On our return to Walla Walla, we decided to drive through the Southern Blue Mountains of Oregon, along part of the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway. We followed Highway 26 to its intersecition with Hwy 7 at Austin Junction. Then we climbed over a pass and dropped down into the valley holding Sumpter. We were greeted by the hazy light gray smoke of a prescribed burn by the Forest Service. Disheartened by the overwhelming air pollution, we skipped a long visit to Sumpter, which is an interesting old gold mining town. There is a huge old dredge that mined gold out of the gravel beds of the Powder River.
Proceeding up Road 73, we passed another old mining town, Granite, and entered into the National Forest. The Blues are have long ridges and deep valleys. These Southern Blues are more gentle than the northern ones with the notable exception of the Elkhorns, a small granitic range, which would not look out of place in Montana. Unfortunately the smoke prevented me from taking any photos of the Elkhorns. We drove on, finally escaping the smoke by driving over another pass and into the drainage of the North Fork.
The North Fork John Day River has its headwaters in the western Elkhorns and flows in an easterly direction towards the main river. A wilderness area of the same name has about 100 miles of trails in it, traveling through densely forested and rocky canyons and open summits. Today, we were going to sample the North Fork Trail, which follows the river for 23 miles.
We hiked down this well-kept trail, following the lively young river through lodgepole pine, Ponderosa pine, Douglas Fir, Silver fir, and Engleman Spruce forest. The Blues are well-watered and get quite heavy snows in contrast to the drier more arid regions of the lower John Day country near Dayville and Mitchell.
While this area was still in the process of melting out, we were able to go about two miles in, passing a few old cabins and rock walls built by Chinese miners during the gold rush in the late 1800's. Many mining claims still are being worked throughout these mountains.
After the hike, we turned onto Road 52, which is part of the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway. The road had not yet been cleared. There was plenty of rocks, some lingering snow and other debris littering this narrow paved road. We drove over high and yet higher passes before dropping down into the green meadows near Ukiah. The Blues contain miles upon miles of burned over lodgepole pine, with the young trees coming up like tall grass. The rounded ridges are punctuated by occasional rocky summits. A web of secondary gravel and dirt roads criss-crosses these mountains. Primitive campsites and trails are available for a variety of users. The Byway follows the northern edge of the North Fork John Day Wilderness and provides access to its trails and streams. It is an area of surprises, huge flower-filled meadows, vast vistas, miles of trees and few people.
This was an exploration trip. We'll go back to the North Fork and to visit the nearby Elkhorns, Strawberry Mountain (near John Day) and other tantalizing destinations in this vast, underpopulated region of NE Oregon.
The best flower fields I saw were the huge meadows above Ukiah, near Drift Fence Campground, a primitive Forest Service CG on Road 52. As you can see, the Blue-eyed Grass was blooming vigorously in the damp meadow. And nearby, Desert Parsley and Carey's Balsamroot were decorating more rocky fields. Such sights are a little hard to capture on camera so I just took it in.
BTW, I think I saw a Mountain Peony just coming into bud above the trail on the North Fork. It sure looked like a small peony, with cut leaves. Very pretty plant. Here's a link for the fully developed plant:
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