Southern Blue Mountains Hikes

Location Map of Southern Blue Mountains Hikes
Hikers' use of the Southern Blues is a paradox. They are one of the most diverse and interesting landscapes in Northeast Oregon — with glaciated alpine mountains, dramatic river canyons and remote roadless areas — yet most hiking activity is confined to just two sites: the Anthony Lakes Recreation Area and the east North Fork John Day River Trail. Both sites are served by good paved highways, fine campgrounds and well-built trails, plus their natural beauty fully justifies their popularity. But other less-visited hiking sites have equal or greater appeal and are accessible with just a bit more effort and planning.

The Southern Blues consists of two primary mountain ranges, the Elkhorn and Greenhorn Mountains, which are headwaters for the three forks of the John Day River. Both mountain ranges were uplifted some 150 million years ago by massive granite batholiths that invaded older, overlying terranes of mixed sedimentary rock. Starting 2 million years ago, these uplifted ranges were then carved by Ice Age glaciers into the spectacular alpine cirques, U-shaped valleys and rounded granite topography seen today.

Download (PDF, 467 KB): Location Map of Southern Blue Mountains Hikes
Download (PDF, 772 KB): Photos of the Southern Blue Mountains

This geology also led to the historical mining activity of the last 150 years. When the granitic magma cooled, various minerals formed along the contact zone with the older sedimentary rock and gold and silver collected in the granite's quartz veins. Starting in the 1860s, hard rock mining came to the Southern Blues, which led to boomtowns, roads, railroads, hydro-electric developments and placer diggings. While some areas were ruined entirely for today's recreational users, others are accessible today only due to the remote mining roads. Also, the remnant mining towns of Granite and Sumpter conveniently provide gas, groceries and supplies for today's travelers.

  • Killamacue Lake Trail
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While day hikes at the Anthony Lakes Recreation Area and the east North Fork John Day River Trail have appeal, these routes can see 30-60 hiking groups per month during the summer season. For those seeking greater solitude and wilderness experience, we feature the following nine hikes in the Southern Blues. These routes may require more trip planning, longer drives on rugged roads and camping at more remote sites, but their natural attractions rival anything found at the more popular destinations.

Elkhorn Range Hikes
The Elkhorns are the showcase of the Southern Blues, with glaciated alpine basins above 7,000' and steep, ice-sculpted peaks rising over 9,000'. The price of this glorious scenery for the day hiker, though, is often strenuous uphill ascents. The 3.5-mile trail to Twin Lakes gains over 2,000', while the 3-mile route to Killamacue Lake climbs over 1,800'. The 2.2-mile Baldy Lake Trail is more moderate, rising and falling only a few hundred feet, but requires a 5-mile drive on a steep, rugged high-clearance road. Finally, the La Grande Watershed hike is less taxing and easily accessed, but should be avoided after the start of bowhunting season in early September.

Twin Lakes Trail
Baldy Lake Trail
Killamacue Lake Trail
La Grande Watershed Hike

Greenhorn Range Hikes
Less visited are the Greenhorn Mountains, a 20-mile long ridge of glaciated granite and mixed sedimentary rock that rises more than 8,000' between the Middle and North Forks of the John Day River. Nearly 38,000 acres of this scenic area were burned in the destructive Summit Fire of 1996, but a few sections were spared. The 3.7-mile ridge hike to Boulder Butte, which was not burned, offers some of the best views in the Blue Mountains. Likewise, the 3.6-mile hike up the South Fork Desolation Creek canyon passes through pristine, unburned and unlogged forests for most of its length.

Boulder Butte Hike
South Fork Desolation Creek Trail

North Fork John Day River Hikes
With spawning grounds for salmon and steelhead as well as endangered trout, the North Fork John Day River is protected, both as wilderness and as a wild-and-scenic river. Most hikers access its 24.6-mile river trail from the east, as it's just off a paved highway. But the west end, though more remote and requiring a longer drive on a dirt road, is just as beautiful with a good chance for solitude. Our 2.5-mile overlook hike offers vistas over the North Fork John Day Wilderness from a less-traveled but easy hiking trail. Finally, the scenic, well-built 3.5-mile Granite Creek Trail descends down a tributary stream into the heart of the river wilderness.

North Fork John Day River Trail - West
Wilderness Overlook Hike
Granite Creek Trail

Clickable map of Southern Blue Mountains hikes:

Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map Southern Blue Mtns Clickable Map

Page last updated: 11/15/13