Snowy and Cold: Spring Basin Wilderness

Awesome view of the Spring Basin Wilderness
Backpacking during winter in Oregon is either going to be wet or on snowshoes, unless you're on the Rogue River trail. Sadly my friend Eddie and I couldn't get anyone to shuttle us for our first of many hikes before our 2013 Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike. After staring at maps for some time I came across a small, new Wilderness Area near the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds. The elevation was relatively low, so I guessed that there wouldn't be much snow. It was cold, but the snow was only a few inches deep.

Eddie walking up a small wash from the John Day River valley

Our first look back down at the John Day River
Often new Wilderness Areas are opposed by ranchers and some locals. They normally end grazing of any kind and always end motor vehicle access. This area was different, local ranchers worked with groups such as the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to protect this area. I'm a huge proponent of Wilderness Areas, they provide solitude and protect areas from development. Our plan for the first day was to hike from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) kiosk along Clarno Road and camp at a spring in Spring Basin Canyon.

One ridge line from the John Day River and you can't see any sign of humans
Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) is nearly the only tree that grows in Spring Basin Wilderness
We ended up stopping shortly before the spring because we came across a nice dry spot that was likely used by deer or elk the day prior. It was big enough for two tents and a fire. There was abundant firewood around, the BLM asks that you don't take anything from standing dead or live trees.

Eddie cooking some dinner on a frosty evening in Spring Basin Wilderness

The spring in Spring Basin Canyon
In the morning we set out for the spring. After that we planned to walk until we hit the edge of the wilderness. The spring in Spring Basin Canyon was more like a seep, we stuck to melting snow. The weather was cold enough that we were having problems with our water bottles freezing. This is the first time I've had this experience. On this adventure I got to try out my new Sierra Designs DriDown bag, you can find my review here.

Our route was mostly guided by the landscape. There was some fairly steep terrain, but the old roads that are now trails were somewhat difficult to follow when under snow.Once we hit the edge of the wilderness we had to climb steeply along the fence line. This lead us back to an old road that is now part of the Spring Basin Wilderness trail system. It will connect you back to Clarno Road. As we walked down Clarno Road we came across a ranch ran by a very nice guy, the road is public property so don't worry about asking permission.

Steep section before returning to the trail

Gate along the old road

View of the partially frozen John Day River from Clarno Road
The Spring Basin Wilderness is an intensely beautiful and isolated place. Despite it's small size once you disappear into one of the many canyons the thought of 'civilization' disappears. I would like to come back after the snow melts and hike the trails. The route we took was done primarily off trail and I wouldn't suggest it if there wasn't snow.

Directions from Madras: Follow Highway 97 north for 17 miles, turn right onto Highway 293 follow for 13 miles, continue east onto Highway 218 follow for 16.4 miles, turn right onto Clarno Road follow for 3.5 miles. The trailhead is on the left and has a kiosk.

Trailhead Elevation:
Approximately 1,450 feet

Hike Distance: 8.2 miles according to my Garmin Oregon 550 GPS 

Hike Type: Loop 

Elevation Gain: 2,600 feet

Light, didn't see anyone 

Difficulty: 4 out of 5

Fees: None

A map of the area is found on the BLM's website.

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