Thursday, May 21, 2015

Don't forget the BIG TARP! Nine last-minute outdoor tips for Memorial Day weekend

The Owyhees near Leslie Gulch (courtesy WildOwyhee)
If you do go camping in the mountains, bring a big tarp! Party under the tarp! 
View toward Silver City from Toy Pass, near Oreana, Owyhee Mountains 
Camping on the big white sandy beaches on the Salmon river is deluxe! 
Lochsa River madness! 
Hi all,

Memorial Day weekend is upon us! Typically, Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the summer camping season, and I'm sure there will be tons of people heading into the high country this weekend to their favorite camping destination.

And, as often happens on Memorial Day weekend, the weather forecast this year calls for scattered rain showers in the mountains. Sixty percent chance Friday, 50 percent chance Saturday, and less chance Sunday and Monday. If you're heading into the mountains near Cascade, McCall, Idaho City, Stanley or Ketchum/Sun Valley, bring a BIG TARP! Make sure your tent is rain-worthy.

Looking south to the Owyhees, I see more favorable forecasts for the Grand View and Marsing areas in the front side of the Owyhees. I see a 40 percent chance of scattered showers Friday, 30 percent chance Sunday, and only 20 percent chance on Monday. Deeper in the desert, I see higher chances of rainfall in Jordan Valley, Oregon.

I see a similar forecast for Riggins, with a 60 percent chance of showers on Friday, 50 percent chance of thundershowers on Saturday, and 30 percent chance on Monday.

So here's some last-minute camping recommendations for Memorial Day weekend, tailored to the weather:

  • Camping in the Owyhees should be good, but be forewarned, the rattlesnakes are emerging. See my spring camping blog post from March ... places like Bruneau Dunes State Park, Leslie Gulch, Succor Creek State Park or the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area would all be good bets.
  • Morel mushrooms are popping in the Boise and Payette national forests. Morels are delicious and easy to identify. Look for them above 5,000-foot elevation. Take a day trip to Smith's Ferry, Cascade or McCall and hunt for morels. 
  • Salmon River beaches! A great spring camping location is on the HUGE white sandy beaches along the Salmon River, upstream of Riggins. There are numerous big beaches up there where you can set up a great camp, hang out by the river, do some floating on the Salmon and/or go hiking. The hike on the Wind River Trail via the Wind River Pack Bridge about 25 miles upstream of Riggins has a number of switchbacks as you climb higher and higher up the Salmon River canyon. The trail eventually leads into the Gospel Hump Wilderness, but you probably won't get that far. That'd be a great hike right now.
  • If you're in the Riggins area, the day hike up Rapid River is a sweet one. The trailhead is about two miles south of Riggins. 
  • Take a day hike on the front side of the Owyhees ... See my Owyhee Canyonlands guide, available at most outdoor stores and book stores. I'd recommend Little Jacks Creek, the West Fork Shoofly Quick Loop, Between the Creeks, Toy Pass hikes, Reynolds Creek, Wilson Creek, Jump Creek Canyon or Wildcat Canyon. The roads could be iffy depending on how much it rains, so exercise good judgment. 
  • Head up to the Lochsa River and go rafting on the biggest whitewater weekend of the year on the Lochsa.  
  • Stay home and hike/ride/run in the Boise Foothills - Trails are drying out pretty quick after the rain. Check on the Ridge to Rivers web site or Boise Foothills Trail Conditions page on Facebook to check on the latest trail conditions before you go. Stick to the sandy trails. 
  • Stay close to home and go for a road bike ride. See my Boise Road Cycling Guide for ideas. 
  • Stay close to home and check out the Memorial Day sales at your favorite local outdoor stores. Idaho Mountain Touring is having a tent sale (20-50% off), McU Sports is having a 20% sale, Boise REI is having a 30% sale, Sierra Trading Post is having a 40-80% sale, and I'm sure I'm overlooking some other sales.  
There you have it! Have a great weekend no matter what you do! 
- SS 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Capitalize on early snowmelt! Hit the rivers early, plan more trips in the mountains

Staircase isn't going to get huge this year, but the runoff is happening now! 
South Fork Boise is expected to turn on after Memorial Day weekend.
The Cabarton run won't have boatable flows until 2nd week of June ...  
Black Creek Rapids on the Salmon River. The Salmon is peaking early this year ... 
Hi all,

Unseasonably warm weather this spring is melting the mountain snowpack earlier than normal, which means that the higher-elevation backcountry trails will be opening up sooner than normal, and our whitewater rivers will peak sooner than normal ... in fact, some of them are peaking right now!

