We rounded the corner and suddenly the great peak, until that moment hidden by the rumpled topography, was straight ahead.
Rock Creek Butte isn’t especially imposing compared with, say, Mount Rainier.
But it’s much too prominent to deserve the diminutive title of “butte,” a moniker better suited to a modest cinder cone or similar geographic dimple.
Rock Creek Butte is in fact the tallest summit in the Elkhorn Mountains, one of Oregon’s significant ranges. At 9,106 feet, it’s also the highest point in the north half of Oregon between the Wallowas and the Cascades.
I see the mountain almost every day when clouds — or, more recently, wildfire smoke — don’t cloak the Elkhorns.
But my vantage point from Baker City, on the east side of the range, doesn’t cast Rock Creek Butte in its most fetching light. The perspective, in fact, misleads the eyes (my pair, anyway) into concluding that its sedimentary neighbor, the more respectfully named Elkhorn Peak, is the higher. But in this case the peak gives up 174 feet of elevation to the butte.
Because I’m so accustomed to this particular vista, I always feel a little thrill when I see the familiar promontory from a different place. Better still when this fresh outlook affords Rock Creek Butte a more proper eminence.
I had such an occasion on a recent Saturday while hiking on what I can’t help but think of as the “other” side of the mountains, which is to say the west side of the range, looming above Sumpter Valley.
Residents of that valley, I expect, feel the same when they’re looking at the Elkhorns from Baker Valley. We’re all equally fortunate to live so close to such grand mountains.
There aren’t many hiking trails on the west side of the Elkhorns. But the network of forest roads, most of which are rarely traveled, is extensive.
I picked Crevice Creek.
It’s one of several year-round streams, all tributaries to the Powder River, that start in springs and seep high on the ramparts of the Elkhorns.
Crevice Creek is a twice-removed tributary, so to speak, as it empties not directly into the Powder but into Deer Creek. Crevice Creek has roads on both sides of its canyon, but since I had hiked the east side road (Forest Road 100) more recently I opted for the west side road, No. 110.
Both are spurs off the Deer Creek Road, No. 6540. To get there, drive Highway 7 south from Baker City for about 19 miles. Between Mileposts 30 and 29, turn right onto gravel Deer Creek Road. Follow the road north for 4 miles to a four-way intersection where the road crosses Deer Creek. Turn left and drive 1.3 miles to Road 110, which heads up a steep slope, paralleling the Deer Creek Road briefly before a switchback.
Road 110 climbs north at a moderate grade, staying a couple hundred feet above Crevice Creek. At several points you can look across the canyon and see Road 100 on the opposite side. It’s both steeper and generally closer to the creek.
After a mile or so, Road 110 veers into the narrow valley of a seasonal stream and then rounds the nose of a ridge. That’s where the whole west face of Rock Creek Butte comes into view, its brown dome dominating the skyline at the head of the canyon.
In common with many mountains, Rock Creek Butte looks quite different depending on perspective. When seen from Haines the peak reminds me of nothing so much as the Alps. From Rock Creek Lake, at the peak’s northern base, the scene is reminiscent of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
The view from Road 110 is similar to what you see from much of Sumpter Valley, only much closer, and the proximity lends the peak a certain grandiosity that strikes me as wholly appropriate for the apex of the Elkhorns. I was reminded that mountains, though insensate, have personalities of a sort.
Road 110 continues for another 3 miles or so. If you don’t mind a short cross-country section and have a detailed map, you can make a loop either by hiking west, crossing the creek and returning on Road 100, or climbing east to Road 130, which connects to Road 110.