Blue Mountains Forest, Part B: Ponderosa Pines and Fossil Mammals

This section includes the National Forests in the western and central Blue Mountains of Oregon, National Park System, Recreation Lakes, and the National Trails System. While ponderosa pines predominate at higher elevations, botanical areas protect other rare species such as Alaska yellow cedar grove. Grasslands and sagebrush are characteristic at lower elevations of the Blue Mountains. In addition to the forests and grasslands, the Blue Mountains contain sites with the most complete record of terrestrial land mammal evolution, an 85-mile rail trail, and scenic rock formations.

National Forest System in Western Blue Mountains

Starkey Experimental Forest and Range (N45˚13’ W118˚31’), is 27,000 acres located 45 miles southwest of La Grande; this facility is devoted to research on the effects of cattle-deer-elk interactions and herbivory on forest and range management. An ungulate-proof fence encloses 40 square miles. Riparian research takes place on Meadow Creek. Vegetation is bunchgrass, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir.

Malheur NF, Oregon, is 1.5 million acres. In the John Day watershed portion of the forest, South Fork Desolation Creek is eligible for the national wild and scenic river system and drains the Vinegar Hill-Indian Rock Scenic Area (N44˚46’ W118˚40’), which provides spectacular views of the North Fork John Day River gorge to the north and the Strawberry Mountains to the south. The scenic area is in the Greenhorn Mountains and is shared with the Umatilla NF. South of Galena and the Middle Fork John Day River is Arch Rock National Recreation Trail (N44˚38’ W118˚51’), which leads past scenic rock formations. It is off of Forest Highway 36. Magone Lake Geological Area (N44˚33’ W118˚55’) is north of John Day on US Route 395 and east on Beech Creek Road (Forest Road 3618). It was formed by a landslide in the early 1800s. Dixie Butte proposed RNA (N44˚36’ W118˚38’) is 335 acres north of Dixie Summit on US Route 26. It is representative of a subalpine plant community with shrub-steppe and subalpine fir/Engelmann spruce forest. On US Route 26 is the Sumpter Valley Railroad Historic Area (N44˚32’ W118˚36’), which commemorates the narrow gauge railroad that operated between 1890 and 1961 between Baker City and Prairie City. A trail overlooks the Dixie Switchbacks, the highest point on the railroad.

East of US 395 and south of US 26 is the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, described separately. To the southeast of the wilderness is the Fergy Spruce Grove Botanical Area (N44˚5’ W118˚38’), consisting of 29 acres. Logan Valley Interpretive Site (N44˚11’ W118˚38’) is a broad prairie known for its wildflowers on Forest Highway 16 east of US 395. The Malheur River is a unit of the wild and scenic river system for 14 miles in the forest from Bosenberg Creek (N44˚8’ W118˚37’) to the forest boundary (N44˚1’ W118˚32’). Malheur River NRT follows the river canyon for eight miles from Malheur Ford (N44˚5’ W118˚35’) south to Hog Flat. The Malheur Headwaters National Register District Historical Area is an area of upland meadows with hopper mortars—heat-altered rock used for cooking by aboriginal peoples.

In the southeast portion of the Malheur NF east of Strawberry Mountain Wilderness is the Monument Rock Wilderness (N44˚20’ W118˚19’), described separately. The North Fork Malheur River is a unit of the national wild and scenic river system for 25 miles in the forest from its headwaters (N44˚22’ W118˚24’) to the forest boundary north of Beulah Reservoir (N44˚5’ W118˚18’). Along the river is Dugout Creek RNA (N44˚13’ W118˚22’), 900 acres of ponderosa pine-pinegrass community set aside for research. To the south of US Route 26 is the humongous fungus, the world’s largest living organism, found in the Grouse Knob area (N44˚28’ W118˚29’). A genetically identical individual organism of the Armillaria root disease fungus covers 2,385 acres and weighs from 8,000 to 35,000 tons. The organism is a network of fungal mycelia and its age is from 1,900 to 8,600 years. There are four other individual fungal organisms (called genets) in the same area of the Blue Mountains.

