South Fork Desolation Creek Trail

Hike Rating: Moderate
Hike Length: 7.2 miles roundtrip (variable)
Elevation Gain: 635’
Trailhead Elevation: 5,380’
Best Season: June through September
Driving Access: Any vehicle

Plus Points
• A cow-free hike through pristine, unlogged forests in a U-shaped, glaciated canyon
• South Fork Desolation Creek is a perennial stream, with strong flow into late summer
• Uncommon stands of Engelmann spruce at start and old-growth larch higher up
• Striking granite knobs, 300'-400' high, rise above the stream in mid-canyon
• Nice viewpoint with vistas of the rugged, rocky upper basin, which burned in 1996
• Excellent road access to the trailhead on good gravel roads

Minus Points
• Trail is poorly-graded in spots, climbing and descending for no apparent reason
• Trail is not maintained every year, so one may encounter a few deadfall trees

Download (PDF, 861 KB): Photos of South Fork Desolation Creek Trail
Download (PDF, 817 KB): Topo Map for South Fork Desolation Creek Trail
Download (PDF, 657 KB): Road Map for South Fork Desolation Creek Trail

Trail Notes
Map of South Fork Desolation Creek Trail
From the trailhead on Road 45, about 100 yards east of the creek, the trail winds along benches away from the creek, through stands of evenly-spaced lodgepole pine, until descending to creekside at 0.8 miles. Look for stands of large Englemann spruce here along the west side of the stream. For the next 1.7 miles, the trail traverses granite benches away from and above the stream, through thick stands of old-growth larch and grand fir. At 2.5 miles, the trail meets the stream a second time, on a wide grassy flat under huge firs. Here one encounters the first of several 300'-400' high granite knobs that rise in the middle of the canyon, diverting the stream around them in small waterfalls.

From the creekside flat, the trail climbs up the hillside away from the stream again, up around the granite knobs, until finally topping out above the knobs at 3.2 miles. Here one has panoramic vistas of Squaw Rock, Greenhorn Ridge and the upper basin to the south, all of which burned in the 1996 Summit Fire. The fire killed most of the trees in this upper basin, but it opened up the landscape for great views of the rugged and rocky terrain. Look for glacial polish and a few glacial erratics at this granite viewpoint.

From the viewpoint, the trail descends for 0.4 miles through regenerating lodgepole pine to streamside for a third time. Here one finds the cold, clear creek and a few shade trees along the grassy stream bank, plus wildflowers into late summer. It's a nice spot for lunch and a hike destination, with wide views of the open rocky ridges overhead, despite the burned but recovering landscape.

Road to Trailhead
From Forest Road 10, about 6 driving miles west of the Olive Lake Campground, turn south onto Road 45 at an unsigned junction. Drive 1.0 miles south on Road 45 to the trailhead on the left, at a bulletin board flanked by pole fencing. This trailhead is easily accessible by any passenger car. A Northwest Forest Pass is required at the trailhead.

Camping Options
The nearest developed campground is the USFS Olive Lake Campground, about 7 driving miles east of the trailhead on gravel Road 10. This is a popular recreation area, with 28 sites for any type of camping setup, spread out on the hillside east of the lake. It has 7 vault toilets, a boat ramp and two docks, plus tables and fire rings at most campsites. There is no drinking water or garbage pickup, but it does have a camp host in summer. Fees were $12.00 per night in 2013.

For dispersed camping, with one's own water and sanitation, there are several sites just 100 yards west of the trailhead, where Road 45 crosses South Fork Desolation Creek. Under large firs on the floodplain east of the creek, there are 2-3 sites with tables and fire rings that will accommodate most any camping setup, from small tents to large trailers.

Other dispersed sites can be found at Desolation Meadows, about 3 driving miles east of the trailhead on Road 10, near the old guard station. On spur roads north off Road 10 are camping spots in the trees, with other sites found south of Road 10, on spur roads leading into the big meadow. Be sure these spur roads are dry before driving off the gravel road.

Agency Contact: Umatilla National Forest, North Fork John Day District, (541) 427-3231

DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, but the authors do not guarantee that it is either current or correct. The reader assumes full responsibility for any use of this information, and is encouraged to contact local public land agencies to inquire about current conditions before traveling.

Page last updated: 11/18/13