You've heard farmers talk about how everything is early this year -- early snowmelt, early planting, the onset of irrigation season, etc., etc. Everything is about a month ahead of normal. The same is true in the mountains. I was struck how quickly the snow was melting in the upper story of the mountains when I was up in Cascade and McCall last week. The snow level was about 7,000 feet.

Morels! Yum yum! 
And in case, you haven't heard, it's morel-picking season, too! All of the rain in the forecast in the coming weeks should prolong the morel season.

So this week's outdoor tip is a reminder that the early snowmelt offers an opportunity to squeeze in more camping, hiking, biking, backpacking, whitewater or flatwater boating trips than you might be able to do otherwise. Maximize on outdoor fun!

For river floaters, it's important to get out there and enjoy the rivers right now! Here are the latest conditions and forecasts:
  • Payette River - The South Fork is running about 2,000 cubic feet per second, with a 500 cfs bump from the Deadwood River. Good flows for the South Fork Canyon and Staircase section. The Middle Fork has already peaked, and it's at a great level right now for SUPs, IKs, small rafts, canoes and kayaks. Main Payette is 3,500 cfs at Banks, the equivalent of a typical summer flow. The North Fork Payette is running low right now, but it's expected to come up to 1,300 cfs or more by the mid-June. 
  • South Fork Boise River - The Bureau of Reclamation will ramp up the South Fork to 1,600-1,700 cfs after Memorial Day weekend.  
  • Salmon River - The Salmon is running about 25,000 cfs at Whitebird. It's probably not going to get much bigger unless it really rains hard in the next couple of weeks. The National Weather Service does predict an above-average chance of wet weather in the next 10-14 days. 
  • Middle Fork Salmon River - It's running at 4 feet at the moment, and expected to climb toward 5 feet next week, if they get more rain. The Middle Fork is expected to hit 2 feet on the gauge by mid-July. August trips will be rocky and low.  
  • Lochsa River - Recent wet weather brought the Lochsa up to 5+ feet on the gauge. Go get it while you can! There isn't much snow left in the Selway high country. 
See the USGS Idaho River Flows web site for all of the rivers statewide.  
Camping - Car-camping in the North Fork of the Boise River areas near Idaho City and in the Middle Fork of the Boise River areas is doable anytime. The Boise National Forest will be opening campgrounds in those areas next week prior to Memorial Day weekend. 

Car-camping in the Middle Fork Payette River area or in the Stolle Meadows area near Cascade is all free of snow and available for dispersed, self-support camping. Check with the Forest Service on full-service campgrounds. 

Most of the Lake Cascade State Park campgrounds are open now. Camping areas in Ponderosa State Park are still closed. Lower-elevation sites like Three Island Crossing and Bruneau Dunes State Park are great for spring camping, and day use sites like Eagle Island State Park and Thousand Springs are great places to visit, too!  

See the Idaho Statesman's roundup on campground openings, etc., from their camping guide published today. 

Nearby Forest Service trailheads - Lower-elevation trails are open now, such as Cottonwood Creek trail near Arrowrock Reservoir, Station Creek trail near Garden Valley, the One Spoon trail near Crouch, and the Eagle's Nest Trail near Cascade. Check with the local ranger district offices to check on trail conditions before you go.

In the Wood River Valley, the Croy Creek trails near Hailey are open, Greenhorn-Mahoney Loop is open, Adams Gulch trails are open, and higher-elevation trails are still closed. See the Blaine County Summer Trails Link for more information. Most trails in the Sawtooth Valley are still closed but there are a few exceptions near Redfish Lake.

In the McCall area, I've heard that the Bear Basin Trails, Payette Rim Trail and the Jug Mountain Trails are open. Trails in Ponderosa State Park are open as well. Higher-elevation trails are still closed by snow.

Looking ahead to June, you might want to plan some backpacking trips in the high country ... things should be melted out by then, and you can get a jump on your summer season!  

Have fun!
- SS 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Steens Mountain, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are a great spring camping destination

Kiger Gorge 
Steens Mountain from the Alvord Desert side by Mann Lake 
Here's Steve biking the Steens Mountain Loop road from our camp to Fish Lake C.G.
You can see that there's still some snow on the top of Steens Mountain. 
We camped in the meadow below the junipers off the loop road ... 
We had the place to ourselves ... very quiet all weekend
Hi all,

Wendy and I had a fun little spring camping trip over a three-day span to Steens Mountain and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last week, and I wanted to share some highlights from our trip for those who might want to visit this unique area in Eastern Oregon.

