May 8 - Elkhorn Mountains Scenic Byway

  • Explored the Elkhorn Mtns. area west of Baker City, OR
  • Toad Miles Today:  174
  • Total Toad Miles Spring12:  1,176
  • Tonight's camp:  Eagles Hot Lake RV Park   elevation:  2,700
  • Weather: morning low  37f;  afternoon high  78f;  mostly sunny
  • Notables: 1. Learned how to mine for gold with a dredge.  2. Really enjoyed exploring a forest road closed due to heavy snow... unsure of what we'd run into and how far we'd get.  3. Got a taste of the linear exploring style... until we had to turn around and make the long drive back home.
  • Link to photo album for today

This morning we loaded the car with the usual exploring supplies... compass, gps, snacks, water, extra clothing layers, a bottle of wine (it's important to be prepared for anything)... and headed into the Elkhorn Mountains to the west of Baker City. Actually part of the much larger Blue Mountain Range, the Elkhorns are sometimes referred to as the "Little Alps". When they're snow-capped, like they were today, there really is a resemblance to the bigger Alps, over there, across the pond.

I really dig days like today. We had no destination... nowhere we had to be... no time constraints. Every mile was new and every mile had something we could take. (At the very least, I'm sure Dar took a photo or two every mile)  The rough plan was to complete the Elkhorn Mountain Scenic Byway loop. But there was one problem with that idea... there is a 17 mile segment of the loop that's still officially closed due to heavy snow near the 7,300 foot summit. I checked with the Forest Service... "yup, still closed... why, there's still 4 feet of snow on the ground at 7,000 feet.".

But little things like road closures and 4 feet of snow don't stop intrepid explorers... and we both had hopes that recent higher than normal temps may have, just maybe, made the road passable. And off we went.

On days like today we like to take advantage of almost any opportunity to get out of the car and put boots on the ground. Even short walks down a trail along the Powder River... no one else around, the sounds of a briskly flowing stream, the scent of pine in the cool air, scenes begging to be captured on film (now I'm showing my age!)... it forces your senses to awaken and the experience is imprinted on your mind with more quality than is possible with any camera's photo sensor.

We found a dam... quite a large dam... which plugged up the Powder River and formed Phillips Lake.  Time for a break, we stopped and soaked in the view while having a snack.

Further up-river, near the old historic mining town of Sumpter, the river flows through a wide flat valley, where gold was discovered in the 1860s. For eons, flecks of gold eroded from the surrounding hills and washed down with tons of other rock and minerals into the flat valley floor. With the gold so widely dispersed, it was thought the only way to make money retrieving it was to do it on a massive scale. Enter the mining dredge. These industrial-sized devices floated, like a barge, in a large pond of water. The pond was created by the barge as it's huge bucket-chain gnawed away the gold-laden valley floor at the rate of 60 acres per year.  [link to more dredge information]  As the dredge chewed up and ate away at the forward edge of the pond, they were pulled forward a few feet for a fresh bite while filling in the pond behind them. It was a continuous process of pond creation and destruction... with the dredge floating the entire time.

The dredges processed all the material scooped up through a series of screens and sieves that left the heaviest material, gold and black sand, behind for further processing.

If you didn't know about the dredging operations in this area you'd wonder what the heck chewed up the valley and stream-bed. Elongated piles of  rocky debris that the dredges left behind run for miles throughout the valley. It's a man-made mark on nature I'd not seen before.

Aerial view from Google showing results of gold mining by dredge. (click to enlarge)

The last remaining of the 3 dredges that worked in the Sumpter area is now preserved at a small State Park. We stopped, walked around and through the historic hulk, and marveled at the ingenuity and motivation for creating it.

Now, that's a gold mining dredge.  (click to enlarge)

From Sumpter we weaved our way up to Granite and then north on Forest Road 73 to the North Fork of the John Day River. At that point, there's a Forest Service Campground and a junction where FR-73 bends to the east and FR-51/52 goes north and northwest. As we suspected, FR-73 was closed at that point. But carefully perusing the map showed another possibility... taking FR-51 to the north where it meets another State Road which runs to a point very close to our camp in La Grande.

We talked with the camp hosts in the campground for the "local" information... and they confirmed that FR-73 was indeed impassible. But they also informed us that FR-51 was itself closed and was probably impassible too. Hmmm. But we won't know for sure until we try it. In my mind, backtracking all the way we'd come to this point was a poor third choice.

So up FR-51 we went... Dar, me, and our low clearance 2WD Ford Focus... past the "Road Closed" sign. For the first few miles there was no problem at all... just tree debris in the road, uncleared rock fall from steep cuts, and an occasional fallen tree leaning onto the roadway. Surprisingly, not having seen another vehicle since Sumpter, a old beat-up small pickup truck catches up to us and passes... giving us hope the road would be passable. But as we encountered more and more snow on the road, and then saw the little pickup coming back again, hopes faded. A quick chat with the crew of the pickup confirmed the only way we're going back to La Grande tonight was by our third option... backtracking the entire way to Baker City.

A sense of adventure and discovery marked the day today... really spiced things up. If we had been linear exploring in our future small rig, we could have tucked into the Forest Service campground at the junction and headed in a different direction tomorrow.  Let me just say we had a long healthy discussion about that on our way back.

Slightly Better than Most