Monthly Archives: June 2015

Oregon Trail: Day 5 – Finding Pilcher Creek Resevoir

We didn’t have far to drive with the trailer today so took a leisurly morning of blueberry pancakes before hitting the road. We drove up highway 30 through Haines in search of Pilcher Creek Resevoir. We had come across mention of it on but the instructions for finding it were vague. Today was cooler (95 degrees) but a dip in cool mountain lake still sounded refreshing.

In Haines we decided to follow Anthony Lakes Road (Elkhorn Scenic Byway) towards the mountains where we believed the resevoir to be. The road was a pastoral beauty of gentle curves across a lush green valley full of happy cows and derelict barns. But was we started to assend into the forest it didn’t seem we were on the right track. We had to travel some distance before we could find a place to turn ourselves around.

We doubled back towards North Powder and on the way spotted a sign for Pilcher Creek Rd.  We followed a quilted patchwork of an old reassembled road for a few miles until it turned to gravel. It brought back memories of hauling our trailer up to the ghost town of Bourne a few days back. As the road wore on we became disillusioned – where was this lake? Nothing showed on the GPS. There was no cell service and finally the road had Dead End sign ahead. We had given up and were looking for a place to turn ourselves and the trailer around when a car came up through a thicket covered side road. I flagged them down and asked some young teens if they knew where the lake was. “That’s where we’re headed” said the passenger. “Your are welcome to follow us”. They assured us if we took the thicket covered side road down a steep embankment there’d be a place for us to turn around. 

They were correct. We found a grassy field at the bottom of the hill and were able to turn ourselves and double back yet again following the crumbs of dust left behind by the teens speeding along the gravel road. 

A few more miles of turns an twists on back roads (we never would have found this place on our own) and we found ourself at a near deserted resevoir where we swam and had a picnic lunch. 

     The lake was a perfect temperature. And the scenery, nestled in the mountains was breathtaking.  We  had a little wildlife entertainment as well – saving a dragon fly from drowning and watching an osprey being scolded by birds half his size. 



After lunch we headed towards La Grande. The gravel road at the top of hill giving a stunning view of the valey below, a view these happy cows enjoyed daily..


We made our way to Eagle Hot Lake RV Park between Union and La Grande. There’s a hot spring here so the air had a faint sulfur smell when the wind blew just right. Butted up against a hill on one side and a wetland on the other the spot is going to be lovely in a few years when the trees they’ve planted grow enough to provide shade. Although it was 5-10 degrees cooler today than in previous days there was no cloud cover or shade to be had at our campsite.

We decided to head to town for dinner instead of trying to cook and eat outside in this heat. We found an old school steakhouse called Ten Depot where we had a nice dinner of Eastern Oregon Beef. 

We returned to our site just as the sun was setting and had time to walk out into the marshland preserve to watch it set as the full moon rose over the hill behind our camper and the watched Venus and Jupiter form a “superstar” in the night sky. Unfortunately the marshland nearby made the mosquitos quite unbearable to be outside so we retired early and tended to our bites before bed.


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Oregon Trail: Day 4 – Ghost of the Oregon Trail

We should have done better pre-trip research because Monday morning we realized access to Hells Canyon from Baker City isn’t the best point of entry. The loop road (Hells Canyon Scenic Route) was closed for construction. We tried to find something to do. We had already paid for two nights in Baker City and so didn’t really have an option to go somewhere else.

We made a leisurely morning of it before we decided to head to Halfway, Oregon. Halfway had renamed itself in the early 2000 boom (it was a small town familiar with booms and busts over the years). Beyond Halfway was the fabled ghost mining town of Cornucopia (we found a listing of ghost towns of Eastern Oregon) and decided another ghost town (sans trailer in tow) would be the order of the day.

