Wildcat Basin Loop Hike in Eastern Oregon

You’d think a place named after a fruit would be lush and agriculture-friendly, but that is not entirely the case for the Strawberry Range in Eastern Oregon. It is, however, friendly to hikers who are fond of wide, open spaces, interesting rock formations, and beautiful solitude. There are plenty of trails in the area, but for a mid-to-late summer trek I’d point to a section called the Cream Badlands, which is home to the Wildcat Basin Loop Hike. Access it from the Roads End Trailhead marked on the map.

There are a couple of trail options for this lollipop hike, depending on whether or not an overnight is in your plans, and also depending on your wilderness navigation skills. Plenty of hikers take this trail as a simple there-and-back, visiting the White Badlands and Wildcat Basin in the process.

But one can also pitch camp in the basin, and take the loop section of the trail, which crosses into terrain that was hit by the 1996 Wildcat Fire and the 2015 Canyon Complex Fire. The area is in recovery, but downed trees and a faded trail make it an adventure best suited to those familiar with outdoor navigation skills.

Regardless of your trail choice, the hike kicks off at the Roads End Trail #201A and heads straight up to an old fire lookout. The foliage along the ascent is mostly whitebark pines and subalpine firs, and you’re likely to see a variety seed-eating birds and nutcrackers among the branches. Keep hiking up and you’ll see the ridges of Strawberry Mountain loom on the horizon at 9,038 feet as you pass through a section of bleached, standing snags.

Up ahead is a series of rock steps with seasonal wildflowers. Look around for colorful penstemon and monkey flower in the mid-summer. As you rise to a saddle you’ll hit an unmarked junction where Pine Creek, Roads End, and Onion Creek Trail cross ways. You’ll need to look for a scratch trail off to the left (this is the Pine Creek Trail #201). Start off with a decent down the rugged edge of the saddle through a high parkland landscape, and the hike up a stretch to another junction, this one signed as an intersection with Indian Creek Cutoff Trail. Stick left on the Pine Creek Trail and hike back downhill.

Three sparkling alpine brooks lie ahead, weaving through meadows abundant with buttercups. The scenery then dries out as you hike up a ridge crest through an area hit by the 2015 Canyon Complex Fire. The trail will dip back down the ridge along another decent, but you have the option of taking a short detour through an alpine meadow to the west. It’s worth it – you’ll get views of Bear Valley, Logan Valley, and the Aldrich Mountains on this route, as well as being treated to the sight of blooming wild onion, sandwort, cinquefoil, and phlox.

If you take this option be ready for dense patches of snow brush up ahead, as well as steep switchbacks through rocky areas. Downed trees litter this side trail as well. But up ahead is a green strip of unburned conifers, the first outcroppings of the ash-layered White Badlands, and the steep drop to Wildcat Basin. There’s a trail junction here with the Buckhorn Meadows Trail, and if you take a left you’ll find yourself arriving at the nearby Wildcat Spring. Campsites are scattered in the basin meadow, and if this is your trail’s end, it’s a great stopping point for the night.

Adventurous souls can head to the trail on the right across a burned landscape with ghost-white snags and fallen trees. But keep hiking across the alpine basin to the White Badlands cliffs, and you’ll soon pass through a small, but lush, meadow. There are still more standing snags on the hike up the ridge ahead, but you’ll see some surviving lodgepole pines too, as well as a recovering understory of snowbrush.

The ridge crest up ahead opens up to west-facing views and then winds along the north slope past the Cream Badlands, an outcropping of 14 million-year-old ash. Keep right at the Pine Creek-Indian Creek Trail Junction, and then stick right again at the Indian Creek-Indian Creek Cutoff Trail Junction. Now it’s a stretch downhill, through a soft traverse lined with grouseberry. The earth is moister here at the drainage of Indian Creek, and two streams and a creek run through the basin. The trail crosses all three, and then rises up the Yellow Badlands, a weathered ash ridge.

Just ahead is the headwaters of Indian Creek, the lush Onion Marsh. Cross through the meadow and exit it to hike up a slope littered with deadfall, the pastels of the Yellow Badlands to your left. The trail can be hidden in places by currant and snowbrush bushes here, so navigate carefully in this section of the trail. Head uphill along the ridge crest, and descend past another campsite to the Pine Creek-Indian Creek Cutoff Trail Junction.

Go left here to retrace your steps to the Roads End Trailhead.

For Directions to Roads End Trailhead (Lat.: 44.2800, Long.: -118.7033), click the link below the map.

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