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Take in some of the region's intriguing history as you 'wander' up Central Oregon butte

PHOTO COURTESY OF STAN PINE - Farmland and the Crooked River National Grassland surround Juniper Butte. An easy-access dayhike presents excellent, panoramic views of Central Oregon, about a half hour from Prineville.

When the air is clear and the sun shining, there is a close-by hike that can easily be accomplished in a morning, and that is the Juniper Butte Wander.

In my hiking book, I describe this hike as a "wander" as there is no designated or even informal trail to either of the three "summits." You simply park at a spot of your choice on the lands of the Crooked River National Grasslands, pick a route that looks good to you, and start hiking to the top, picking your way through grasses, sage, juniper trees and cow pies.

At 3,925 feet in elevation, Juniper Butte dominates the landscape looking south from Culver. Though the climb up is a heart thumper, the 360-degree view from the top is spectacular to say the least.

If there is no snow at the top, it is a great winter hike with lots of solitude. Juniper Butte is covered by open stands of juniper trees, and trails are carved by cattle, not man. Near the western summit, you will find what appears to be an errant flying saucer. This device actually collects, stores, and dispenses water for resident wildlife. There is roughly a 900-foot elevation gain from my described parking area to the highest western summit.

The easiest way to the summit is from the more gently sloped south side of Juniper Butte. Here there is no path up and no private property/homes to deal with. You can pick one of two places to park and begin your hike based on what you visually decide is your best start point for your wander to the summit. With very basic precautions, this is a safe hike for the younger ones eager to be outside during this time of social isolation and limited schooling. There are so many educational aspects that can be discussed on this trip. History as mentioned below, the natural landscape, volcanoes, raptors above and so on.

From Highway 97, turn right on to Monroe Lane on the southeast side of Juniper Butte. One quarter of a mile along Monroe Lane will be a dirt road to your right. This is usually the road I go down, parking where it intersects an east/west dirt road. From here, wander roughly .8 miles in a northwesterly direction up to the saddle.

Another dirt road will be found a mile farther down Monroe. Taking either of these fairly level but rarely maintained dirt roads will get you a half mile closer to a parking point. In the past, I have not found these roads to be gated. Cattle are usually somewhere out in this area, do not disturb them. Park and begin your self-determined wander to the summit.

This will be a long, steady climb, so hopefully you brought water, sunscreen and snacks. A lunch at the top is wonderful. Realizing that summit means the highest point, I use the term "summit" loosely. On Juniper Butte, I see the summit as actually composed of three different high points. I found it surprising that there is so much easy to traverse land at the top, allowing you an easy half-mile hike between the three summits. Hiking to all three and back down to your vehicle will make this about a 3.5-mile hike. Google Earth the area around Juniper Butte to see an overview of the route. The views of the Cascades, Mt. Hood, Culver, Gray Butte and eastward are unobstructed. Bring binoculars and a camera.

Opal City historical notes: From the summit of Juniper Butte, looking to the south where the railroad tracks and irrigation canal separate from each other is an area once known as Opal Flats or Opal Prairie and was once the site of Opal City.

This area was homesteaded after the Culver area and lacked a good well or spring. Water was often brought up to the flats by homesteaders using buckets walking on deer trails and using ladders down the steep canyon to the Crooked River.

Opal City incorporated in 1909 in anticipation of the railroad's arrival as the rails were being laid from the up the Deschutes River canyon south towards Bend. The railroad created a large staging area here for the building of the railroad bridge across the Crooked River Gorge, 4 miles away. Opal City at its peak, having many wooden buildings and all of the town's streets named after precious stones, was mostly a tent city full of equipment, rail building materials and temporary housing for track and bridge workers.

Being almost entirely rough and lonely men, the town had many saloons and a red light district. There was a local school here and another school located east of Opal City where Highway 97 meets Norris Lane. The school's foundation remnants are still visible today.

Local homesteaders used the train depot for bringing in supplies, some passenger travel and sending out their wheat, other grains, stock and wool. Opal City had a large 1,600-foot-deep well and a water tower built by the railroad for supplying their steam locomotives. This much needed water was also sold to local residents. Land speculators and the railroad promoters here as in other parts of Central Oregon touted the area as a land of opportunity. Many area residents came from Yamhill, causing the area to be jokingly referred to as Yamhill Flats.

Within a short period of time, the bridge was completed, and the labor force moved on. A long drought and the Great Depression created hard times for the area's homesteaders who then gave up and moved away. Opal City faded away. The government bought back the land as sub-marginal and it is now private land or land managed by the 173,629-acre Crooked River National Grasslands. Any remnants of the city have been plowed under. Prior to the modern Highway 97 being built, the old Dalles/California Highway traveled around the west side of Juniper Butte and through Culver.

Driving from Madras: Drive south on Highway 97. Roughly 10.5 miles from the Y-junction south of Madras. As you come down off the eastern slope of Juniper Butte, on your right, the first paved road will be Monroe Lane. Turn right on to Monroe Lane. Drive one-quarter mile and turn right on to the first dirt road going directly north toward Juniper Butte.

Nearest store, Food, toilets: Either Culver, Metolius or Terrebonne are the nearest stores, restaurants and toilets. This is a bare-bones hike but one of my favorites. Pack a lunch to eat at the top while enjoying the view. You won't be sorry.

Difficulty: It is a steady moderate climb up. Best part is you can determine your own switchback route and resting points. The somewhat level summit area is not challenging at all.

You probably will not see another soul on this hike. Social distancing at its best! Enjoy.


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