Sometimes names can be deceiving.
When I read about a hike in the Black Canyon Wilderness, I envisioned a deep gorge with steep cliffs towering above, casting a rugged trail into an eerie darkness. Little did I know the hike would be all wildflowers, sunshine and babbling brooks.
Frankly, it was a little like buying a ticket for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie expecting “The Terminator” and getting “Kindergarten Cop.”
Nonetheless, the Black Canyon Trail is a thoroughly enjoyable hike that can be scaled to almost any interest, from a short stroll to an overnight backpacking trip.
Most people enter the canyon from the eastern end at the South Fork John Day River. But an initial river crossing can be tricky early in the season, and with this year's record snow levels, I was reluctant to try. But hiking guru William Sullivan in his Eastern Oregon hiking guide suggests a back-door entrance to the canyon, from Boeing Field, just east of Mitchell.
The broad open meadow takes its name from the crash of a B-18 bomber during World War II, in which four servicemen perished. The hike starts at a trail sign in the middle of the field resplendent with wildflowers this month. The blooms — mostly yellow balsamroot, Indian paintbrush and purple larkspur — are so thick in places, it's hard to find the trail. Keep heading due east, however, and you're bound to pick it up again.
From the field, a spur trail descends through the remnants of a forest fire to Owl Creek, and after an easy crossing, climbs slightly to an intersection with the Black Canyon Trail. Turn left (north) and follow the easy trail as it tracks Owl Creek.
The route drops about 1,200 feet in elevation over the next two miles, passing through a Douglas fir forest and tall green cornlilly plants. The descent never feels steep, though I can't say the same for the return. About 11⁄2 miles in, there's an easily accessed campsite on the opposite side of the river, if you're looking for an overnight site. A few large trees block the route, but the detours are easy to find.
The trail crosses Owl Creek and, shortly thereafter, Black Canyon Creek for the first of at least seven crossings. Once on the other side of the creek, you get the sense of the size of the canyon for the first time.
Although the cleft in the land here is a thousand feet deep, the slopes on each side rise gently, finishing in rolling hills dotted by snags. What it lacks in grandeur, it makes up for with pastoral beauty.
The path splits from the creek here, taking a high traverse across the northern slope of the canyon for another mile and a half, while the creek flows down the lush, green bottom of the divide. The trail here is somewhat rocky and in places the high vegetation makes it difficult to see where you're placing your foot.
After nearly four miles from the trailhead, the path crosses Black Canyon Creek again, requiring some fancy footwork over logs and rocks to keep your feet dry.
The second crossing is a good spot for a rest and a snack, and enough of a destination to feel that you can turn around and head back. If you care to venture on, the trail meanders back and forth across the creek another five times over the next mile.
According to Sullivan, the path then stays on the north side of the creek for more than four miles. Then it begins to jump back and forth across the river with another 10 get-your-feet-wet crossings in the final two miles before reaching the difficult river crossing at the South Fork John Day River.
I decided I had gone far enough and returned, meeting a pair of mushroom pickers on my way back.
“Seen any morels?” they asked me. I replied that I hadn't, but then I hadn't really been looking.
I guess despite its ill-fitting name, Black Canyon managed to keep my attention after all.