Dusk was descending on the Elkhorn Mountains and the father and son, their legs aching the deep ache that sets in after more than 20 miles on the trail, were still far from home.
At trail’s end they started trudging down the steep, rough road below Marble Creek Pass, their headlamps illuminating the roadside whitebark pines and subalpine firs.
One hour passed and then another, and the alpine darkness was total, with clouds obscuring the waning moon.
Finally, after 14 hours and about 26 miles, Phil Reindl, 67, and his son, Andy, 31, saw headlights below.
On Tuesday morning — the day after their epic hike — Phil stood in his kitchen and described his reaction to those headlights with a single word.
The pair had hiked the whole of the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail and a couple more miles besides.
They had endured fatigue and gusty winds and, for Phil, one of those warm spots between a toe that would dearly love to become a blister.
And they had finished the sort of adventure that they had missed for many years.
It’s tough to get together for hikes when the son is serving with the U.S. Air Force in Turkey, and the dad lives near Baker City.
“Phil wanted to do something they both enjoyed, and they wanted something that was a challenge,” said Phil’s partner, Cindy Birko.
The Reindls have hiked together many times, including in Glacier National Park and other parts of Montana, but their trips were less frequent after Andy joined the Air Force 13 years ago.
Their choice to try the Elkhorn Crest Trail wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision — but it was close.
Andy had arrived the previous Wednesday, on leave from his one-year stint in Turkey, where he works as a server administrator.
He and his father rode motorcycles one day in the Wallowas east of Medical Springs, but they hadn’t talked about any specific trails to try on foot.
Phil, though, had been intrigued by the Elkhorn Crest Trail since he and Cindy moved to Baker County in October 2017.
The couple live along Pine Creek, at the eastern base of the Elkhorns, and Phil had hiked twice up to Pine Creek Reservoir and beyond.
He was impressed by the rugged slopes of Rock Creek Butte, highest summit in the Elkhorns at 9,106 feet, and its slightly lower neighbor, 8,932-foot Elkhorn Peak.
Phil knew from looking at a map that the Elkhorn Crest Trail wound between the two mountains, but he was confounded as to how a hiking trail could have been hacked out of such precipitous terrain.
He also didn’t know how long the trail was.
“He found out about 7 o’clock last night,” Cindy said with a smile on Tuesday.
The whole thing came together in less than two days.
Initially the Reindls planned to leave one car at the trail’s northern terminus near Anthony Lake, and start their hike from the southern end at Marble Creek Pass.
But they didn’t realize that the road leading to the pass from Baker Valley can be termed a road only by employing a certain flexibility in definition.
They decided instead to start their trek at Anthony Lake, then hike down the Marble Creek Pass road to meet Cindy, who would park at the site of an abandoned lime quarry where the road transforms, rather suddenly, from gravel to something more resembling a goat path.
They took to the trail at 7 a.m. on Monday, just as dawn was giving way to real daylight.
Phil had hiked the first 3 or 4 miles of the Elkhorn Crest Trail several years ago with his sister, who lives in Eagle, Idaho, so he was somewhat familiar with the route.
The trail, as its name suggests, generally runs near the crest of the Elkhorns. As a result it’s unique among long-distance mountain trails in Northeastern Oregon for its lack of elevation changes. The biggest climb by far, for hikers heading south from Anthony Lakes, as the Reindls did, is the first 3 miles as the trail climbs about 1,300 feet to Angell Pass.
That was the last section of the Crest Trail built, in 1984 (see history of the trail below) and it is laid out so as to avoid any steep ascents.
Both Phil and Andy said the climb was relatively easy.
“They did a real nice job with that trail,” Phil said. “It’s beautiful country.”
They had their first wildlife sighting — a lone mountain goat billy — near the pass, where the trail was hewn through a notch in the granitic rocks that dominate the northern Elkhorns.
Several miles farther along, where the trail overlooks the headwaters of the North Fork John Day River, a basin scorched during the Sloans Ridge fire in 1996, Andy heard an elk bugling from a thicket of trees that survived the 10,000-acre blaze.
“I was just listening to the wind blowing through my hearing aids,” Phil said with a smile.
The pair saw fresh bear tracks in the trail south of Cracker Saddle — but no bear.
