Jessica and I ride together on the GS to Jump Creek Falls then overland to Leslie Gulch where we explore fantastic rock formations and camp for the night. We return by way of Succor Creek.
Having seen many photos of and heard much acclaim for Leslie Gulch inspired Jessica and I to make an overnight ride to the eastern end of Oregon.
As we were heading through Nampa I was struck by the adventuresome need for a foofy drink. With nary a thought for traffic laws, we dashed over to the Flying M I remembered (a mental waypoint) in downtown Nampa.
See, now that’s the proper start to an adventure. We sat out on the patio and delicately sipped our drinks while watching a succession of bikers cruise by, glance over, rev their motors and continue on. A man with his family at an adjacent table remarked on all the riders out that day.
From Nampa we circled around Lake Lowell with some intention to stop a bit but never saw an open gate to a parking lot along the water. Oh well. Ride on.
Jump Creek Canyon with its “surprising waterfall and lush riparian community filled with waterbirch and red osier dogwood trees,”¹ like Leslie Gulch, was another scenic oasis known to us only through the online images and accounts of others. It would be our adventure hors d’oeuvre and gateway to the back roads leading on to Leslie Gulch. Be sure to have a GPS or know well beforehand where the turn-off from U.S. 95 is. It’s a small road, easy to miss.
As we crunched along the gravel road to the mouth of the canyon, I thought we had the place to ourselves. No cars in sight. Then we crested a short, steep hill and found all the people parked in the lot below. So it goes on a Memorial Day weekend. We parked and slipped off helmets, jackets and gloves, transforming back into bipeds.
After a short distance on the well worn footpath, we paused in dappled shade to contemplate the moss lined channels carved into looming rock spires by the babbling creek at our feet. It was an enchanting natural space.
I am sure Jessica was enchanted.
Jessica drew my attention to this lone plant in its rock shrine. It seemed content with solitude.
After finishing our exploration we continued up the path and quickly arrived at the rocky enclave and perpetually rippled pool.
It is a very short hike from the parking lot to the main waterfall, only about a fifth of a mile.¹
While I struggled to make a few pictures under harsh sun, Jess, as usual, began clambering around some large rocks.
With what dexterity is possible in flip-flops, I climbed after her.
Jessica was taking note of people emerging from what looked to be a cave above and to the right of the falls. Some teenagers were making their way down, two of them reassuring another who seemed alarmed at the loose footing.
Jessica pointed to an area at the left edge of the image below. Soon after declining to make that attempt in flip-flops (“you go ahead, dear”), I found myself, again, climbing up after her.
There was no cave, just some depressions in the rock. It appeared the main reason to come this direction might be to continue climbing the remaining, almost vertical ascent to access the top of the falls. It was too early in our trip to get hurt so we carefully retreated.
“To the west of the falls, some people scramble up the slope and along a rock crevice known as the ‘Devil’s Ladder’ to reach the upper canyon. This climb is dangerous and discouraged.”¹
Tumbleweeds collect within the canyon creating what I thought was an interesting contrast. Jessica didn’t seem as impressed.
The map showed more than one dirt road between Jump Creek Canyon and Leslie Gulch. I saved a GPS route for one that seemed prominent but wanted to explore alternatives. We suited up, mounted up, geared down and headed first out to the west side of the canyon.
The road was a little tricky for the both of us and all our camping gear. It was hard to negotiate rocks and ruts on steep hills with the front trying to go skyward. We made it up above the canyon, looked around and didn’t see anything marvelous enough to warrant that much effort.
We decided to retreat back to the more traveled dirt road east of the canyon.
Parts of that road were also a little technical. Having had our fill of misadventure on past rides, Jessica volunteered to walk past the tough stretches so I could stand on the pegs, get on the gas and motor through.
There were only a few short sections having that perilous confluence of loose rocks, ruts, incline and a curve. When I thought she was enjoying the walk, I might continue on a little farther than necessary.
The more common interruptions were stretched wire gates. There were several of those. Each time it went about the same. Jessica would hop off to open the gate. I’d watch her struggle for a minute—c’mon, put your shoulder into it—then I would turn off the bike, put down the kickstand and lend a hand. As I think about it, I’m not sure there were any gates she was able to open on her own. But it was a fun ritual.
We saw a lot of sagebrush and not much else. Without a GPS unit it would have been harder to stay on course. One dirt track looked a lot like the other. It wasn’t a bad stretch of road and could be fun with a bit of speed. But if scenery is an objective, or if it’s a sweltering day, you might consider other routes such as U.S. 95 or along Succor Creek, the way we returned home.
We did get one surprise in the sea of sagebrush oblivion. We were following some tiny detours around large puddles and suddenly noticed a stone marker.
