The previous weekend I had headed out to find a new hiking trail, only to be turned away short miles from the trailhead by an unexpectedly snowed in roadway. So close, so far… Flash forward to the next weekend, and I am boldly heading into the Ochoco’s again! Once more into the mountains!!! This time I am driving up the Mills Creek Valley and heading to a trailhead that is lower in elevation than my previous destination the week before. Stein’s Pillar is one of those names, and geologic landmarks, that I have read and seen images about for years, and today was to be my first foray to this trailhead.
A mild, mid-60s, partly cloudy day. Shuffling iPod provides a perfect soundtrack for another beautiful drive through juniper and sagebrush up into the mountains. I drive through Prineville, then 10 miles east, and headed up the Mills Creek Valley; a valley filled with family ranches and surrounded by low hills filled with juniper and fir. The turnoff for the Stein’s Pillar trailhead comes sooner than I was expecting as I settled into the beautiful valley, and the forest road well-maintained as I steadily gained elevation to around 4300.’ No snow to be seen anywhere on this south and west facing ridgeline. Once out of the car the air smells of warm pine. Lovely. Silence except for occasional bird song. A tiny spring that emerges just up from the parking area drifts through a grassy glade. The forest a mix of Ponderosa pine, spruce and occasional juniper on the warm sun facing fringes of the forest, but undergrowth is almost nonexistent.
From the trailhead, and a short switch back later, I come to my first meadow wildflowers! I have seen very few flowers so far this spring, so I’m excited to see many familiar faces in this rocky meadow; purple phlox, golden lomatium (parsley) and white death camas just beginning to bloom. The warm air has pockets of the lovely pungent smell of parsley, which takes me back to many wonderful hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. The trail winds through forest and open glades and new, and unfamiliar, flowers begin to appear; yellow heart-shaped arnica, each with one large yellow flower, and a lavender waterleaf, the flower blooming beneath the flower’s foliage, on the forest floor. Lovely.
Open and sunny areas are filled with paintbrush in full bloom, and arrow-leaf balsamroot, again an old friend from the Gorge, though not quite as plentiful as the open grasslands of the Gorge. There are also areas filled with pink smooth Prairie Star along the trail. Farther along, the trail opens up and larger patches of reddish purple phlox cover the ground, clumps of balsamroot, lone large-headed clover in deep red and white, looking like peppermint candy and one lone Larkspur lurking under a shrub. The ground is mostly rocks and dirt, along with occasional patches of grass and shrubby deciduous trees. The whole area has a feel of certain meadows in the Columbia River Gorge-which is my comparison from years of spring hiking-but here the flowers are blooming 4000’ higher in elevation than much of the Gorge.
I come across an area where there appears there might have been a lightning strike and a very small ground fire, and other than charred pieces of wood there is no ground cover whatsoever, and in the open space I see hundreds of heart-leaved Arnica rising from the soil. Each of these flowers produces one lovely yellow flower, and they are plentiful in this area, though many are not yet in bloom.
Down, down, down the trail suddenly heads towards the viewpoint of Stein’s Pillar. The viewpoint – the end of a ridgeline – is a little grown over, but there it is, Stein’s Pillar, a column of pink and charcoal tuff, at the end of the next ridgeline, rising above the trees. Beautiful. An unexpected treat (of course, I knew it was there) in the otherwise softly worn and tree covered slopes of the Ochoco Mountains. A yardstick, as it were, for the rock beneath my feet; boulders and chunks of gray and pink rock covering the ground.
This far away from civilization, the silence is blissful, away from busy roads or planes flying overhead, birdsong is the background noise; nuthatches, Stellar Jay’s and raptors break the silence. A trail runner startles me, looks at the view, goes “wow,” and turns and speeds away, leaving me in solitude once more. Solitude I find; the brain ceases to think, ears hearing silence and occasion bird song, the nose whiffs of warm pine, eyes view a new window of the world to appreciate as the long afternoon light lingers and changes as clouds drift by the scenery.
I think this is one of the things I appreciate most about being here in central Oregon, solitude. Even on a Saturday afternoon, I have only seen 5 other people. I really enjoyed this trail, as I do this mostly pine forests that are filled with equal amount trees and space, and the open areas of the Ochoco forests are very enticing for camping. I am now curious to see what other late spring and early summer wildflowers might appear along this trail. I’ll definitely be back.
Leaving the trailhead, I drive to the Stein’s Pillar viewpoint in the valley below for another perspective, and appreciation, of this geologic oddity. The early evening sun lends a kind hue to this crazy column, and yet more photos are taken. A digital acknowledgement of something unique and beautiful in the world.