To the west of US 395 are the Aldrich Mountains. The Cedar Grove Botanical Area (N44˚20’ W119˚20’) is a 94-acre site with an Alaska yellow cedar grove, accessible from the one-mile Cedar Grove NRT on Forest Road 2150 off of Forest Highway 21 and US Route 26. The Tex Creek Geological Area (N44˚16’ W119˚17’) is on Forest Highway 21 near the confluence of Tex Creek and Murderers Creek and is a natural arch. Shake Table RNA (N44˚16’ W119˚24’) is a flat-topped mountain of almost 400 acres with western juniper/low sagebrush/bunchgrass plant communities.

Ochoco NF, Oregon, is 848,000 acres, including the Ochoco and Maury Mountain Ranges, at the western end of the Blue Mountains. Low elevations are mostly juniper and sagebrush while higher elevations are ponderosa pine. To the west of US Route 26 is Stein’s Pillar (N44˚25’ W120˚37’), a volcanic plug which rises prominently out of the rest of the surrounding forest. To the north of Stein’s Pillar is the Mill Creek Wilderness. On US Route 26 is Bandit Springs (N44˚2’ W120˚24’), a winter recreation area and summer hiking area near the Ochoco Divide.

The Ochoco National Forest east of US Route 26 surrounds Big Summit Prairie (N44˚20’ W120˚10’), a wildflower viewing area which is mostly privately owned. Ochoco Divide RNA (N44˚29’ W120˚22’) is 800 acres south of US Route 26 on Forest Road 2210. The ponderosa pine-Douglas fir-grand fir forest is surrounds Carroll Butte and is fenced to exclude cattle. Summit Trail is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a 74-mile historic route used for pack animals from 1900 to 1930. A section of Summit Trail begins at US Route 26 at Crystal Creek (N44˚29’ W120˚24’) and extends east on Forest Road 2630 to Slide Mountain, Thompson Spring on the edge of the Bridge Creek Wilderness (N44˚28’ W120˚16’), Peterson Lava (N44˚27’ W120˚3’), Cottonwood Springs (N44˚23’ W119˚51’) and Wolf Ridge (N44˚21’ W119˚48’).

West of Big Summit Prairie is Lookout Mountain Recreation Area (N44˚19’ W120˚22’), a 14,400-acre area managed for recreation with 23 miles of trails. Round Mountain National Recreation Trail extends from south of Round Mountain (N44˚24’ W120˚21’) to Walton Lake (N44˚26’ W120˚20’). Deep Creek Recreation Area (N44˚21’ W120˚1’) is a deep canyon. Deep Creek is a tributary of the North Fork Crooked River, which flows out of Big Summit Prairie and is in the national wild and scenic river system. In the Maury Mountains, Hammer Creek (N44˚5’ W120˚28’) is managed as a scenic corridor.

The section of Ochoco NF northwest of Burns is administered by the Malheur NF. The Depression-Era CCC Buildings Historical Area at Allison Guard Station (N43˚55’ W119˚36’) is a seven-building complex. Stinger Creek proposed RNA (N43˚46’ W119˚22’) is 1,700 of an old growth ponderosa pine forest with bitterbrush and mountain mahogany in one area and sagebrush-fescue vegetation in another area. It is located northwest of Burns. Dry Mountain RNA (N43˚40’ W119˚34’) is 2,200 acres on an isolated mountain overlooking the Snake-Columbia River shrub-steppe ecoregion. Vegetation is ponderosa pine with big sagebrush-bluebunch wheatgrass and mountain mahogany-bunchgrass. An adjacent RNA in the National System of Public Lands is 2,100 acres and contains similar ecological communities. Silver Creek RNA (N43˚51’ W119˚40’) is a steep-sided canyon with old growth ponderosa pine-pinegrass-elk sedge vegetation. It is 800 acres in area and east of Forest Highway 45, which generally follows Silver Creek through the forest. An adjacent RNA in the National System of Public Lands is 1,900 acres with similar habitats. North of the RNA is the Silver Creek Scenic Area (N43˚54’ W119˚41’), consisting of 1,500 acres of canyon lands.

National Park System in the Blue Mountains

The National Park System in the Blue Mountains forests consists of a multi-unit geological property and one historical property. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon, has three units which together provide the most complete record of terrestrial land mammal evolution in the northern Hemisphere, extending through 44 million years of geologic time. The floral changes recorded indicate a transition from near-tropical conditions to more temperate and arid conditions over time (Dillhoff et al. 2009). Two units are in the Blue Mountains ecoregion.

