Ascent of Rock Creek Butte on 2004-07-24

Climber: Edward Earl

Date:Saturday, July 24, 2004
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Hi-Clearance Vehicle
Peak:Rock Creek Butte
    Elevation:9106 ft / 2775 m

Ascent Trip Report

Rock Creek Butte is the fifth most prominent peak in OR, and the most prominent peak in that state that is not a county HP. On a recent foray to northeast OR, I took the opportunity to bag it.

Located about 10 miles west of Baker City, Rock Creek Butte is the high point of a high NW to SE trending ridge, and the 22 mile long Elkhorn Crest National Scenic Trail runs the length of this ridge. The trail keeps close to the crest for most of its length, but it does not go over the summit of Rock Creek Butte; however, it goes high enough around the SW shoulder to afford a close approach, leaving a class 1 scramble up the final 750 feet elevation as the only off-trail portion. A couple of weeks before I climbed the peak, Bob Packard climbed it starting at the southern terminus of the trail. This was not an option for me because he needed 4WD to get to the trail head, whereas I had only a tiny cheapo economy Chevy which could not have negotiated the road.

There is, however, no shortage of feeder trails to the Elkhorn Crest Trail, including as many as three from the south side alone. I first decided to check out the Twin Lakes Trail, but that possibility was soon ruled out by a locked gate across the approach road with a No Trespassing sign citing mining claims. (I'm sure I was on the right road, Forest Road 030, because it was signed and matched the Forest Service map.) Of the remaining two approaches, one was from a place called Bourne, which appears from the topo map as if it is probably a mining encampment. The topo map showed what was probably an overgrown 4WD road/trail from Bourne up to the crest, but the Forest Service map showed no such link, and because of my recent experience with mining areas, I decided to investigate the remaining possibility, the Pole Creek Ridge Trail.

A few tenths of a mile NW of Sumpter on FR 51 is an intersection with a wide, smooth, well-graded gravel road heading north. The Forest Service map identifies it as county road 533, but in the field it is signed only as leading 6 miles to Bourne. I turned up this road, and after 2.3 miles a sign indicates FR 5536 on the right and that Pole Creek Ridge TH is 5 miles this way. The road is very narrow (passing another vehicle coming the other way would in many places require one of you to back up), but the surface is not too bad and is easily negotiable by any street legal vehicle. After 2.3 miles on FR 5536, it splits; straight ahead it dead-ends after a short distance at a turnaround loop; the correct way is a sharp switchback up a steep hill to the left. The road later changes its designation to FR170. After about 4½ miles from the county road, FR170 gets steep and rocky at times but is still negotiable by a low clearance passenger car. At 5.2 miles from the county road is an intersection with FR200, which is 4WD and climbs steeply to the right; FR170 continues straight ahead but is then immediately blocked by a barbed wire gate. Though the gate was not locked and could be opened by unhooking a loop of wire, the road beyond was overgrown, so I decided to continue on foot from here.

The topo maps I had with me didn't include the exact point where I was, so I had to guess whether to follow FR170 or FR200. I chose FR200, which immediately gained the crest of the ridge and then continued to climb farther up the ridge, usually following the crest but occasionally dipping to one side. I could occasionally see the main ridge (which harbored the Elkhorn Crest Trail) about a mile in front of me. After about 20 minutes, FR200 faded away and after just a minute or two of cross-country travel, I intercepted a trail, which I presumed to be the Pole Creek Ridge Trail. I continued up the ridge on the trail, which faded and and reappeared a couple of times and, after about 20 minutes, gained the Elkhorn Crest Trail at 8100 feet at a signed junction.

I headed SE on the crest trail as it climbed gradually toward Rock Creek Butte. After 2 miles it rounded the SW ridge of Rock Creek Butte at the 8350-foot level, whence I left the trail and scrambled amid small scattered evergreens to the summit.

I estimate the stats for the hike at 9 miles round trip, 2500' elevation gain. Starting point is about 6800', summit is 9106', and I estimate 100' of drop and regain each way.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3706 ft / 1129 m
    Extra Gain:300 ft / 91 m
    Route:Elkhorn Crest Trail
    Trailhead:Pole Creek Ridge  6000 ft / 1828 m
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country
Ascent Statistics
    Time:2 Hours 45 Minutes

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