Rock Creek Butte and Elkhorn Peak

My adventure began on June 17, 2010…

I originally thought I would climb 20 peaks in a year at a time starting with the highest in Oregon. After looking at the logistics of limiting the peaks I would have available to climb for this year I decided it would place undo restrictions on where I could go and also I would be “passing up” peaks on the full list on my way to summit the top twenty. After getting rid of the restrictions I began looking at peaks close to home and decided on going after Rock Creek Butte (#26) and Elkhorn Peak (#34) south of Baker City, Oregon.

I left the Walla Walla area on the afternoon around 3:45 pm of the 17th with the goal of reaching the trailhead and hiking up with overnight gear to stay at Twin Lakes, two small lakes located high in the Elkhorn Range below Elkhorn Peak. By camping at the lake I would then have an easy early morning hike up the remaining 1500′ to the summit of Elkhorn Peak.

I traveled for approximately 2 hours driving on Highway 11 to Interstate 84 then east on the interstate to Baker City and finally south on Highway 7 to the gravel forest service roads leading up to the trailhead. My first mistake was made at the junction of Highway 7 and Deer Creek Road. At the turn off of Highway 7 the gravel road immediately splits and Deer Creek Road is the fork to the left (south) and of course I took the right (north) road. I drove all the way until I was stopped by a road barrier before I pulled out the map to check and see if I was on the correct road. Sure enough I was about 4 miles to the south, so I spent the next hour navigating back to the correct roads and finally at 7:00 pm I stopped at what I thought was the correct trailhead, again I was wrong.

First of all I’m a planner; well actually I obsess over planning. I spend hours making sure of roads, trails, possible routes up the peaks/mountains off trail, equipment, and on and on. When you’re hiking solo you really need to pay attention to every detail especially in the early season when the weather can change in an instant and typically there’s no one around for miles. The week leading up to the trip I read many “trip reports” from other sources in which most of the reports stated that on the final road up to the trailhead you travel approx. 2.5 miles and park and walk the remaining .5 miles due to the rough road. With the obtained information I travelled up the 2.5 miles to an intersection of two roads and a HUGE Twin Lakes Trailhead sign.

What I didn’t count on was a smaller sign next to the HUGE trailhead sign saying “Twin Lakes Trailhead .5 miles”. Of course in my mind I was wondering why the forest service would stick their typical trailhead sign at a location if it wasn’t the actual trailhead, time to pull out the map. I studied the map over and over again and placing each drainage and where the location of the trail “had to be” and made my decision. At the intersection where I parked there was an old road heading up the drainage which I determined was the correct location for the trail as shown on the Wallowa-Whitman Baker Valley topography map. I basically ignored the “Twin Lakes Trailhead .5 miles” sign.

After approximately .5 miles I came to what appeared to be the end of the old road which in my mind fit the reports that I read leading up to my trip, everything was fitting into place…well not quite. As I continued up the “trail” I noticed that the vegetation was beginning to grow over the trail and there were quite a few logs fallen over the “trail”. I basically shrugged it off to dwindling forest service budgets and the lack of trail crews to maintain the miles and miles of trails. After a mile of climbing over logs and crossing the creek (quite high due to the spring runoff) I noticed a log bridge crossing the creek 100′ above where I was standing on rocks in the middle of the creek, trying to cross without falling in. I climbed my way up to the bridge and noticed fresh boot tracks… wth? I found the “new” trail, the one that was the .5 miles up the road from where my car was parked.

I looked at my watch and noticed it was getting close to 9:00 pm knowing I only had a matter of minutes before I lost the remaining twilight I continued up the “maintained” trail as fast as possible. I must have covered another .5 mile before I stopped for my first break to grab water and my headlamp, it ended up being a long evening. I walked in the dark with just the beam from my headlamp until 10:45 pm when I finally decided I’d had enough and found a “flat” spot and set up my tent and began preparing for a cold night in the mountains. The sky was clear and the ground was already beginning to freeze when I walked over to a small stream to pump water through my water purifier. I filled up a couple of bottles and my pot to boil water for a cup of tea, and then climbed in the tent to start-up the stove. It was after 11:00 pm before I was able to climb into my nice warm down sleeping bag and listen to my pocket radio. I set two alarms on my watch for 4:45 and 5:00 am the next morning then dozed off for the night.