Painted Hills Unit (N44˚39’ W120˚16’), is 3,100 acres north of Mitchell and US Route 26 on Bridge Creek-Burnt Ranch Road and Bear Creek Road. It features short trails through yellow and red clays eroding along Bridge Creek. The Bridge Creek Flora (33 million years ago) was a temperate-zone deciduous forest similar to today’s southeast Asia. Dawn redwood fossils and fossil bats and horses are also found.

Sheep Rock Unit (N44˚32’ W119˚38’) is 9,000 acres at the junction of US Route 26 and State Route 19 west of Dayville. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center provides fossil exhibits and the historic Cant Ranch house is also on the property. Trails lead to geologic features and overlooks of the green-colored claystone strata. The longest trail is to Blue Basin Overlook (3-mile loop). The Turtle Cove Assemblage (29 million years ago) features plants as well as horse, mouse-deer, beavers, bear-dogs, and enteleodonts. Fossils from the Kimberly and Haystack Assemblages (24 to 20 million years ago) include gophers, rabbits, foxes, and horses that lived in the area as it was transitioning from a forest to a bunchgrass and sage-steppe habitat. The Mascall assemblage (15 million years ago) marked a return to temperate deciduous forests, with fossils of horned rodents, dogs, deer, horse, and elephant relatives. The Rattlesnake Assemblage (7 million years ago) includes animals that lived in a semiarid area, including fox, bear, rhino,and peccary relatives.

Nez Perce National Historical Park, Idaho-Montana-Oregon-Washington, consists of sites commemorating the stories, events, and artifacts of the Nez Perce Tribe. One site is in the Blue Mountains ecoregion. Joseph Canyon Viewpoint, Oregon (N45˚50’ W117˚16’) is on State Route 3 between Enterprise, Oregon, and Clarkston, Washington. Joseph Canyon was one of the winter homes of the Nez Perce and the site of Chief Joseph’s birth, according to tribal tradition.

Federal recreation lakes in Blue Mountains forests include federally constructed and operated as well as federally licensed dams. They are organized according to tributaries of the Columbia River.

The Deschutes River flows into the Columbia River at Lake Celilo from the south and there are two reservoirs constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation as part of the Crooked River project in this watershed. Ochoco Reservoir, Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon (44˚18’ W120˚43’) is six miles east of Prineville on US Route 26. This reservoir is part of the Crooked River Project. Ochoco Lake State Park is on the reservoir. Arthur R. Bowman Dam and Prineville Reservoir, Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon (N44˚7’ W120˚47’), on the Crooked River 20 miles upstream from Prineville on State Route 27, is part of the Crooked River Project and is operated by the Ochoco Irrigation District.  Prineville Reservoir State Park and Wildlife Management Area are located on the reservoir lands. Lytle Creek Diversion Dam, Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon (N44˚22 W120˚56’) diverts water into an irrigation canal west of Prineville, and is part of the Crooked River project.

In Idaho upstream from Lewiston, the Lewiston Orchards Irrigation Project of the Bureau of Reclamation diverts water from the high mountains east of the Snake River to irrigation uses. Soldiers Meadow Reservoir (N46˚10’ W116˚44’) stores water from Webb Creek and Captain John Creek. Downstream, this water is diverted by the Webb Creek Diversion Dam (N46˚14’ W116˚45’) to the East Fork Sweetwater Creek and then to Mann Lake (Reservoir A) in the Palouse grasslands ecoregion on the Nez Perce Reservation.

On the Snake River in the Blue Mountains are three Idaho Power dams. Hells Canyon Dam and Reservoir, Idaho Power, Idaho-Oregon (N45˚15’ W116˚42’) is the lowermost of the Snake River dams in the Blue Mountains at Mile 248. The 391-MW facility creates a reservoir 26 miles long. Oxbow Dam, Idaho Power, Idaho-Oregon (N44˚58’ W116˚50’) is the middle of the three Hells Canyon dams at Snake River Mile 273. It is operated as a run-of-the-river hydroelectric facility and has a capacity of 190 MW. The reservoir is ten miles long. Brownlee Dam and Reservoir, Idaho Power, Idaho-Oregon (N44˚50’ W116˚54’), is 585 MW of capacity at Snake River Mile 283 and creates a 58-mile reservoir on the Snake River. It is the most upstream of the Hells Canyon dams.

