High & Wild in Eastern Oregon

Strawberry Mountain: In the Wilds
By Joy Cordell
  |  Gorp.com
Facts & Figures: Strawberry Cap Wilderness
 A one-day hike gave us just a glimpse of this remote and varied wilderness. To more fully appreciate it we would have to return and take the 42-mile trail that follows the ridge of mountains from west to east, or choose a shorter loop in the 100 miles of trails. This wilderness, though only about 69,000 acres in size, has five of the seven major life zones found in North America. Besides plentiful mule deer, it boasts Rocky Mountain elk, antelope, black bear, cougar, California bighorn sheep, ruffed and blue grouse, hawks and bald eagles, pine marten, mink, and beaver — around 378 kinds of animals and 22 fish species in lakes and creeks. The higher elevations are mostly jagged peaks, rocky slopes, subalpine fir, and alpine meadows. Lower elevations are forested, with fir varieties, western larch, and lodgepole pine on the north slopes and mixed conifers or ponderosa pine on southern slopes.

The trails are best accessed from July through November, and summer daytime temperatures range from 30 to 80 degrees. Expect thunderstorms in the summer, snow and freezing temperatures at any time, and, unlike the week we were there, mostly clear skies. The autumn weather is usually more stable. It's beautiful anytime you go.
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We headed up the Strawberry Basin Trail toward our destination, the 9,038-foot high Strawberry Mountain, in cool weather, with mist obscuring the peaks. The trail skirts Strawberry Lake at 1.4 miles, then climbs to Strawberry Falls base (2.5 miles) and top. Shortly thereafter we reached a bare ridge along the trail that gave us a view, as the mist shifted off the rocky ridge opposite, of Rabbit Ears and Indian Spring Butte, as well as the basin and lake.

Postcard Perfect

The trail then headed up through a knee-high meadow in full bloom, and we began to see evidence of a recent forest fire. We made a steady gain, now threading through scorched lodgepole, before hiking along a creek and meadow basin of the delicate alpine variety. A clear creek, lush green vegetation sprinkled with flowers I couldn't name — it was a photographer's paradise.

The trail led around a rocky basin lacking only sufficient water to form a lake, and switchbacked along one side until we passed the final steep snowbank holdout, and got on the ridge that would take us to the summit.

The trail cut horizontally across the mountain and then switchbacked up through scree to the top, where someone had built a roofless scree fortress. It wouldn't protect us from the rain front moving in, however, so we hustled down and at the trail fork took the Onion Creek Trail, which would loop around north to the camp road. The view from the top included much of the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, the ridge of mountains stretching to the West, the grazing land of ranches plotted in the mountain watershed, and Prairie City basking in hot sunshine farther north, and arid John Day to the northwest. Farthest north are the Blue Mountains, which go all the way up to the border and into Washington.

Another Trail, Another Landscape

The Onion Trail, we were later told, had only recently opened because of the amount of fallen trees that had to be cut by hand on the trail this year. We found the trail very lightly trod in areas, and relied on the old"i" blazes cut into trees and rock cairns set up through the meadows to find our way. We lunched in the shelter of trees just below the mountain, with a view of a magnificent cliff on one side and bare, grassy knolls leading to forest on the other. Then we hiked down through the verdant browse that covered the ground damage of a significant recent burn.

The mule deer were thriving here, according to another hiking party that saw a herd of nine, but we only saw one spike. We actually saw more deer in camp and along the road by the ranches. The contrast between the green waist-high growth and the black of the scorched trees was beautiful and very different from the trail we took up; we were glad we came back by the other route. This trail also was steeper and more difficult — we thought it was good we were headed down and not up. The trail, which made for about a 13-mile hike, ended up on the road about one mile north and downhill from camp. Jeff headed for that last microbrew in the cooler, and I lingered to pick berries along the road.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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