Luinil - Traveling with the Blue Star

July, 2015 — Sherman County and John Day River
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Copyright © 2015 - 2018 Larrie Easterly

Oregon Raceway Park in Grass Valley is located about 12 miles, as the crow flys, west of the John Day River. I have photographed racing at ORP may times over the past five years and have always wanted to go to the John Day. Looking at maps of the area made it look like several roads gave access to overlooks of the John Day Canyon. Plans were made to explore the area west of the river a few days before a race at ORP.

The first time I tried doing this trip was in March 2014. It had been raining in the high desert a few days before my trip. Having never been off pavement in the area before I did not know what to expect. What I found was dirt roads with a thin layer of gravel on top. Looking in my mirrors I could see that the tire tracks filling in with a thin layer of water. Continuing on the Sportsmobile camper van start to slide around a little bit as I went up the slight hills and around corners. I started to wonder if I was going to get stuck and if I did how would I get out. At one point the road curved and dropped down into a gully before climbing out on the other side. Looking at the drop and rise I knew this was far enough. The road was to narrow to turn around so I started to retrace my route by backing up. Several miles there was a spot that looked solid and wide enough to use as a turn around spot.

Fast forward to July, 2015. There is an eight hour endurance race at ORP that I am going to photograph so I decide to try the John Day River trip again. This time I take our four wheel drive Toyota 4Runner, instead of the two wheel drive Sportsmobile. Loaded with my camping and photo gear I head for Sherman County. My first stop was for lunch at the Goose Pit in Wasco. This is a good place to eat the staff are very friendly and are always willing to share stories about the area. It is also one of the few restaurants that is always open in this farming country.

Before leaving I had mapped out my route and identified which roads appeared to take me to overlooks of the John Day. The routes took me through the freshly mown wheat fields of Sherman County. This are is noted for its fertile soil that is perfect for dry land farming. The golden rolling hills of wheat stubble made for a beautiful backdrop to my driving the dusty back roads in search of a river overlook.

The other export product that Sherman County is noted for is electricity. There are hundreds of power windmills in the north end of the county. If you are driving along Interstate 84 you can see windmills in the distance but it is hard to fathom the scale of the them. Driving around the backroads of the county the scale rapidly becomes apparent as you can get up close and personal with them.

Depending on the age of the map you look at the Lower John Day River it may be noted as a wilderness study area or WSA. This means that the U.S. Government is trying to determine if it should be designated as a wild and scenic river. Because of this all of the roads I tried were blocked by farm gates. I could see that the farmers fields continue up to the river. The different roads also continued as shown on the map but the farmers had closed and locked the gates denying access.

One place on the river that is newly accessible is Cottonwood Canyon State Park. This is the newest and second largest of Oregon State Parks. In 2011 the Oregon voters passed a law that the State Parks Department would be permanently funded by revenues from the Oregon Lottery. This funding allowed the parks department to purchase the 8000 acre ranch that owned property along both sides of the John Day. There is another 10,000 acres of public lands surrounding the park. Sixteen miles of the river are within the park boundary. The park has been open for two years and is still under development. There is a bicycle camping area as well as several developed trails that go up to the canyon rim as well as along the river. This being the high desert you need to pay attention as you are walking around. Keep an eye out for snakes and other critters. The other thing be be prepared for is wind. The wind can be very strong at times as it comes down the canyon. I saw several campsites gear scattered by the wind.

While I didn't make it to the John Day where I was hoping to I did have a good trip. Am planning to go back to Sherman County again to visit some of the "ghost towns” and other geological sites that are within its boundaries.

Lessons learned Stay off the eastern Oregon backroads when they are wet. Obey the speed limit. The local sheriffs will be glad to stop and talk with you for a bit if you do not. This has not happened to me but it has to others that I know.

Till next time.


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