The Powder River flows into the Snake River above Brownlee Dam from the Oregon side. Thief Valley Reservoir, Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon (N45˚1’ W117˚47’) is on the Powder River north of Baker City, providing irrigation to eastern Oregon. Phillips Lake/Mason Dam, Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon (N44˚40’ W118˚0’) is upstream of Baker City on the Powder River, accessible from State Route 7. It stores irrigation water for 18,500 acres in the Baker City area. Recreation areas are part of the Whitman NF. Further upstream, the Burnt River also confluences with the Snake River from the Oregon side. Unity Reservoir, Bureau of Reclamation, Oregon (N44˚30’ W118˚11’), is on the Burnt River on State Route 245, and is used for irrigation water storage. A state park provides reservoir recreation.

The Weiser River flows into the Snake River upstream from Brownlee Dam on the Idaho side. Mann Creek Reservoir, Bureau of Reclamation, Idaho (N44˚24’ W116˚54’) is an irrigation storage project 13 miles northeast of Weiser on US Route 95. Further upstream, the Payette River also enters the Snake River from the Idaho side. Cascade Reservoir, Bureau of Reclamation, Idaho (N44˚34’ W116˚6’) is on the North Fork Payette River and accessed by State Route 55. It is part of the Boise Project. Lake Cascade State Park is on the reservoir.

The National Trails System in Blue Mountains forests consists of the Oregon National Historic Trail and 15 national recreation trails. There are nine sites along the Oregon National Historic Trail in the Blue Mountain forests.

Farewell Bend State Recreation Area, Oregon (N44˚18’ W117˚14’), is 74 acres and was the last rest stop along the Snake River for Oregon Trail travelers, who had been traveling along the Snake for more than 300 miles since eastern Idaho.

Weatherby and Burnt River Canyon, Oregon (N44˚30’ W117˚22’), are on I-84, exit 330. Weatherby was the location where the trail left the Burnt River Canyon and ascended east of Gold Hill.

Flagstaff Hill and National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, National System of Public Lands, Oregon (N44˚49’ W117˚44’) is on State Route 86 east of Baker and overlooks seven miles of ruts across Virtue Flat to the south. Four miles of hiking trails are on site.

Baker Valley, Oregon (N44˚55’ W117˚49’) is on I-84, milepost 295, north of Baker City. It was the site of a lone pine tree seen by early travelers in an otherwise arid landscape. It was cut down at some point and was missing to later travelers.

Ladd Canyon segment, Oregon (N45˚11’ W117˚59’) is on I-84, Exit 270 and is an area of remnant trail ruts.

Hilgard Junction State Recreation Area, Oregon (N45˚20’ W118˚14’) is on I-84 at exit 252 along the Grande Ronde River, and protects an extant segment of the Oregon Trail as it enters Whitman NF.

Blue Mountain Forest State Scenic Corridor, Oregon, extends from the Glover Interchange on I-84, mile 248 (N45˚22’ W118˚18’) to Deadman Pass on I-84, exit 230 (N45˚36’ W118˚30’) along old US Route 30, passing the approximate location of the Oregon National Historic Trail. Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area is along the corridor.

Blue Mountain Crossing (Oregon Trail Interpretive Park), Whitman NF, Oregon (N45˚24’ W118˚19’) is off of I-84, exit 248, Glover Interchange. This is one of the best preserved sections of the Oregon Trail.

Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area, Oregon (N45˚32’ W118˚28’), is at Exit 234 on I-84, and contains interpretive exhibits and hiking trails..

Deadman Pass, Umatilla Indian Reservation, Oregon (N45˚36’ W118˚30’) is on I-84, Exit 230, where the trail left the Blue Mountains and descended through the Palouse grasslands. This was the last of the arduous trek through the Blue Mountains. The name refers to violent deaths for wagon trains, some of which were at the hands of local Indians. Trail ruts are visible in the area.

