I peered down the gravel road, a narrow slice between the firs and the occasional ponderosa pine, and it struck me that at long last I had managed to misplace a once familiar path.
I wasn’t lost.
And by that I don’t mean, as people sometimes do, that I truly didn’t know where I was but was too ashamed to admit it.
I could see multiple landmarks through the windshield of our Toyota FJ Cruiser, peaks I could name with as much confidence as listing my own address or phone number.
I knew I was on Pole Creek Ridge, a prominent spur on the west side of the Elkhorns north of Sumpter.
I even knew what road I was driving on — 5536.
What I couldn’t figure out is why the road was descending.
To get to the trail, I recalled from many previous visits, you have to drive uphill pretty much the entire way.
I pulled over — well, actually I just stopped in the middle of the road, which is too narrow to justify the term “pulled over.”
I confessed to my wife, Lisa, that I needed to consult a map — the ultimate admission of navigational incompetence.
Except the map tucked into the pocket on the back of the passenger seat didn’t include Pole Creek Ridge.
Or any place within about 10 miles, come to that.
Which made it about as useful as toilet paper.
But bemused though I was, I had little doubt that I had gone astray in trying to reach the Pole Creek Ridge trail. I turned around, a maneuver that, due to the road’s modest width, required about half a dozen neck-straining jolts, first forward, then back. A 10-point turn, basically.
When we got back to the junction of 5536 and its 150 spur I immediately recognized that the former road had lured me away from my destination.
We made it the rest of the way with no detours.
I remembered, as we bounced along on the increasingly rough roads, that the route has a pleasing mathematical precision to it — from the 150 road to the 160 and thence to the 170.
(Pleasing to me, anyway, for whom intervals of 10 is about as large as my brain can comprehend.)
The Pole Creek Ridge trailhead is more a concept than a reality.
There is no parking lot, no wooden bulletin board with signs reminding hikers to be careful with fires.
The “trail” for most of its length is actually a road, or at least something resembling a road.
People ride 4-wheelers on it, anyway.
How far you go before abandoning internal combustion for leg and lung power depends on your own, and your rig’s, tolerance for steep, narrow and boulder-strewn roads.
There are, it scarcely needs to be said, no guardrails.
The 5536 and 150 roads aren’t terrible. I wouldn’t drive a low-slung sedan on either, but anything with decent clearance should go unscathed. The 160 and 170 roads are notably bumpier. The final “road” — there’s a sign with a number, at any rate — is the 200 road, and it begins with a pitch so steep I was seeing mainly the Cruiser’s hood through the windshield.
If you park at the 170/200 junction it’s about 2.6 miles to the point where the Pole Creek Ridge trail ends at an intersection with the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail.
That modest distance belies the physical challenge, though.
Pole Creek Ridge trail climbs relentlessly, and often steeply (albeit perhaps not quite as steeply as that aforementioned section of the 200 road.)
The route gains about 1,200 feet of elevation, reaching about 8,100 feet at the Crest trail junction.
As Lisa and I started the hike it occurred to me that we hadn’t been here for 14 years.
I didn’t feel quite so chagrined at taking the wrong turn down the ridge when I realized how much time had elapsed.
Too much time, I thought, because Pole Creek Ridge is a tempting destination despite the vertebrae-rattling access roads.
The ridge juts from the Elkhorns rather like a flying buttress on a Gothic cathedral. This spine of high ground separates its namesake creek to the east, and Wind Creek, another tributary to Cracker Creek, to the west.
Although I’ve probably plied the trail a dozen times or so, I either hadn’t noticed before, or had since forgotten, that the ridge boasts an unusual wealth of conifer species in a relatively small area.
We noted grand firs, Douglas-firs, lodgepole pines, whitebark pines, subalpine firs, tamaracks and, on a particularly exposed spot, a lone ponderosa pine.
The ponderosa in particular surprised me, since the species doesn’t often range above 6,500 feet in Northeastern Oregon, and this one, according to the altimeter app on my phone, was at about 7,200.
