interest in returning next year.

Participants were all Obsidians: Keiko Bryan, Marianne Camp, Pat Esch, Mary Holbert, Heather Home, Scott Hovis, Richard Hughes, Daphne James, Lana Lindstrom, Effie Neth, Karla Rusow, Chris Stockdale, Grace Swanson, Charlie Thomas, Charlie Van Deusen, Lyndell Wilken and Sue Wolling.

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