National Recreation Trails (NRTs) in Blue Mountains forests are grouped by region. In the Hells Canyon area are four NRTs. Heavens Gate NRT, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, Idaho (N45˚22’ W116˚30’), is a 0.2-mile trail overlooking Hells Canyon, located at the end of Forest Highway 517 west of Riggins on US Route 95. Sheep Rock Overlook NRT, Payette NF, Idaho (N45˚11’ W116˚40’), is a one-half mile trail leading to an overlook of Hells Canyon. Access is from Cuprum, Idaho. Snake River NRT, Hells Canyon NRA, Idaho (N45˚37’ W116˚28’ to N45˚16’ W116˚41’), begins at Upper Pittsburg Landing and follows the Snake Wild River south 21 miles to Lamont Springs, three miles north of Hells Canyon Dam. Western Rim/Summit Ridge NRT, Hells Canyon NRA and Hells Canyon Wilderness, Oregon, follows the western rim of Hells Canyon from PO Saddle (N45˚15’ W116˚46’) to Saddle Creek (N45˚24’ W116˚44’) south of Hat Point. It continues northward from Warnock Corral (N45˚29’ W116˚39’) to Dug Bar (N45˚48’ W116˚41’) on the Snake River, passing Somers Point (N45˚37’ W116˚32’) and Lords Flat (N45˚40’ W116˚37’) before descending to Dug Bar.

Just east of Hells Canyon, Weiser River NRT, Friends of the Weiser River Trail, Idaho, is an 85-mile rail trail owned and managed by a friends group.  It begins in the south at Weiser (N44˚15’ W116˚58’) and winds through desert canyons in the south to forests in the north.  It ends at Rubicon  (N44˚59’ W116˚22’) on US Route 95 four miles west of New Meadows in the Blue Mountains.

Just west of Hells Canyon, High Wallowa NRT, Wallowa NF, Oregon (N45˚16’ W117˚11’), includes two miles of trails on Mount Howard providing overlooks of Wallowa Lake. The trails are reached by the Wallowa Lake Tramway, the steepest vertical lift of a gondola in North America. Further west is Jubilee Lake NRT, Umatilla NF, Oregon (N45˚50’ W117˚58’), a three-mile loop around the lake. It is located on Forest Highway 64 north of Tollgate (State Route 204).

The remaining NRTs are west of I-84.  Elkhorn Crest NRT, North Fork John Day Wilderness and Whitman NF, Oregon, extends for 23 miles from the Anthony Lake area on Forest Highway 73 (N44˚58’ W118˚14’) south to Marble Point (N44˚46’ W118˚3’) in the Baker Watershed. It is the highest trail in the Blue Mountains and passes six lakes. North Fork John Day NRT, North Fork John Day Wilderness, Umatilla NF, Oregon, extends for 23 miles through the North Fork John Day Wilderness, from the Big Creek Trailhead (N44˚58’ W118˚41’) east to the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway (Forest Highway 73) (N44˚55’ W118˚24’). Winom Creek NRT, North Fork John Day Wilderness and Umatilla NF (N45˚0’ W118˚40’), extends for four miles south from Forest Highway 52 at Winom Meadows .

In the Malheur National Forest are three NRTs. Arch Rock NRT, Malheur NF, Oregon (N44˚38’ W118˚51’), is 0.3 miles in length and leads past scenic rock formations. It is off of Forest Highway 36 south of Galena and the Middle Fork John Day River. Cedar Grove NRT, Malheur NF, Oregon (N44˚20’ W119˚20’) is on Forest Road 2150 in the Aldrich Mountains. It is a one-mile trail to an Alaskan yellow cedar grove. Malheur River NRT, Malheur NF, Oregon, follows the river canyon for eight miles from Malheur Ford (N44˚5’ W118˚35’) south to Hog Flat (N44˚1’ W118˚35’). The river canyon reaches 1,000 feet in depth.

In the Ochoco National Forest are two NRTs. Round Mountain NRT, Ochoco NF, Oregon (N44˚24’ W120˚21’) begins at Walton Lake Campground east of Prineville and extends eight miles to the south, over 6,800-foot Round Mountain. Twin Pillars NRT, Mill Creek Wilderness, Oregon, extends eight miles from Bingham Spring Campground on Forest Highway 27, past the rock formation of Twin Pillars (N44˚29’ W120˚32’), south to Wildcat Campground on Forest Highway 33.

to be continued