It had the look of reformed Egyptian.¹ Jessica tried to interpret but lacking a peep stone² we could only see “Victim of Violence / March 2 (12?) 1885 / Grave ¼ Mile East In Draw.” Whatever name might have been atop the marker was indiscernible.
There were some fragments on the ground she tried to fit into place but there weren’t enough to get Humpty back together again.
The site is south of Jump Creek Canyon just above U.S. 95. The remaining ride to Leslie Gulch was unremarkable. We passed a lot of cows. We crossed a good size creek. We saw a funny duck.
After ruts, rocks and seas of sagebrush, we were glad to arrive at our destination without mishap and with plenty of time to setup camp. The GPS tried to misdirect us once or twice but when the road turned to dirt and then pasture, we figured it out.
Native Americans fished, hunted, and camped along the Owyhee River in Leslie Gulch 5,000 years before Europeans came to the area. In 1882, a cattle rancher, Hiram E. Leslie, was struck by lightning while working in what was then known as Dugout Gulch; thus, the area was renamed Leslie Gulch. The original Leslie Gulch Canyon Road long served as a wagon and mail route between Rockville and Watson. Today, the town of Watson lies at the bottom of the Owyhee Reservoir.¹
I confess to having done little research on Leslie Gulch camping options. I figured with free time on two wheels we could always find a little spot somewhere. That’s generally true except camping is prohibited in the gulch everywhere but the campground near the reservoir. Not my favorite kind of camping but we decided we’d rather be there than ten or twelve miles from the stuff we came to see.
The place was busy and I felt lucky to get a spot (the photo of our campsite was carefully framed to exclude our many neighbors). A boat ramp is just a hundred yards or so down from the campground. Many people took advantage of the low water to setup a camp or picnic along the muddy shore (a bit weird, we thought).
Jessica and I walked down to the reservoir a couple times to fetch water for washing and coffee. We felt kind of primitive passing by the RVs and SUVs but having a decent water filter sure saves weight on the motorcycle. On the walk back up to the campground we gathered sagebrush for a fire from along the road that had been torn up by spring plowing.
After collecting what we’d need for the evening and morning fire and food, we set out to explore. The view up the gulch from the campground is full of intriguing colors and shapes.
We didn’t get far up the road before spotting something to investigate. The campground and smoke of our neighbors’ fires was still visible as we parked the motorcycle off the side of the road and made our way on foot through sagebrush to a little green gorge.
The peculiar colors of the rocks had piqued our curiosity.
A wet spring meant flowers and grasses were as abundant as ever, adding to the striking visual tapestry.
At the top of the little gorge the powerful action of nature’s hydraulic forces was apparent. We could imagine how the water had raged in a spot that was then so still. It felt a little dangerous to stand there.
Turning in a circle with necks craned we could see high above where water had poured simultaneously from many sides to carve an uncompromising path through the flaking green and orange rock.
I didn’t expect that spaceman pants with a batman belt would be so fashionable.
Jessica pointed my attention to this. The rocks seemed to come in every color and composition.
When we came to a spot with jagged spires to the left of the road and impossibly contorted rock to the right, we changed our minds. We had to stop there to take a closer look.
The most striking features of Leslie Gulch are the diverse and often stark, towering and colorful geologic formations. The Leslie Gulch Tuff (consolidated volcanic ash), makes up the bulk of these formations. It is a rhyolite ash that erupted from the Mahogany Mountain caldera (a large volcanic depression which encompasses Leslie Gulch) in a series of violent explosions about 15.5 million years ago. Much of the material fell back into the volcano as a gaseous deposit of fine ash and rock fragments up to 1,000 feet thick. About 100,000 years later, volcanic eruptions from the Three Fingers caldera, located several miles to the northeast, deposited another layer of rhyolite tuff in Leslie Gulch. Today, the tuff is beautifully displayed as steep slopes and vertical, honeycombed towers carved over time.¹
Again, we pulled the motorcycle off the road (there would have been no easy place to stop with a car) and made our own path through the sagebrush to the prehistoric rocks.
At first we couldn’t find an easy route up into the rhyolite tuff.
We circled around to a little draw for a different approach and there noticed something odd inside a hollow boulder.
“Be glad in the moment and remember me with smiles.” We didn’t know Eleanor to remember her but we were enjoying our moments amidst those extraordinary surroundings.
While riding with my brothers up north in the St. Joe National Forest we’d happened upon a similar memorial, equally hidden from casual discovery. And riding atop Moscow Mountain, my brother Jesse and I also came across a makeshift memorial. It seems a nice idea but I wonder where the trend will lead.
From Eleanor’s cross, we were able to make our way up the rocks.
It seemed as if we’d been miniaturized and were climbing around on some of our two year old Brenna’s mixed and mashed Play-Doh. Were I not standing there myself, I could easily have thought this scene was a papier-mâché set onto which a poorly costumed lizard man would emerge with boulder held high to threaten our beloved Captain Kirk.
