Walter and Sara Let the good times roll
It’s been a rocky week for me especially here at Hilgard Junction but I seem to be recovering and we’re surviving the experience here. We had a visit from the park manager and the host coordinator on Friday Sept 4th and it was decided that the park really didn’t need to be watered again and that probably hosts should not be expected to handle the wonky well situation anyway. So we haven’t had much that really NEEDS to be done. We police the few sites that are used and usually don’t find anything but new sticks to pick up. We pick up pine cones and rake pine needles that steadily accumulate on the grass and drives of the campground and the day use areas. Maybe once a day we have a brief conversation with someone in the day use area or the campground to answer a question or just say hello. We had 8 campsites filled on Saturday of Labor Day weekend and that was the high point. We’ve had someone here every night but usually it’s one or two folks and they’re all just passing through on their way to somewhere else, so the campground is usually empty during the day.

If it weren’t for the trucks and their jake brakes on I-84 this wouldn’t be a bad place. But the trucks make it a place where I wouldn’t camp for more than a night. I wouldn’t recommend this as a camp hosting possibility to anyone because of it. When we look for a camp host spot we want some place that is so cool we’d really really like to spend more than the usual 14 day limit there. This one doesn’t meet that criteria. But we’ll make it through out stint here okay. We’ve learned to do more research about the place, ask more questions and get a really good idea of the expectations before signing up for a place! That’s worth a lot.

Our host camp site isn’t too bad though the view out the back consists of the jumble of rock on the embankment but we have a nice level grassy area outside our door.

Host site Hilgard Junction SP OR

Across the road from our site is a large old cottonwood which we can see out the bedroom windows. The cottonwoods are beginning to shed their leaves and we’re hoping that leaf raking isn’t a big item in our future.

Cottonwood tree Hilgard Junction SP

The Grand Ronde River runs along the edge of the campground. It’s kind of low right now, it being the end of the dry season.

Grand Ronde River at Hilgard Junction SP

The campsites on the river side have big wide grassy areas. That’s the bathroom just to the right of our campsite and a bit of a utility yard where they keep the riding mower, the hoses and some tools (not a great view out the side windows for us).

Host site from river Hilgard Junction SP OR

The far east end of the campground is very popular and we usually have a rig or two down there. There are a couple of larger spots and easy access to river.

Hilgard Junction SP campground

Looking west you can see the rest of the campground and the hills beyond.

Hilgard Junction SP campground

The ‘average’ campsite is really pretty though the parking spots are pretty short for most RVs. We get lots of tenters and vans and folks sleeping in their cars who use these spots.

Average campsite Hilgard Junction State Park

Since it’s nearly 1/2 mile from one end of the campground to the far end of the Day Use area we have a golf cart to ride around in. Transporting hoses in this thing isn’t real easy. I’d hang a coil on each of those black curved things on the back and hope they didn’t drop off. The ranger assistant said she usually loaded them up in her truck which makes sense—yet another reason the ranger assistants should be doing the watering not the hosts. The cart is fun to drive. It reminds me of the cars in the Autopia ride at Disneyland when I was a kid.

Host golf cart Hilgard Junction SP

Since the host spot is only long enough for the trailer and the golf cart (and remember, we don’t have that big a trailer) they have set aside one of the campsites for our vehicle. No one has ever camped in the other 2 spots on this side of the campground so I’m sure it’s no loss.

Host parking spot Hilgard Junction SP

As you proceed west through the campground you come to the Day Use Area. I’ve never seen anyone use the area on the right but there are parking spots marked there. We had someone park their tow vehicle in this area one night but aside from that nothing else. It wouldn’t be a bad place to play croquet though except for the noise of the trucks gearing up along the rise on the embankment from time to time.

Hilgard Junction SP Day Use east

The Pay Kiosk is here at the edge of the Day Use Area so we can’t see it from our spot. The rates are very simple and straightforward: $10 for a camp site. $7 for an extra vehicle. They take cash, checks and credit cards. The ranger assistant runs the credit card numbers in the early morning before anyone has left—she’s got a credit card machine in the restroom closet! The Day Use Area is free which is nice since it would be really a challenge to collect anything here. All the State Park Day Use areas in Eastern Oregon are free.

