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Heart of Darkness loop fastpack

The Heart of Darkness loop is a 40-ish mile loop located in the eastern end of the Ochoco Mountains in central Oregon. It’s a remote area that sees relatively little trail use, but that’s a shame – it’s the quintessential Ochoco experience: Big pines, open meadows, exposed peaks, and deep canyons are the theme throughout the Ochoco range.

I did this loop in early July 2022 following a cool and wet spring. It was very green and the wildflowers were in full bloom. There were no ticks or mosquitos to speak of and there was plenty of water on the loop. I really couldn’t ask for better conditions.

The loop is very challenging and the elevation profile is only part of the challenge. Poor footing is nearly constant on many parts of the loop and navigation gets progressively more difficult as the loop goes on. I’ll talk about trail conditions specifically later, but for now suffice to say that a couple of these trails are in dire need of maintenance before they disappear altogether.

Day 1 – Rock Creek Trailhead to Tin Cup Creek, 25 miles

I began at the Rock Creek trailhead, descending to the creek and following it downstream. This first 7 miles may be my favorite of the whole loop. Rock Creek canyon is beautiful and dramatic. The trail is fairly well-worn (for this remote area) and there is plenty of water along this stretch. First Creek, at approximately mile 7, is probably intermittent but had water at this time of year. There is no reliable water after this until Back Creek 11 miles further (plus 3 if you summit Spanish Peak like I did), but there were some trickles along the way at the time I went through.

After crossing First Creek, there’s a sharp right turn marked with a couple stones on a log, even though it looks like the main trail continues straight (I think it goes to a campsite). See third picture above. There is NOT a sign as the Friends of the Ochocos site indicates. At this point the trail is less obvious but not too hard to follow. It goes uphill – steeply at first – into some open grassy areas and toward Spanish Peak.

The grassy areas are mostly well-marked with large rock cairns or white blazes. But markings can be inconsistent. Don’t try this loop without a GPS track.

There’s a dirt road leading to the top of Spanish Peak. I highly recommend dropping pack and visiting the summit, which has dramatic and expansive views to the north (all directions, really) if you can swing the longer water carry.

After the Spanish Peak road, the trail fades in and out. There are white blazes on the trees, but they are inconsistent. I lost the trail at one point and used GPS to get back.

Anytime the trail is in a grassy area, it’s also littered with fist-sized rocks, making footing difficult. There are lots of cattle tracks in places.

I finished the day by crossing Cottonwood Creek and going about a mile uphill to the campsite at Tin Cup Creek, which is adjacent to the trail.

Day 2 – Tin Cup Creek to Rock Creek Trailhead, 18 miles

I got up (always a good sign), packed, and left Tin Cup camp and followed the trail uphill to the Cottonwood / Payton trailhead. This section of trail was easy to follow but was fairly steep uphill. The Payton Trail, descending into the Black Canyon Wilderness, was another story.

The Payton Trail starts innocently enough but soon plunges downhill. Footing is very difficult and the trail is starting to get brushy. The bottom mile or so is grassy. I was very lucky that someone appeared to have come through the trail a day or two before me, so the grass was bent and I was able to find a couple rock cairns for navigation. I did completely lose the trail at the very bottom and had to use GPS to find the Black Canyon trail junction.

I was glad to see the end of the Payton Trail, but the Black Canyon Trail took things to the next level.

The first four miles of the Black Canyon Trail are mostly overgrown. At times the trail can be followed, but I found myself off-trail a handful of times and reliant on GPS to get back on track. There was snowbrush taller than me that I had to plunge into to follow the trail. Much of my navigation was done by finding cut logs, indicating trail maintenance at some point in the past. This section was very slow and difficult.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that if the Black Canyon Trail doesn’t receive some good maintenance soon it will just disappear. It may need to be rerouted in some places to avoid being quickly overgrown in the future. While we’re at it, let’s give the Payton Trail some love too, and maybe consider adding blazes to both trails if it’s legal in the wilderness area.

(I wonder if these trails would be easier to follow in the fall).

Fortunately, when I reached the intersection with the Coffee Pot Trail, things improved drastically. From this point, the Black Canyon Trail is well cleared and has a great surface. The loop ends on the Owl Creek trail, which is fine but rougher.

To return to the car, I did a 4 mile road run from Boeing Field Trailhead back to Rock Creek Trailhead. After the challenges of the last two days it felt good to get some easy smooth miles in. Rock Creek parallels the road along much of this section.

This loop was tougher than I expected, and I don’t know that a fastpack / running focus is the right way to experience it. It’s just generally not very runnable. But this is a beautiful and remote area that many people miss, and I think it’s worth visiting.

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