Heart of Darkness — Friends of the Ochocos

📘 Fastpacking

Note from Aaron: This is an archive of an article that previously appeared on the Friends of the Ochocos website which is now offline. The article can be found on archive.org here. You can read about my backpacking trip on this route here: Trip report - 2022-07-03 Heart of Darkness Fastpack and read my route guide with mileage, water sources, and other information: Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness — Friends of the Ochocos

Do you prefer following elk tracks instead of footprints? Do you often
seek the off-the-beaten path type of adventure? If you prefer coyote
howls and dark starry skies over campgrounds and crowds, you will love
the Heart of Darkness Loop in the Ochoco Mountains! This loop offers a
rugged and breathtaking 39 miles of backpacking through some of eastern
Oregon’s most remote and scenic landscapes. This strenuous hike is full
of adventure and inspiration and offers a unique alternative to the
often over crowded trails plaguing central Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.
For those seeking adventure and solitude, this is the place to go within
a few hours of Bend.

Lace up, and get ready for adventure!

Note: Heart of Darkness is the unofficial name for a series of Forest
Service trails. You will not see signs for Heart of Darkness - read the
description below for trail names.

Day 1


Description: From the trailhead at Rock Creek, the trail drops 0.4
miles down into Rock Creek, where it crosses a sturdy footbridge onto
the north bank. For the next two miles, the trail parallels the north
bank, staying 10’-50’ above the stream. Pure stands of larch are on the
moister, north-facing slopes, with mature ponderosas on the drier, south
slopes and lodgepoles and willows along the stream.

At 2.4 miles, a small interpretive sign announces the Waterman Ditch, a
now defunct diversion of Rock Creek that was contoured around the
hillsides in the 1890’s to reach a gold mining district ten miles away
near Spanish Peak to the north.

The trail then follows this old mining ditch on a level grade for 1.4
miles to Fir Tree Creek. In this section of trail, there are great views
up and down the canyon. After crossing fir tree creek, the trail goes
back downstream along the creek on the other side.There are the remains
of an old log cabin built by the miners.

The trail continues for another 2.5 miles. You cross Second creek, then
First creek. About ¼ mile after crossing First creek, you will see a
sign on a tree that says Rock Creek Trail #823 at around the 7 mile
mark. If you look to the east, there is a small hidden sign in the
forest that indicates the branching off to the Rim Trail #822. The
trail is not visible at this junction.

If you continue past this junction about 100 feet, you will see a
slightly impacted camp site in a lovely grove of old growth pines with a
fire ring. If you start to descend down from the saddle past this camp,
you’ve gone too far.

Day 2

Rock Creek over to Cottonwood Creek


This is a tough day, but full of rewards. The long miles are necessary
in order to camp at the next available water source. There are a couple
of variations listed below to shorten this hiking day, but you would
need to hike with extra water to dry camp or stash water beforehand at
certain points that are indicated.

Leaving your beautiful camp on the saddle above Rock Creek Drainage, you
start the gradual climb up Spanish Peak with stunning views in all
directions. From camp, the trail is difficult to find and overgrown for
the first couple of miles. You want to track south from the camp nearly
getting back into First creek drainage and start the climb uphill from
there. If you lose the trail, keep making your way gradually up through
the open stringers of prairies and it will become very obviously marked
with huge cairns through open prairie after a couple of miles.

The trail will circumnavigate around the summit of Spanish peak to the
south, taking you through fir and pine forests and natural springs. At
~4 miles in, you walk through an incredibly unique ecosystem that is
transitioning from fir forest into a mahogany field with abundant
wildlife and plant diversity. Worth taking a lunch break here and taking
in the scene.

At ~5 miles you will come to the Spanish Peak road and a find sign
stating Ochoco Mountains Trail #823 and a sign for Cottonwood Trailhead
in 11 miles. Shortly after starting in on this trail, you will find
another sign indicating the Rim Trail #822. The Rim Trail #822 and the
Ochoco Mountains Trail #823 are often used interchangeably on the
signs, but they are one in the same. The OMT#823 continues along a
forested rim gradually descending for about 3 miles before crossing the
John Day Basin road at 8 miles.

Another 2 miles and some steep descents will bring you to Buck Creek,
the first water source since leaving First Creek in the Rock Creek
drainage. There are peaking views of the Black Canyon along these two
miles, and an overall increase in disturbance from cows grazing on
public lands. Continue to gradually descent another 2.5 miles to
Cottonwood Creek. The scenery changes from more scablands to forested
while along cottonwood drainage. You climb from here 1 mile up the trail
before you cross Tin Cup Spring/creek. Here you will see an old
dispersed camp site adjacent to the trail with an overgrown fire ring.
It makes for a nice camp after a very, very long day.

Alternative campsites to shorten day:

Day 3

Cottonwood Creek into Black Canyon Wilderness


From the campsite along Tin Cup Spring, you gradually climb for ~2 miles
to the Cottonwood Trailhead. From there you cross the 38 road and start
your descent on the Payten Trail #820D to Big Ford and the Black Canyon
Trail. Payten Trail steeply descends into the Payten Creek drainage
through sections of grassy ponderosa pine forest and dense mixed conifer
forest. There are periodic large old growth pines dotting the trails as
you descend into a rugged wilderness area. You hit the Black Canyon
Wilderness boundary at approx 1 ½ miles. You hit a series of switchbacks
that descent and connect with Black Canyon Trail #820. Continue up the
Black Canyon trail .2 miles to the South Prong Trail #821. Just past
this site there is an open meadow below the trail adjacent to Black
Canyon Creek in an old growth pine grove that makes an excellent camp in
a truly remote and rugged wilderness.

Day 4

Black Canyon Wilderness to Boeing field


The trail stays high above Black Canyon Creek for the first part of the
day. About 1 mile in there is the intersection of Kelsey TH (although
not visible). After this, the trail drops closer toward Black Canyon
Creek and goes up and down around natural springs and lush and thick
understory for another 3 miles until you hit the Coffee Pot trailhead
junction. This is obviously marked with white diamonds on the trees.

You cross Black Canyon Creek a couple times during this stretch, and the
riparian areas offer a nice respite from the dry day of hiking the day
before. Hiking through this section of Black Canyon Wilderness, you
experience various stages of the forest post wildfire. Some areas have
burned more recently than others, and you see the varying levels of
succession and early seral species, abundant understory, snags used as
nesting cavities. There is downed logs in the stream creating fish
habitat and in general lots of sign of wildlife. It’s a very interesting
and beautiful hike.

You continue to gradually climb for another 2 miles and wrap around to
the SW along Owl Creek until you reach a section of the wilderness that
is more intensely burned. You will hit a trail junction with Owl Creek
Trail #820A and follow that for .5 miles to the Boeing Field TH and
edge of the Black Canyon Wilderness. You can walk the 5810 road north
 until the junction of the 38 road. Take the 38 road and head west until
you get back to the Rock Creek Trailhead after about 4.3 miles on road.
If you bring two vehicles out, I would stash one at the Boeing Field
trailhead and avoid the road walk at the end of the trip.

From Prineville, OR:

Follow Highway 380 past Paulina for 58.7 miles. Turn left onto Beaver
Creek Road and follow for 7.5 miles. Merge onto forest road 42 for 1.5
miles, merge onto forest road 3810 for 6.5 miles to forest road 38. Turn
right, follow forest road 38 for 3.5 miles to the well marked Rock Creek
Trailhead on the left.