But first we took a detour to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center where we were greeted by a very credible Buffalo Bill impersonator (refer to this blog’s 2013 visit to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Wyoming)

We spent the better part of an hour taking in the dioramas of life on the Oregon Trail. I didn’t realize just how brutal the Oregon Trail was. It took on average 140-180 days to travel the 2000 mile trail. It was so treacherous that on average there was a grave every 80 yards along the trail. Most deaths where not caused by glamourous Western Expansion murders, suicides, or indian attacks, but more often than not by small pox and dysentery. I mean, you can see the anguish in these dioramas.




There was a great interactive exhibit where you could pack your own covered wagon before heading out on the Oregon Trail. Which items would you have to leave behind? The children’s toys? The family heirlooms? The barrel of whiskey? Hell No! My superior “Tetris Skills” allowed me to pack everything in my wagon. I would have owned the trail!

The Interpretive Center was on a high bluff overlooking a preserved section of the Oregon Trail which you could see from the bay windows (it looks cloudy but its 103 degrees out there!). 

The Interpretive Center is only 5 miles from Baker City, so we continued (runing low on fuel) to Richland about an hour away towards Hells Canyon. We gassed at the only station in the region and headed on towards Halfway where we had lunch at the only open (or still in business) restaurant in town – Wild Bills!

We asked about the roads to Cornucopia and one waitress said the roads were passable and so far as she knew there were still a few buildings standing. We decided to go for it.

We headed North past Halfway to the end of the county road where it turns to gravel just as the waitress had said. It would be approximately 6 miles before we came to the ghost town (a mining boom town which at one time extracted $10M in gold (back in a day when that was a meaningful number). Today we would find out that most of the claims were owned by GE who were trying to mine uranium there for the war effort.

Towards the end of the road we came across a man in camouflage hunched over sitting on a camo-ATV on the side of the gravel road. We approached slowly. I rolled down the window a crack it open and called out…is there a ghost town around here? He quickly turned and I half expected to see a half-crazed zombie ready to tear us limb-from-limb. But instead I was greated by a very nice man who I noticed had sawed off a finger or two at one time as he pointed us in the direction of the old ghost town with his stubs. “When you get to where the road is real bad, you’ll know you are there. You can keep going on if you want..but I woudn’t if I was you. Feel free to park and get out and walk around.” And so we did.


We parked and got out and walked around. Although we were high in the mountains it was still hot, around 100 degrees. We wandered through old buildings and decaying machinery and cars and made our way through what had once been a vibrant and bustling boom town.


Then we headed back towards the new cabins where we had met our would-be zombie. He and a friend flagged us down and volunteered to show us the Cornucopia jail which they were lovingly restoring to its former glory. Should we walk into the cell? What if they capture and keep us here? Do we dare risk our lives? Sure! Why not! It was fascinating. Basically the jail was built just down the street from where there had one been a bar. It mostly served as a drunk tank in the old mining town which had a repulation for being the most orderly of mining towns of its day (because they said gold fell from the mountainside, making it an easy and prosperous community).

     On our way out of the ghost town we passed what looked like an old hotel. And then we returned the way we came and drove an hour or so back to Baker City for the night surely to dream of life on the Oregon Trail staking a claim for mineral rights in a early boom town of Eastern Oregon.

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Oregon Trail: Day 3 – Ghosts of the Old West

Sunday morning we awoke to a learn the wildfire remained uncontained, encompassing 5000 acres and closing some roads. Given that and the heat from the last time we hunted fossils we dediced to skip the John Day Fossil Beds and instead head towards the town of John Day.

We gassed up and grabbed some ice at the only and as advertised “cheapest gas in town” – not! Where they also honored the graduating class of 2015 (all 5 of them).


Following Highway 26 along the meandering John Day River and through cute and quaint little western towns who’s boom-time days had long since come and gone.