It had been more than 10 years since I'd last visited the Steens Mountain area, but it's a place I've visited from time to time since the early 1980s. When I used to live in La Grande, Oregon, way back in the day, working for the local newspaper there, we used to head down to the Steens Mountain-Malheur NWF area every spring to go birding, hiking, hot-springing and camping.

Nowadays, you also can bike the graveled Steens Mountain Loop Road (59 miles total distance), which climbs the north slope of Steens Mountain from Frenchglen and takes you to the very top of the mountain at nearly 10,000 feet and provides access to super-cool hiking or backpacking trips in a variety of canyons.

You also could bring your road bike and cruise around the Malheur NWF on paved roads or ride from Frenchglen to Burns or vice-versa, if you're so inclined. Since I'm training for the Lyle Pearson 200 in late May, I decided to crank out the 60-mile route from Frenchglen to Burns, and really enjoyed it -- mainly because I didn't have a bad headwind. : - )

Camping - Page Springs Campground is a beautiful spot in the springtime near Frenchglen, Oregon. I was expecting to camp there for our trip, but then they opened the Steens Mountain Loop Road before we arrived, so we were able to find a cool meadow to camp in near the loop road about six miles from Frenchglen. We brought all the stuff we needed for self-support car camping. There's also cool digs at Fish Lake Campground and Jackman Park (higher-elevation sites).

Steens Mountain Loop Road 
The Frenchglen Hotel has a limited number of rooms, if you'd prefer to stay in a cozy bed. Make your reservations well in advance. The hotel is popular with birders and fills up quickly.

Birding - Wendy is an expert birder -- in case you didn't know. She identified 72 species in the three days we visited last week. Because of the drought that has gripped Southeast Oregon for several years in a row, Malheur Lake was VERY LOW, so the birding was not nearly as good as it could have been. Malheur NWR was established in 1908 as an important venue for nesting and migratory birds. You can thank Teddy Roosevelt for preserving the area. At this time of year, there were a number of shorebirds frequenting the area, a diversity of ducks, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, songbirds and much more. The refuge reportedly supports between 5 and 66 percent of the migratory waterfowl species in the Pacific Flyway. One of Wendy's favorite sightings last weekend was the American avocet. If you go, I'd recommend visiting the Malheur NWR headquarters, about 30 miles south of Burns, and see what refuge officials recommend as to the best locations to observe birds. It's hard to know when the lake has receded so far below its full level.

Hiking - There's a nice trail that follows the Blitzen River for about four miles (one-way) from Page Springs Campground. That's an easily accessible trail close to Frenchglen. It is a fairly rocky trail, and as of last weekend, people were seeing rattlesnakes along the way. I decided to skip the trail so my dog Huck didn't get zapped. Farther up on Steens Mountain, there are multiple hikes to consider. See the Less Traveled Northwest web site to see specific hiking recommendations ... many of them are short trails that start and finish on the Steens Mountain Loop road.

Biking the Steens Mountain Loop Road - The gravel road grinder-type rides are getting more and more popular these days, and the Steens Mountain Loop road is a well-compacted gravel road for almost 60 miles with lots of elevation gain from Page Springs (4,500 feet) to the Steens Mountain summit (nearly 10,000 feet). I rode a portion of the loop road to the Fish Lake Campground with a cross-biker from Portland, and really enjoyed it. To do the full loop road route, I'd recommend riding it over several days and camping along the way with vehicle support or carrying bike-packing equipment.

Hot springs - Back in my La Grande days, we used to hit Alvord Hot Springs all the time on the Alvord Desert side (southeast side) of Steens Mountain. It's an old tin shack with a nice, hot, deep pool. Since those days, Alvord Hot Springs has been commercialized by the property owners to maintain order. The day fee is only $5. You can camp there, too, if you want. There's also a hot springs on Hart Mountain, about an hour from Frenchglen.

Pete French Round Barn
Roof construction 
Inside the Round Barn ... they kept the horses inside in stables, and then
worked on breaking them in the outer loop of the barn. 
Round Barn - Harney County cattle king Pete French built several large round barns with his men in the early days to break and train horses for use in his big ranching operation. One of the barns is still standing near Diamond, Oregon, north of Frenchglen, and it's quite the masterpiece of construction. Worth the visit, I thought.

- SS