Sutton Mountain

I decided to backpack into Oregon’s next National Monument, Sutton Mountain.

Ok, it’s not a National Monument yet…ONDA has been working towards permanent protection of this stunning fault block mountain for far longer than my tenure at the organization, and recently Senator Jeff Merkely introduced legislation to make this area a Monument….right across the street from an existing one: Painted Hills National Monument. Painted Hills is a fantastical landscape of colored hills, the colors running in bands that appear to bleed around the corners of each fold…a mesmerizing sight.

Even though I had been to the area countless times to paddle the John Day River which borders the area to the south, this was my first time hiking in. Last summer when Kirk and I spent the month of June trying to travel the free flowing John Day from the source to the mouth, we floated on by. There is also a boat-launch nearby that we like to use for overnight trips on the river…regardless to say,  I’ve had Sutton Mountain on my mind for quite some time now, and this terribly warm February weekend would be the chance to check it out. 

Last year I built an independent stewards project for Sutton mountain actually, and had poured over maps, and traced roads and trails along the contours of this Wilderness Study Area (WSA) for a monitoring project with the Prineville BLM. I built the materials for ONDA volunteers to hike, drive, and note recreation impact issues. This was one of 12 WSAs in the project. 

There aren’t many trails here….at least none that go up to the top of the fault block mountain which towers over the painted hills 2,000′ below. But there was a path (drainage) I could hike up: Black Canyon. 

This would also be a training hike. 


Yes, training. I’ve never trained for a hike before, and now that my body is breaking down I can’t just frolick at will through the mountains without consequences…at least for now. My hope is if I build up my return to walking all day every day, I won’t have a repeat of the Corvallis to Sea trail in November. By the end of that hike I had riled up my planter fasciitis so bad that now, almost four months later and countless chiropractor, podiatrist and physical therapy appointments in the books, I’m methodically walking further and with more weight on my back in hopes of a less crippling hike next time around.

Back to Sutton!

I started hiking mid morning, already sweating in my thin fleece layer (have I told you that it’s been TOO warm this winter?) 

So I walk up Black Canyon, slowly, admiring the basalt cliffs and a very deep silence. I get to a pour-over where water is pouring over….and need to figure out how to walk through. I manage, while soaking a foot, and soon climb up out of the drainage that gets choked with willows and the kind of green things that are home to these desert waterways.

That was the general trend the rest of the hike: look for the path of least resistance (often game trails), sometimes finding a footprint of someone else who has come before me.

It’s pretty much cross country hiking.

Towards the top I decide to go straight up. My lungs, legs, and feet were too late in their protest. And halfway up to the top I almost regretted my decision…but kept going and collapsed up top for snacks.

This was the hardest I’ve pushed in a long time, and I felt it. But I would encounter trails and climbing at least as steep or more back on the Appalachian Trail this summer…this was training after all.

After some almonds, liquorice and a bite of a soggy sandwich I wouldn’t finish, I walked the final mile to the top.

Much delight!

The air was still, a few sounds from the road and trails below drifted up, but all in all it was a completely serene moment. 

On the hike down I again followed the path of least resistance, which is usually quite different than the path when climbing. I also had to adopt my favorite mantra: one step at a time. My legs were heavy and stumbly, the ground a bit muddy yet also icy….hiking alone comes with the responsibility to not trip and fall and take a rock to the head, or a pointy stick to the eye, so I pushed through the brush and plodded down the rocky canyon bottom having turned my mantra “one step at a time” into a song to the tune of Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.”

I made it past the crux of the canyon without getting my feel wet this time, and found a tree to set up my new tent under.

Oh yeah! This is a new tent hike too!

When one tries to spend as much time hiking as I do, there are reasons to have a variety of tent and tarp options for every occasion…afterall, this is my life, not just an expensive hobby.

I purchased the Big Agnes Fly Creek tent this winter. I figured a semi-freestanding, double walled tent would be handy this summer on hot buggy nights in New England. The semi-freestanding is fab for setting up on almost any ground surface, and the light weight factor would be important for my aging back and feet. (I sound like I’m decades older than my 44 years; older hikers tell me to just wait…the real fun was just beginning).

I set up the tent and hung some drying lines inside for things like stinky wet socks.
I passed out early after a hearty dinner of biscuits and gravy (Food for the Sole’s new meal) and a chapter in the book I lugged with me.

In the morning I woke up well before the sunrise, which is my usual these days, and poured boiling water into my areo press. Kirk and I went backpacking last weekend (a much shorter, easier hike up a small butte) and I brought the areo press on a whim instead of our usual French press mugs. It makes a much better cup of coffee, so I threw it in my food bag again on this trip. Who knows! Maybe I’ll carry it on my two-month hike this summer, why not??!?

I only have a short jaunt back to the car, so the hike is essentially over. Short and sweet, and my planter fasciitis hasn’t started screaming at me yet, so all in all, a wonderful journey and training hike into our next National Monument!

4 thoughts on “Sutton Mountain

  1. This sounds like a great hike – and relatively short for a season-starter, Renee. Thanks for sharing.

    When do you plan to do the Appalachian Trail?

    Friend, Mike

    P.S. Still almost 2′ of snow in our front yard, so i really envy your outing!


    Liked by 1 person

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