Sour name, sweet view

Written by JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald July 03, 2009 09:43 am
Vinegar Hill, the highest peak in the Greenhorn Mountains between Baker City and John Day, deserves a more dignified title — but the name doesn’t mar the view from its summit

Whoever named Vinegar Hill must have hated the place.

Or else loved it.

Some strong emotion, anyway, seems to have influenced the responsible party.

I can think of no more likely explanation, at any rate, for why this eminence on Grant County’s topography came to be saddled with such a ill-suited moniker.

The use of “hill” implies a diminutive stature, and “vinegar” suggests the locale is the sort to be avoided, apparently because it tastes bad and smells sour.

None of these implications is accurate.

Vinegar Hill is, in truth, one of the more prominent peaks in Northeastern Oregon. Its summit, 8,131 feet above sea level, is middling by the standards of the Wallowas and the Elkhorns, but in its neighborhood the peak has few peers.

Vinegar Hill is the apex of the Greenhorn Mountains, the spine of high ground that separates the middle and north forks of the John Day River.

And the view from the top, contrary to the caustic connotations of vinegar, is a sublime vista that stretches, on a clear day, from the Wallowas to the Ochocos.

The way I figure it, the person who affixed the name either truly despised the peak and desired to demean its reputation on maps for all time, or was so jealously enamored of the mountain that he or she chose a name likely to deter visitors.

McArthur’s “Oregon Geographic Names,” the ultimate arbiter in such matters, is, unfortunately, silent on the question of Vinegar Hill.

Of course you can investigate its slopes yourself and decide which version of history is the more probable.

It’s a drive of about 63 miles from Baker City.

To get to Vinegar Hill, follow Oregon Highway 7. The best view of the peak en route is from Whitney Valley, about 35 miles from Baker City.

Vinegar Hill takes up much of the western skyline as seen from the valley.

About 48 miles from Baker City, and only one mile before Highway 7 intersects with Highway 26 at Austin Junction (if you get to the stop sign, you’ve gone too far), turn right onto the paved Middle Fork Road. A sign points to Susanville.

Drive the Middle Fork Road for about two miles. Just past Vincent Creek, turn right onto Forest Road 2010. There’s a big brown sign here that reads “Vinegar Hill 13.”

For the first seven of those 13 miles, Road 2010 is smooth, well-graded gravel (as smooth as gravel can be, anyway).

After that, well, it’s not.

Of the remaining six miles, the initial 5fi are rough but not absurdly so. You could probably get through in a two-wheel drive pickup. I suspect a lower-slung all-wheel drive model — a Subaru, for instance — could make it too, but I wouldn’t try it if I was paying for the car.

Or for its oil pan.

Road 2010 goes all the way to the summit. Although the road system in the Greenhorns resembles the human circulatory system, 2010, as the main artery, is easy to follow. Also there are several signs.

If you intend to stay overnight, there are several suitable sites, most of them elk-hunting camps, beside the road. A Forest Service sign marks one of these, Black Butte Camp. It’s about 2fi miles from the summit.

About half a mile past Black Butte Camp is the inaptly named Camp Simms.

This is a poor place to camp — the ground is so steep that the only place to pitch a tent is on the road, which is generally a bad idea.

It is, however, a fine place to fill water bottles. The “camp” is actually a spring that’s been tapped. The frigid water pours from a pipe that juts from the road’s cut bank.

(The water also pours all over the road, another reason why this is a singularly unfit place to sleep.)

Beyond the spring the road passes the turnoff to the Tiger Mine (also signed), then switchbacks to the right and runs due east, straight at Vinegar Hill.

A bit past the switchback a road branches off to the left (uphill). This road is closed to motor vehicles but open to hikers. It follows the backbone of the Greenhorns west and accesses several other trails, including ones that lead to Lost Creek, Olive Lake and the South Fork of Desolation Creek.

Road 2010 continues east for a quarter-mile or so, then bears right (south) at a saddle. The saddle is a good spot to look for mountain goats; the nearly sheer north side of Vinegar Hill is especially good habitat for the sure-footed goats, which migrated here from the Elkhorns.

This last half-mile stretch of Road 2010, from the saddle to the summit, degrades from bumpy to pretty much deplorable. As of Sunday, snowdrifts blocked the road in a couple of places.

The top of Vinegar Hill is a narrow ridge with a pair of peaks; the actual summit is the northern point.

The prominent monolith nearby to the east is the “green horn.” This chunk of serpentine, a metamorphic rock that has a greenish tint, was the namesake for the mining town of Greenhorn, which is a couple miles farther east.

Although Vinegar Hill’s fire lookout was demolished in 1971, four others, all of which are still staffed by firewatchers during the summer, are visible from the top.

(Two others, Table Rock and Tower Mountain, are relatively close, too, but their lookout buildings aren’t easy to spot.)

Although all four lookouts — Mount Ireland, Indian Rock, Desolation Butte and Dixie Butte — are within Grant County, the quartet is distributed among three national forests: two lookouts are on the Malheur, and one each on the Wallowa-Whitman and the Umatilla.

(This is the sort of trivia you’re not going to get from, say, Alex Trebek.)

Mount Ireland, the highest summit between Vinegar Hill and the Elkhorns, is northeast. Mount Ireland is on the Wallowa-Whitman.

Indian Rock Lookout, on the Malheur National Forest, is at the west end of the Greenhorns; look for the square building at the edge of the flat-topped peak.

Slightly west of due north is Desolation Butte, on the Umatilla National Forest. Its lookout is easy to pick out because it sits atop a 67-foot tower. The tower is a necessary accessory because Desolation, unlike the barren alpine summits of Indian Rock and Mount Ireland, is mantled by forest all the way to the top.

Dixie Butte, which is also heavily forested except for its grassy tip, dominates the view to the south.

The even taller, and still snow-clad, peak further south is Strawberry Mountain.