On a whim we decided to pull into Kam Wah Chung Cultural Heritage Site. The building didn’t look like much but we walked in expecting to learn a little about the history of Chinese laborers in the Old West. What we learned was a whole lot more. We were assigned a guide who walked us down the road to an old house surrounded by what is now a city park.  The building dates from 1866 when Doc Hay and Lung On (both imigrants from Guandong) had started their entrepreneurial enterprise – the Kam Wah Chung & Co. Lung On was a businessman who sold goods to the local Chinese mining population (nearly 2000 strong at its peak) while Doc Hay was an herbalist and pulminologist who tended to the local Chinese population. They were very successful, with Lung On buying and running many business across the county and Doc Hay becoming the most respected doctor in the area (treating many non-Chinese) and becoming the county doctor. In 1952 after Lung On had since died and upon the death of Doc Hay the property was willed to the city of John Day where it sat locked up for 20+ years. In 1973, when the park was being surveyed the city opened the building and found it exactly the way it had been left in 1952.

Walking through the doors on a private tour from a local volunteer was like walking back in time to visit with the ghosts of the old west.  




Kam Wah Chung was a hidden gem of history. I highly recommend if you are ever heading through John Day on Route 26 that you stop in for an informative history lesson.

We drove on towards Baker City and turned off of 26 onto Route 7 through the Dixie Mountain Pass – 5600+ feet and 97 degrees. We were looking for something we saw on the map called Whitney (Ghost Town) but we never found the turn off for it with so many forest roads cris-crossing this area. We had read up on a haunted (and still active) gold mind up a short detour off 7 in the town of Sumpter. While Sumpter was an old west town on its last breath – looking soon to be a ghost town itself – we never found the turn off  for the haunted ghost mine. But the map showed another ghost town of Bourne just up the road six miles. What it didn’t show was it was 6 miles up a steep and narrow gravel road. Mind you, we are pulling a trailer  up this road now looking for a town that only appears on an old map. Tawny -ever the voice of reason – suggested we turn around…but where. There was only one way to go…foward….. “It’ll be our adventure for the day”, I said. Clara and Morgayne agreed. Six miles at 15 miles an hour pulling a trailer takes a lot longer and is more white knuckle inducing than you’d think.

Suddenly the road got decidedly worse. Nowhere to go but forward…slowly. Extremely slowly. The r-pod and truck covered in a fine ashy dust. “What are we going to do? Where are we going to turn around?”  And then there, through the trees, miles from nowhere, we saw a woman sitting in a chair reading a book. A ghost? We stopped, stared, and called out to her. “Hello?”  She got up from her chair, came through the branches like a banshee, and slowly approached our vehicle. “Howdy” she said softly. She wasn’t a ghost at all, but a very nice woman from Boise who owns property adjacent to the Bourne Ghost Town where her and her husband spend their summers camping. 

She assured us were had made it to the old mining town of Bourne and that if I continued up the road a few hundred yards more there’d be a place I could turn around. I dropped off Tawny and the girls and went to turn the vehicle. In 4WD and with great difficulty and removal of our sway control I was eventually able to turn the trailer around in a broadened area of the narrow road just before the road became impassible. 








 We headed back down the gravel road and to Baker City to the Mt View RV Park (not sure where the mountain or the view is) but we escaped the heat in the pool, showered, and did a load of laudry to get the dust out our britches.  

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Oregon Trail: Day 2 – Fossils

Ten minutes into our Saturday drive we saw a “Next Services 94 Miles” sign and turned around to make our way back to Biggs Junction to fuel up, letting the service attendant attend us as is the law in Oregon. We then headed up a lonely but beautiful road across the high desert of North Central Oregon. For nearly 2 hours, as we made our way to Fossil, we had the high hot road to ourselves (105 degrees at 3500 feet!). No cars passing us, a rare car coming towards us, no homes, but amber fields of wheat punctuated by the occasional green oasis and abandoned farmhouses.  


We arrived in Fossil near high noon. We were looking for Wheeler High School where we had heard you could dig for fossils at the school. It being Saturday we weren’t sure that was possible. We drove the near ghostly quiet town a few times and couldn’t find the school. We parked and walked to the only cafe open in town for lunch. They gave us directions and explained how we might need some digging tools. Tawny went to the local mercantile while we waited for our food and tried to buy some gardening equipment such as a trowel. No luck. But for $1.50 at the local thrift store she was able to puchase an ancient slotted spoon and two carving forks. They would have to do.

