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  • Writer's pictureScott Nechemias

Queen for a Day - Clarno to North Pole Ridge

Updated: Mar 7, 2021

If you look at the above picture and think to yourself "I'd like to run those rapids in a flat bottomed steam wheel wood fired ferry boat" you and Charlie Clarno would have gotten along famously. This is what took place in 1899 when Charlie Clarno's plan to float the John Day to the Columbia and eventually Portland on the John Day Queen came to a predictably ruinous result. Today at the site of the Queen's ferry crossing, a task for which she was better suited, is the bridge where Highway 218 crosses the river. A boat launch where more capable craft run the downstream rapids serves those who adventure by water, and a narrow strip of public land can be navigated up to North Pole Ridge.

North Pole Ridge is not in the North Pole Ridge Wilderness Study Area, nor is it entirely on public land, It's northern end and highest prominence is a formation named Chinaman Hat, and the nearby Black Rock keeps it company. The high plateau gets enough snow in the winter to keep water in a few small seasonal lakes perched a thousand feet above the river, a rare thing in this environment.

These flats and benches midway between the ridge and the river make for fascinating travel up to the ridge, sprinkled with deep drainages of fascinating rock formations that hold trickles of water in late winter and early spring. The haphazard nature of the contiguous public land forces a hiker into exploring them, and while this creates far more gain and loss than a straight shot up to the ridge would entail the rewards are many.

Gaining the ridge on clear day yields views of the Cascades from Adams to Three Fingered Jack. Walking the jeep road on North Pole Ridge is an exposed and wind whipped endeavor more than compensated for by the views of the Cascades to the west with numerous significant side canyons, and the John Day canyon to the east. An odd illusion appears during the ridge walk as it seems you are walking the entire distance from Jefferson to Hood, 60 miles apart, but seemingly traveled in 6 miles of ridge walking. The ridge is a roller coaster of 300 foot climbs and descents to various high points with passes between the John Day and Bath Canyons in between.

At the northern end of the ridge you'll run out of jeep road and public land, and further northbound travel would require a descent to the John Day in either Big or Little Gulch, bringing you into the North Pole Ridge Wilderness Study Area proper. I'll discuss that routing in a separate blog post. A caltopo with a few selected waypoints of interest and suggested travel is here:

Please note and observe the boundaries between public and private land if you visit this area.

The pictures below are a selection of what this area has to offer:

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