They reached the halfway point — at least according to Andy’s GPS watch — between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Phil, who was a timber faller and is used to long, physically demanding days, said his legs were tiring.
They briefly considered hiking a couple miles back to Cracker Saddle and then following the old road that descends steeply along Cracker Creek to the ghost town of Bourne.
But Phil decided they had hiked too far to abandon their goal.
“I said I’m going to get this done no matter what,” he said. “It’s been on my bucket list. I was tired but I just wanted to plug along.”
As the afternoon progressed and the pair continued south, clouds thickened and a brisk southwest wind began to buffet them.
Phil said they had packed rain clothes and brought a firestarter, hatchet and extra food in case they had to spend the night in the mountains.
Near the saddle between Twin Lakes and Rock Creek Butte the pair spotted a group of about 20 mountain goats.
They reached Marble Creek Pass at about 7 p.m., almost exactly 12 hours after leaving the trailhead near Anthony Lake.
They had seen a handful of hunters, near Cracker Saddle and near Marble Creek Pass, but no other hikers.
Phil called Cindy to let her know they would be heading down the road.
Cindy said she parked at the quarry, but as dusk became full dark she worried about the two hikers.
She called her cousin, Ray Illingsworth, who lives in Haines. He agreed to drive his four-wheel drive pickup to Marble Creek and take her toward the pass to meet Phil and Andy.
Not long after, Phil had his euphoric moment.
He said he had been feeling “a little queasy” during the descent from the pass, but after drinking some water he felt better.
“It was over my limit by a long ways,” Phil said with a rueful smile.
He said his longest one-day hike had been 18 miles when he walked up to Pine Creek Reservoir and beyond to the divide between Pine and Rock creeks.
Phil said he ran several half-marathons, and one full marathon, but he admits he was considerably younger then.
Andy, meanwhile, said he has completed several day hikes exceeding 20 miles.
He was surprised by the relative flatness of the Elkhorn Crest Trail.
“It’s one of the easiest hikes I’ve been on — except for the distance,” he said.
Phil said he’s pretty sure he’ll never repeat this feat.
“I might do parts,” he said. “There are lots of other places I have to check out.”
Cindy, who participated in the hike vicariously, said it was “heartwarming watching this very fit young man and his fit father watching out for one another.
“It was an epic thing for this father/son duo.”
Elkhorn Crest Trail History
This renowned trail was inspired by sheep.
Domestic sheep, not bighorns.
A century or more ago, before the federal government started regulating livestock grazing on public lands, tens of thousands of sheep munched grass every summer in the Blue and Wallowa Mountains.
Herders often drove bands of sheep hundreds of miles between summer and winter pastures, and one of those historic routes followed the spine of the Elkhorn Range, which dominates the western skyline from Baker Valley.
This was never one trail, of course — sheep don’t as a rule travel in single file — but the traces that those wooly bands left on the land served as a sort of template for what became the Elkhorn Crest Trail.
Today’s trail was built in multiple stages over more than 15 years.
The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest built the first segments in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The northern end of the trail was near the top of the chairlift at Anthony Lakes Ski Area. The trail ran south for about 17 miles to Pole Creek Ridge northwest of Sumpter.
Forest officials had plans to extend the trail to Marble Creek Pass, but nothing happened for several years.
But then, in 1979, Joaquin “Moose” Stephens, who worked for the Baker Ranger District from 1970 to 1987, nominated the Elkhorn Crest Trail as a national recreation trail.
(Stephens died Jan. 3, 2015, at his home in Baker City.)
Congress added the trail to that list the next year, and in 1981 the Wallowa-Whitman built 7 miles of trail, through some of the most rugged terrain on the whole route, from Pole Creek Ridge south to Marble Creek Pass.
That’s still the trail’s southern terminus.
But the 1981 construction, though it connected the two trailheads, was not the final chapter in the Elkhorn Crest Trail’s story.
Three years later, Wallowa-Whitman officials decided to revamp the northern end of the trail, building 3.3 miles of new trail and moving the trailhead from the top of the ski hill to a parking lot near Anthony Lake. This newest section of the trail meets the old at Dutch Flat Saddle.
The older, original Elkhorn Crest Trail is now known as the Crawfish Basin Trail.
— Jayson Jacoby