Of course I shut both alarms off without getting up and it wasn’t till the light reflecting off the snowy ridges until I finally sat up and realized I was about an hour late. I quickly packed up, ate a bar and mixed nuts, drank a cup of hot tea, and was out of the tent in 30 minutes. I wanted to catch the early morning light in the cirque where Twin Lakes is located. I knew from my GPS that I was only .1 mile away from the lake so I was up to the lake in a matter of minutes, the view was spectacular.

The lake, for the most part, was still frozen over with only a small area around the inflow and outflow free of ice. I quickly snapped a few shots of the reflections in the open water by the outflow of the lake.  The trail leading up to the ridge about six hundred feet above was still mostly covered with snow so I set off on a direct line to an exposed section of trail.  Within an hour I was standing on top of the ridge looking up toward the summit of Elkhorn Peak.  Numerous mountain goat tracks covered the top of the ridge and appeared to lead up to the summit so I followed their lead.

At nine thirty I was standing on top of Elkhorn Peak looking directly down on the eastern Oregon town of Baker City.  I found the benchmark and snapped a shot along with shots from all around the summit, it was turning out to be an amazing morning, one peak down one to go.  I didn’t spend much time on Elkhorn Peak, I knew my goal was Elkhorn Peak and Rock Creek Butte and the later sat 1.75 miles to the northwest and required a traverse along a few connecting ridges.

Walking back down to the ridge went quickly and in no time I was making the long traverse to the butte.  Rock Creek Butte is the highest point in the Elkhorn Range and sits at 9106′ in elevation, it was quite beautiful covered with snow with rocks and trees poking through.  There is a crest trail that typically would make it an easy walk to the summit ridge to the butte, but with the hard snow pack a few sections were quite steep so I took my time.  The snowy run-out below the trail would’ve led to an abrupt stop on large boulders a hundred feet below.  Once on the ridge and off the trail I took a long break to eat and drink while enjoying the amazing view.

Clouds were beginning to flow over a few of the lesser peaks in the range and they would get more numerous as the day progressed.  After scanning the hillsides looking for goats and eating my early lunch I continued on up the ridge.

At 10:30 I was standing on my second objective, Rock Creek Butte.  There’s a large pile of rocks on the summit with an ammo can for a register box which I opened and signed.  There’s also a large plastic container with a jacket that was placed up on top of the summit from someone who lost a close friend.  I hope that in the future everyone respects the hikers wishes and leaves the jacket out of respect.  I’m sorry for your loss, he must have been a close friend.  I stayed on top for fifteen to twenty minutes before packing up and heading back down the ridge.  The light clouds I noticed earlier were becoming quite dense so I decided to take a “more direct” line back to Twin Lakes.  My “short cut” involved glissading approximately 1000′ down the steep snow slope, ninety percent of the time on my feet and ten percent on my ass.  I was standing back at my tent by noon.

My pack was on by 1:00 pm and I started walking back down the trail.  I do regret one thing, there’s a set of waterfalls cascading down from the lower lake that are amazing that I didn’t take the time to photograph.  The falls were less than .1 mile from my camp, if any one plans on heading up to Twin Lakes check out the falls so you don’t regret it like I do.  On the hike out I decided to follow the “newer” section of trail that’s not shown on my map.  Immediately after the trail crosses the creek on the log bridge it gains a few hundred feet in elevation, after my day it felt more like a thousand.  Even with the added elevation gain and loss it was easier than climbing over the down logs on the old trail.  Sure enough, the trail ends (or I guess starts) at the end of a gravel road which is the continuation of the road my car was parked on.  If you follow the gravel road from this point I assume the sign is correct and it’s .5 miles I didn’t check the mileage with my car.  I was packed and back on the road heading out by 3:00 pm.

Two down, ninety-eight to go!


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