I wished I could have witnessed the formation of those rocks. I couldn’t imagine the process.
There were tunnels within tunnels, some large, others small.
A few shrubs and flowers found purchase upon the alien landscape.
We could have explored endlessly except for the harassing gangs of bugs that began to swarm. Jessica said it was time to go.
Back at our campsite, we watched hues shift as the sun sank below the horizon.
We heated up some stew and sat eating around our short-lived fire.
While riding, it doesn’t usually feel as though we’re working very hard but at the end of the day we seem always to feel worn out, content to stare into the embers as stars slowly take the stage for their nightly drama.
Jessica crawled into the tent while I stayed out a little longer to see if the sky was clear enough for the entire Milky Way ensemble. It wasn’t.
A double-wide sleeping bag called “King Solomon”¹ sounded luxurious when we bought it last fall. What it lacks in concubines (no doubt you remember² Solomon is purported to have had 300, in addition to his 700 wives), it makes up for with comfort and surprising compressibility. One luxury not practical for our motorcycle trips is a proper set of pillows. Some may be surprised that the big GS doesn’t have pop-out sleeping quarters. Perhaps European models have that (they get everything) but we have to make a few packing concessions. An air compressor—we only charge 50¢ if you need additional tire pressure on the trail—and coffee percolator were prioritized over pillows.
Without pillows, we do like most hikers and bikers and use some clothes stuffed in a bag. The King Solomon is so fancy as to have built-in pillow pouches for just that purpose (again, though, no concubines). It’s the marsupial of sleeping bags ... which is a nice theory unless you tend to toss and turn a bit while getting to sleep. Then your little pillow pouch squirms around and goes missing. You could spend half the night trying to find it and smack it back into a pillow shape.
I was still weary when the sun rose on Leslie Gulch but ready to concede the pillow pouch fight. I arose to build a smokey fire, brew some coffee and take photographs of Jessica still sleeping.
Our ride over the hills between Jump Creek Canyon and Leslie Gulch had been a desolate affair. And in any case, I like to find a different route home than what we arrived on (variety is the spice of life, you know) so we settled on a Succor Creek return. As an Oregon State park¹ we didn’t figure it could be all that bad.
We planned to do more gulch hiking as we made our way home. Riding slowly up the gravel road, we paused to consider a few possibilities but decided to continue on to designated trail heads. We turned into Dago Gulch but the road was gated at the bottom and we saw no hiking destination in that direction more dramatic than where we were already standing. Back on the main road, we soon came upon an official looking hiking trail. We eyed it closely but concluded it was too mundane compared to the little hikes we’d already done. So we continued riding and looking. And before we knew it we had left the gulch. Oops. We considered turning back but decided we wanted to continue towards home. We’d try for some hiking down the road.
We had a fun ride to Succor Creek. The wide gravel road became a ribbon of dirt climbing up and over to the creek canyon. To gain passage, we first had to thread our way through several horses standing around as if engaged in an important road project. Around here, we’re accustomed to the open range and the occasional need to stop and wait for Bessie to get her calves across the road but free ranging horses were new.
I was impressed by the unusual colors of the soil in banks exposed by the cut and curve of the road along the canyon. I think Jessica may have thought I was an idiot when I stopped to take a photo of dirt.
As we wound our way down to the state park campground, an ATV track up the side of the canyon caught my eye. It looked as though it would lead to some interesting rocks and great views. We turned in for our last hurrah. A couple sections were steep so we kept our momentum up. It was fun but turning into more of a workout that didn’t seem to be leading anywhere of particular interest so we turned back to the road.
The camp sites along Succor Creek looked very nice, much nicer than the Leslie Gulch campground. Rocks thrust skyward all around the small creek lined with trees (trees!) and grasses.
We stopped at a campsite on a cliff and wished we’d been able to stay there with its ample supply of firewood and burbling creek below.
We saw many hikes for other days as we looked down at the creek and canyon walls around.
There was almost no traffic until we left the canyon. Then it was vehicle after vehicle, everyone wanting to get their ATV to the hills for a holiday ride. We passed three Suzuki Samurais in a row, each with a smiling, waving couple, out for mid-life adventure. We wondered what kind of roads they would try.
Out of the canyon, the landscape quickly settled down to undulating hills, then plains. After towering rocks and painted hills, it seemed positively drab. Those who’d selected that area to park an RV or camp were a curiosity to us. I stepped up our speed. Nothing to see.
As we hit the highway, rain began to fall. From a drizzle to a steady rain, we hunkered in our wind tunnel cocoon. If that’s all the sky had to throw at us, we’d be fine. And we were. It was a great little trip. We enjoyed each others company, we saw nature’s splendor, and we never fell over.