Pay Kiosk Hilgard Junction SP

Normally we’d be selling firewood but there’s a state-wide campfire ban at all the Oregon State Parks right now. When we first arrived they didn’t allow charcoal briquettes or generators but those bans were lifted just before Labor Day.

We have an Oregon Trail Interpretive kiosk in the Day Use Area. I’ve seen one person over there. The signs tell you about the arduous trip over the Blue Mountains that took days and days after the long 3 month journey from Independence, Missouri. It turns out that the crossing of the Rockies was much easier than the crossing of the Blue Mountains here in Oregon.
Oregon Trail Interpretive site Hilgard Junction SP

And yes, that’s a pay phone! It doesn’t have a dial tone when you pick up the receiver but I think it works if you put 50 cents in it. Lots of people’s cell phones don’t work here (including ours). Across the parking area from here there’s a nice wide grassy area with picnic tables and river access. Then you come to the entrance at Hwy 244. People complain that the signage is confusing and that it’s hard to find the campground. But I don’t think it’s that bad.

Road sign for Hilgard Junction SP

Of course if you miss this sign, and turn into the parking lot, it is confusing. The sign says Day Use and gives the hours from 7 am to 9 pm and then has a little tent with an arrow. Let’s just say they’re not making a big deal about this campground. I’ve decided that they keep the park open for the Day Use areas which get a lot of use as rest area for drivers on I-84 and the campground is just a little bonus that comes with the deal. We’re here to provide warm bodies, a presence that reduces vandalism and keeps folks from trying to spend the night in the Day Use Areas because there is a campground they can use.

Across Hwy 244 is the other half of the Day Use Area.  

Hilgard Junction SP Day Use West

People occasionally walk their dogs on the right hand side but mostly they park over on the left and walk on the grass over to the river.

Grande Ronde River Highway 244 OR

People fish here at the bridge. We had a fellow who caught and released a number of trout on Sunday September 6th. Looking west along the river here you get this view. I haven’t taken my shoes off and waded in but my guess is it’s less than a foot deep even at its deepest. In the spring they do river rafting here, so clearly it’s a much deeper river then.

Grand Ronde River Hilgard Junction SP

When you come back up from the river you can see across the grassy area (complete with fire pits, bar-b-que grills and picnic tables) towards the restroom on this side.

Hilgard Junction SP Day Use from river

The Douglas squirrels spend many happy hours dropping cones from the pine trees here. When they do so, they drop pine needle clusters with them. We spent our work shift on Saturday picking up pine cones and green needle clusters until we filled two large 55 gallon trash bags with them. And when I walked through on Sunday afternoon there were news ones down.

There’s a cluster of Ponderosa Pines just past the restroom on the highway side of the park.   

Ponderosa Pines Hilgard Junction SP

Over on the left in the distance, you can see the 3 large horseshoe pits. We haven’t seen anyone playing but you can tell that sometime over the years they’ve gotten a lot of use because the backboards are badly dinged.

The road continues on out to a turn around and an easy access point to the river.

Day Use turn around Hilgard Junction SP

Here and there in the lawn and along the edge of the river there are tiny asters growing.

asters in lawn

We had rain on Saturday September 5th and the temps barely made it into the 50’s. People started to arrive on Sunday morning in the day use area and have snow drop off of their wheel wells. It had snowed on the hunters up at about 5,000 feet. It sure felt as if summer had ended with a crash! On Sunday afternoon we had a few sun breaks and I got this photo of some Ponderosa pines across the river.

Ponderosa Pines Grande Ronde River

On Labor Day the sun came out but it was still cool. We took the short drive north to the next exit on I-84 and drove out to Oregon Trail Interpretive Park at Blue Mountain Crossing. On-line it said that it closed after Labor Day so we thought we’d better head over there so we wouldn’t miss it. There was a small bus from a retirement facility in the picnic area and one car parked up in the interpretive trail area and that was all. We didn’t see anyone for the first 1/2 hour or so that we were hiking and then only one couple sitting in amongst the trees. The place is clearly set up for crowds of people with very nice interpretive signs but frankly it was a little spooky with just the two of us.