The themometer read 107 when we parked at the school and made our way up the fossil hill behind the school. Luckily there were some tools set out in a shed by the trail you could use for a small donation.  



We worked fast in the scorching heat promising we’d all leave as soon as each had found a fossil. Ten minutes in we hadn’t any luck. “Dad, is it always this hot where pepole are looking for fossils? If so, I’m not going to become a palentologist”. As we were about to quit we found our first fossil. Then quickly another, and another. With a solid four we quickly made for the car, out of the heat, and on with our drive. 

We turned off the lonely road to a yet lonlier one  that headed up over a winding and stunning mountain of shades of green grasses, sage, and dotted pines towards another town of near ghosts in Mitchell. We were able to get a few gallons of expensive fossil fuels here and tthen head up the road to the Painted Hills National Monument. 




 The  heat was too much to take for too long so we gave up on hiking into the Painted Hills and inteaded to Dayville where we had reservations for the night. 

Along another lightly trafficked road we came upon the Shoe Tree – a bunch of lonely soles  just hanging around. 


It wasn’t far from here to Dayville (population 197) and the Fish House Inn – a clean and cute little RV park with grass and shade for 6 campers. We set up the mister and cracked a beer to cool ourselves. The place smelled fantastic, of pine and sage. Then ashes began to fall on us. There was a fire, a large fire from the previous night’s thunder storms a few miles from us behind the hills just beyond the John Day River. We watched sheriff vehicles and helicopters stream by try and contain it. 

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Oregon Trail: Day 1 – Stonehenge

Adobe summer shutdown. What a beautiful thing. Knowing it was coming we’d planned it for awhile. June can be an iffy month in Western Washington so we had decided back in February we were headed to Eastern Oregon: John Day Fossil Beds, Hell’s Canyon, high desert. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But we’ve been in a heat wave in Seattle with the hottest June on record about to be recorded. Looking at the forecast it looked liked it was going to be in the 100s most of our week. Since we had prebooked and prepaid our RV sites along the way we really had no choice but to proceed. We bought a few extra fans, brought an extra cooler, and headed southeast towards Oregon.

Friday June 26th – We left Seattle and stopped for lunch in Yakima – 102 degrees. A friend had recommended Miner’s Drive In – A Yakima institution. The place was packed. We had no idea what we were doing and over ordered. The place has rediculous portion! A single order of fries could have been shared by 4 or more.


After eating our fill we headed down highway 97 towards Goldendale, WA. Our destination: Maryhill State Park on the Columbia River gorge. 

Our first stop was Stonehenge, a war memorial started in 1918 and completed in 1929 and dedicated to the war vetrans of WWI. The replica is a complete Stonehendge and perfectly astronomically aligned to the solstice. It was built by Sam Hill, a Quaker, who made his fortune promoting the idea of roads and highways in the early 20th century. Its perched perfectly atop a plateau above the Columbia River with a stunning view of Mount Hood. 


The heat around the ‘henge was unbearable. So we headed to the Maryhill Museum of Art which hosts an eclectic collection of pieces connected to Sam Hill, the creator of the ‘henge. 

Maryhill Museum of Art is peculiar because it houses a large collection of Auguste Rodin’s works, including the only known plaster cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” as well as many other sculptures and watercolors from the span of his work.

     After an hour of art history we headed to Maryhill Winery and amphitheater which has won the Washington State Winery of the Year for the past 3 years.   

The wines were fabulous and we ended up buying a Rose (once chilled to cool us from the heat), a barbera, and a reserve Zinfandel to drink on our upcoming aniversary. 

We left the winery and headed back to Maryhill State Park to cook dinner and take a cooling swim in the mighty Columbia River. It was a lovely, although hot, evening sunset and perfect start to our Eastern Oregon hotzone adventure.   

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