Those accustomed to thinking of Oregon hikes are lush, green wonderlands may not be quick to see the beauty of Eastern Oregon’s trails, but I’d encourage the adventure-minded to give these dryer slopes a chance. It’s true that this quadrant is less generous with shades of green, that you’ll find more cattle-crossing trails, and that the weather can be more extreme. But there’s a spare beauty to this untamed stretch of earth that makes it perfect for solo, multi-day voyages into the hills when your heart needs wide horizons and unforgiving landscapes.
I personally love exploring the Mill Creek Wilderness, which is a somewhat off-the-radar wilderness just 15 miles northeast of Prineville. The area is watered by the snow-fed Mill Creek, which runs through rolling hills reaching as high at 6,000 feet, but still shy of mountain status. The trails in the area are decently maintained, and make for great overnight hikes. To tackle this area, I’d recommend starting off along the main trail through the hills, beginning at the most popular trailhead, the South Twin Pillars Trailhead. This trail crosses Mill Creek several times, passes by numerous campgrounds, and heads up summit ridges, from where you can take in the entire surrounding area including views of the Three Sisters. There are also interesting natural features to check out, including the Twin Pillars.
The full length of the trail runs about 15 miles, through pine and fir forests, across well-maintained paths, and even passes the headwaters of Mill Creek at one point. There’s not much understory to impede travel, but the trail forces hikers to wade through Mill Creek dozens of times, so be prepared with terrain-tolerant shoes.
Visitors should also note that the area saw a severe burn back in 2000 that devastated sections of forest, and some burn areas are still recovering. Some might see this as a downside, but I appreciated the opportunity to watch the cycle of nature at work, with a succession of plants and wildlife reclaiming the area. Off-season adventurers should note that while this area doesn’t get a lot of rain, snowfall can be heavy in winter months. The best time to visit may be in the spring after the snowmelt, exchanging Northern Oregon rains in exchange for the dry expanse of Eastern Oregon. Summer can also be a great time to visit if it isn't too hot--start early!