There was a golden mantled ground squirrel waiting for us next to our parking spot. He was a cute little guy who got really still hoping we wouldn’t see him I guess.  

Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel

Along the trail there are little bits of Oregon Trail fun like this wheel barrow made out of a barrel.

Oregon Trail Interpretive Park at Blue Mountain Crossing

The Oregon Trail came up the hill here. It was a long steady haul up the mountains. The problem was that it went up and down and up and down and up and down over and over again. They would use ropes around trees attached to the wagons to keep them from running away on the way back down the hills.

Oregon Trail Interpretive Park at Blue Mountain Crossing

Later on the stage road followed the same path.

Oregon Trail Interpretive Park at Blue Mountain Crossing

There is one small section where you can still see the ruts left by the wagons.

Oregon Trail Interpretive Park at Blue Mountain Crossing

Along the end of the interpretive loop they have a nice covered wagon.

Covered Wagon Oregon Trail

It’s even loaded with barrels, boxes and trunks.

Covered wagon Oregon Trail

Can you visualize the pair of oxen hooked up here?

Oxen yokes Oregon Trail

We hiked back up a portion of another trail and I took this photo of Walter and an old Ponderosa.

Walter Cooke Ponderosa Pine Oregon Trail

Late afternoon on Tuesday the 8th (after we’d gone to La Grande to do laundry and grocery shopping and had lunch out at the local Mexican restaurant) we had a mama deer and two yearlings come through the park. The yearlings retreated into the bushes near the river but mama stayed out in the grassy area. We’ve seen her pretty much every day since, sometimes even in the evening when we do our rounds.

Deer Hilgard Junction State Park

On Wednesday September 9th, we drove to Wallowa Lake State Park (about 75 miles northeast of La Grande) for our weekly outing. It had warmed back up and was in the low 80’s in La Grande but was only in the high 70’s at Wallowa Lake which is just outside of the town of Joseph. I caught this view of the Wallowa Mountains as we drove east. We’d had snow in the mountains all through our section of Oregon on Saturday night and these mountains still had a bit of it left.

Wallowa Mts OR

We’re considering Wallowa Lake as a possible place to camp host next fall so we cornered a camp host and talked to her about her experience. She was happy which is always a good sign. They don’t have a lot of contact with the campers like we did at Lake Cascade but they don’t work them very hard either. The campground had been pretty full for Labor Day weekend (even with the cool rainy weather) but it was only about 1/2 full when we were there. It’s very popular in the summer and tends to be full all the time—not something we’d enjoy. We camped here back in September 2010 and enjoyed it even though the camp spots are a little closer together than we’d prefer.

The camp host referred us to the host coordinator and with a bit of searching we found her and talked to her. We explained our concerns about unclear expectations (Hilgard Junction has provided little or no training and the info on expectations was faulty at best). She was very understanding and explained what they expected. Basically folks work a shift of about 4 hours for five days. Nobody works real hard and they don’t do the irrigation or the mowing—just trash pick up and a little site raking--which is normal camp host stuff.

We drove back to the north end of the lake with it’s view of the Eagle Cap Wilderness and had a picnic lunch.     

Wallowa Lake SP OR

The campground is at the water’s edge directly beneath that pointy mountain just left of center. There’s a trailhead into the Eagle Cap Wilderness just up the road from the campground which is very very popular.

It continued to warm up as the week progressed. It got up to 88 on Friday September 11th but it cooled off quickly. The nights have been brisk and temps go below 60 by 9 pm and down into the low 40’s by sunrise. The sunny days and cold nights mean that we’re beginning to see a little bit of fall color in the trees. I’m hoping the larches will turn before we leave here.

The camp host from the campground just 8 miles down the road stopped by in the afternoon on Friday to pick up some hoses and sprinklers. He is not happy with the host coordinator here either. He’s gotten little or no training and doesn’t feel that the time he puts in is appreciated. He’s a hard worker and is doing a ton of stuff for them and they just are worried about how he fills in his time card (with too many hours). It’s amazing how the interaction with the staff can make such a huge difference in the experience for hosts. We’d heard folks talk about how important the park management staff was and boy is that true! It’s not bad enough here to make us want to leave but it sure isn’t good enough to make us want to return!