I’m no ecologist (or any other sort of ologist) but I have been fortunate to share a trail with several scientists who can deduce much from the lay of the land and its flora, notably the late Charles Johnson, a Forest Service ecologist for whom the Blue Mountains was a vast laboratory.
I suspect that ponderosa was taking advantage of its southern exposure. The longer period of daily sunlight creates a microclimate that is, in effect, hundreds of feet lower. And ponderosas thrive in sunny places.
I noticed too, even higher on the ridge, that a few Douglas-firs were interspersed among the subalpine firs and whitebark pines, the latter two typically the dominant, and often only, trees at these relatively lofty elevations.
The Douglas-firs, like that lone ponderosa, were growing on south-facing slopes, and I imagine they were taking advantage of the same beneficent conditions.
Besides being a hospitable place for certain conifers, Pole Creek Ridge marks the general boundary of a Forest Service grazing allotment. A recently reconstructed fence meanders along the ridge, and you’ll have to go through three gates (one along the 170 Road). Remember to close any gates you have to open.
As the trail ascends, the forest thins until, over the final half mile or so, only the whitebarks and the subalpine firs persist, all but oblivious to deep snow and polar temperatures.
About 0.7 of a mile from the Crest trail, the route narrows and becomes a proper footpath (albeit one that is open to motorcycles, the tracks of which we saw.)
The trail, Lisa and I muttered to each other as we plodded ever upward, has the torturous design typical of trails in the Elkhorns. Which is to say, it takes a direct route in defiance of the topography.
The difference between the type of trail represented by Pole Creek Ridge, and the many paths in the Wallowas, is so dramatic that I find it ever fascinating. Most trails in the Wallowas were built to accommodate horses, and as such they attack the terrain obliquely, with ample use of switchbacks to make the ascent of even a steep slope a gentle, albeit much longer, undertaking.
Lisa and I mused that the final 0.7 of a mile, had the trail been constructed to the standards of the Wallowas, would have been at least half again as long, but accomplished with much fewer gasps in the thin alpine air.
Eventually we got to the Crest trail.
It’s not much like other trails in the Elkhorns, nor does it resemble most routes in the Wallowas.
The Crest trail is comparatively flat but it achieves this not by incorporating switchbacks but by staying stubbornly, as befits its name, near the top of the ridge.
The trail, which spans 24 miles from its southern terminus at Marble Creek Pass to the northern trailhead near Anthony Lake, is one of the grand paths in Oregon. The views from almost every one of those miles is expansive. But I find the vantage point of the Pole Creek Ridge trail among the more fetching.
As we sat on the trail (me clumsily coming down on a patch of sandwort, a particularly prickly variety of groundcover that left spines scattered in my shorts), we could see, arrayed as in a diorama, peaks spanning left to right (or, rather, from south to west) that included Ironside Mountain and Castle Rock, Strawberry Mountain and Dixie Butte and Vinegar Hill and, close to the west, Windy Creek Peak and Mount Ireland.
To the north, the Crest trail was visible cutting through patches of alpine fleeceflower turning rusty red in the waning days of this torrid late summer (we were there on Sunday, Aug. 28.)
We could also see how dramatically the geologic character of the Elkhorns changes, the generally brown sedimentary stone of the southern part of the range — primarily argillite, a type of compacted mudstone, and chert — giving way to the white granitic rocks that dominate the northern half of the range.
I haven’t found anything of the history of the Pole Creek Ridge trail, but I suspect it predates the Crest trail by some decades, starting as a route pioneered by miners, perhaps with an assist from sheepherders who once drove their flocks along the Elkhorns.
The Crest trail was extended to Pole Creek Ridge in the 1970s, and in 1981 the 7 miles from there to Marble Creek Pass were blasted and gouged from slopes that range from merely steep to vertical.
Lisa and I lamented that we hadn’t time to indulge in the Crest trail’s pleasant flatness.
We started the steep, muscle-straining descent, pausing only to chuckle at the single, half-hearted switchback just below the Crest trail junction, a sort of desultory dirty trick played by a trail builder who’s probably long in the grave but whose joke, if that’s how it was intended, lives on.
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