Exploring old mines in the Ochocos

Taking in these abandoned sites is worth the trip east of Prineville

“There's your lead, right there,” Map Guy said as we hurtled down Forest Road 42 in the Ochocos. I was driving, and started looking around to see what the heck he might be referring to. We'd just visited the Mother Lode and Independent mines, and were en route to nearby Blue Ridge mine.

It was a pretty day in a gorgeous wooded setting, and I soon realized he was referring to what I'd just said — something to the effect of, “Is it ever a mistake when you go to the Ochocos for an outing?”

I was implying, of course, that it's never a mistake. We sure as heck didn't feel we'd made any mistakes when we drove east to Prineville, and then east some more on Forest Road 42 en route to the enchanting ruins of several cinnabar mines that were in use in the early 1900s.

Business slowed by the 1950s, and the mines closed.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking cinnabar sounds like a delicious pastry. Indeed, it sounds like something every diet book in the world would reach out and knock from your trembling hand, but — ha ha! — books don't have arms, or hands.

Anyway, I wouldn't try eating anything called cinnabar because cinnabar is the ore from which mercury is extracted through heating in ovens. (Wait. Ovens? Are we really sure we can't eat the stuff?)

Our first stop was the Independent Mine, about a half-mile drive up the very unpaved Road 4205. Well, it felt very unpaved in my rig, and by “rig” I mean minivan. The dilapidated buildings are down below the road on the left, and there are plenty of places to park. The trail to the mine is just off the Baneberry Nature Trail.

I'd last visited the mine more than three summers ago with my kids, and the smattering of ruined buildings around the grounds hadn't exactly been restored in the interim. Where's a preservation society when you need one? As I waxed nostalgic in my head, Map Guy saw fit to yell “Snake!” right as we hiked on a narrow bit of trail surrounded with dense vegetation that, for all I could see, it could have been teeming with all manner of serpents.

There was no snake, of course, but I did an inexpert judo leap approximately 37 feet in the air, fully prepared to land on a giant pair of waiting fangs.

I'll never get what's funny about fooling someone about something so plausible: “Oh, look! There's a cougar making off with your baby! Haw haw haw.”

I told Map Guy as much, but he was too busy laughing at me to deconstruct humor. We spread out, snapping photos and taking in the signs of man, including the ones telling us to keep out that were screwed to the crumbling edifices. Whenever Map Guy walked out of my sight, I did my loudest cougar hiss. It didn't fool him, nor did my elephant impression.

The U.S. Forest Service and other government agencies have cleaned up the worst environmental threats (i.e., mercury contamination) at these mining sites, The Bulletin has previously reported. For hikers and other recreational visitors to Ochoco National Forest, the amount of mercury (a neurotoxin) around the old mines shouldn't pose a health concern.

Good thing, because Mother Lode was our next stop. We drove higher up the hill, passing an encampment of a large group of people, who happened to be sitting in a circle like so many Druids around Stonehenge as we drove by gawking.

Map Guy, the old hippie, assumed it was a Rainbow Gathering and begged me to stop, but we had places to go.

We parked below towering pines at the road's terminus, and set out on foot straight ahead. Before long, we arrived at an oven that looked as if it recently had its metal roof replaced. The rusty remains of the old sheets lay to the side of the concrete apron around the building. Map Guy was mad at the apparent restoration effort, even as he wished he could haul off the old roof materials.

Mother Lode was still ahead, and we explored the outside of the three-story building. Cleaned up or not, there's still a lot of rusting parts, including a rusted old auger Map Guy theorized someone tried to haul off.

Map Guy is very fond of a certain kind of plentiful rock lying all around Independent and Mother Lode, which he referred to as “Prineville bloodstone” because of the red lacing through the otherwise boring rock. He was like a rockhound, exclaiming “bloodstone!” every time he found one.

According to websites like www.photographoregon.com at least some of the many old mines in the Ochocos reside on private property, but these two, plus our final stop, Blue Ridge Mine, located along the left side of the road just a few miles east on 42, are all safe bets — at least as long as you stay outside of them and don't eat the cinnabar.

We didn't linger at Blue Ridge for long. There was a lot of garbage lying around outside the concrete buildings, including hygiene items people should have disposed of properly. Map Guy said the place had “bad karma,” and I kind of knew what he meant, even though I'm not a hippie.

A few days later, I googled images of cinnabar, and sure enough, the results resembled Map Guy's preferred stone. I was looking at pictures of rocks with red streaks running through them. Can you see where I'm going with this?

I emailed him a link to the Wikipedia page for cinnabar, instructing him to look at the photo there. Minutes later, I received his one-word reply:

“BLOODSTONE!”