Wednesday, October 16, 2013

John Day Trail

If you're looking for an easy - really easy - day hike full of fall color, then the John Day trail is your hike. I wanted to get out yesterday but didn't have much time, so figured I'd re-visit this lovely small canyon. What a treat... surprisingly rarely visited given its accessibility and beauty.

John Day is the small canyon looker's right of Soldier Canyon, and the easiest public access is from Soldier Canyon itself. This means two things to visitors... one, fall is hunting season and the Soldier Canyon area is one of the few places hunters can access without having to arrange for permission from private landowners. That means that it's heavily used, often by hunters who don't have a whole lot of experience. Keep yourself safe by wearing day-glo orange - a lot of it. And if you're not absolutely certain your pooch will stay right at your heels, leave him at home.

The second thing to remember about Soldier Canyon is that the access road is closed to motor vehicles from November 15th through May 1st. A lot of people can - and do - use the canyon in the winter, but they park on Lower Lamoille Road and access the canyon on skis and snowshoes. If you want to drive to this trailhead, keep this closure in mind.

Here's some trail beta for you:


Length:  4 miles RT from trailhead in Soldier Canyon

Elevation gain:  1100'

Difficulty:  Class A (easy)

Time required:  Half-day

The John Day trail is in good shape and is easy to follow. The Backcountry Horsemen and local hunting guides have done a good job keeping this trail brushed out, at least for the first couple of miles, and there are only a few spots where you'll have to step over or duck under deadfall. One guy with a chainsaw could have it cleared in about half an hour.

You'll find the trailhead you're looking for about 3.2 miles along the Soldier Canyon Road after it leaves Lower Lamoille Road. It's the first obvious grassy parking spot once you enter the canyon, and the trail itself is marked with a sign. The trailhead of the John Day Trail is all that's left of the old Secret-Lamoille Trail as it crossed Soldier Canyon. That trail ran from Secret Pass to Lamoille Canyon, largely across the benched foothills of the range, and the John Day Trail junction was about .2 miles in on that trail as it headed south and west from the Soldier Canyon Road.

The first .2 mile of this trail is quite steep - a 21% grade - because it is, in fact, a cut switchback. The original trail actually intersected the Soldier Canyon road a few hundred yards upstream. David Ashby, the former local USFS rec planner who inventoried all of the Ruby Mountain District trails a few years ago, told me that there wasn't a lot of point in re-establishing the old trail since the cut switchback was fairly stable and led to a natural parking area. So - unless you're interested in rooting out the old benched trail bed, this steep little climb right off the bat will be the beginning and the ending of your day. It's not as bad as it looks, and there's thankfully not a lot of dust and loose rock to jeopardize your footing.

Once you gain the top of the little ridge you'll see an old cairn fading into the grass. This old cairn marked the S-L Trail/John Day Trail junction, and if you look you can see the old trail down to Soldier Canyon road off behind the cairn. Unfortunately, the junction it marked no longer exists, as John Day Creek flash flooded a few years back, destroying the crossing and creating an impressive, steep-walled gully barring you from reaching the S-L Trail. It's uncrossable without a rope and a belayer, and dangerous to try. Fortunately, a old subsidiary trail takes off from the John Day trail a little upstream. There's no cairn marking it and it wasn't readily obvious, but I'll chase it down and do a write-up on that one another day.

After you pass the old cairn the trail maintains a steady 10% climb, but the trail's so good and the grade is so consistent that you hardly notice you're gaining elevation. The first half mile or so contours around the climbers' left side of the canyon, through sandy soil with only infrequent shade provided by sparse mahoganies. It's pretty hot and dry through here in the summer, but the views make it worth the walk. There's a relatively new cairn along this stretch - not sure what it marks, perhaps an easier crossing of John Day Creek. Worth exploring if you have the time and aren't afraid of rattlesnakes.

It doesn't take long for the trail to dive into a tunnel of aspen, and this is where it becomes truly lovely. The trail crosses the creek a few times, and you will probably have wet feet if you do this hike during high water.

At 1.7 miles, you'll reach the end of the nicely brushed-out trail at a grassy hunter's camp. Unlike some others, this one's pretty clean and is still a very pleasant place. I was more than surprised to find it unoccupied.

Past the camp, you can walk another quarter of a mile along the creek to a lovely little spot where the stream babbles and laughs in the summer. In the fall, it provides a peaceful spot and a great photo opportunity.

The map shows that the trail goes on for another half-mile, but there's very little evidence past this point that it ever existed. I was able to follow it for another quarter mile, but it was completely overgrown and a full-on bash through waist-deep brush. This trail would be easy enough to reclaim, if anyone were interested. It's a shame to lose the rest of such a nice walk.

Here's the map - click on it (and on any of these photos) to make it bigger.

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