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A canyon apart

Three days into our camping trip, I needed a shower, and the facilities at Cottonwood Canyon State Park were clean and inviting.

But I just couldn’t lift myself out of my camp chair.

Puffy white clouds drifted across the sky, their interplay with the sun presenting an ever-changing slideshow of shadow and light on the canyon walls.

How could I shut myself into a shower room for 10 minutes? I might miss a few frames.

And then there were the bighorn sheep, 20 or more grazing on a slope high above the campground. On this April day, during a rainy spring, the canyon was lush with grass, and I imagined the sheep — visible as cream-colored specks — were thrilled at their good fortune.

I could make them out more distinctly through my binoculars. But even with the naked eye, I could detect when one of them hopped over some rocks or couldn’t resist a sudden urge to trot a few yards.

In the last hour, the herd had split into three munching units, one group of seven having worked its way nearly to the top of the slope. What if I came out of the shower and found that they had crossed out of sight while I was gone?

Established in 2013, Cottonwood Canyon is Oregon’s second-largest park, behind Silver Falls — and unlike, say, parks on the coast, where highway, restaurants and gift shops lie just beyond the gates, Cottonwood Canyon is remote.

My wife and I had spent the morning on the Pinnacles Trail, which follows the north bank of the John Day River for 4.3 miles. Sixteen of the river’s 252 undammed miles twist through Cottonwood Canyon and other canyons within the park’s vast boundaries.

The bulging river charged like a runaway train, making it almost possible to conceive how, over a few million years, it could have sculpted the tall cliffs rising above the trail.

As we approached each towering block of basalt, we paused to take it in on the grand scale. Then we moved in for closer looks at swallows nests and old rock slides. At juniper trees growing at impossible angles.

At patches of colorful lichen. At water dripping through cracks, feeding green mini-gardens.

We spent only about half our time on the trail hiking. The other half, we loafed.

There were butterflies and wildflowers, even scat, to check out. We crushed sage needles between our fingers, then breathed in the sweet aroma.

We listened to geese honking, and we heard a canyon wren trilling its bright riff of descending notes — “the sound of falling water ... a liquid octave of birdsong,” as Oregon nature writer Kathleen Dean Moore describes it.

The agitated waters of the river made quite a racket. But we also could discern soft splashes and gurgles away from the main current — a quartet of John Day voices, at least.

The park’s brochure states that when Cottonwood Canyon’s “8,000-plus acres became an Oregon state park, public consultation reaffirmed that the rugged character of this special place should not be lost.”

While my wife and I stuck to trails stemming from the campground, “serious back-country hikers” are welcome to explore the park’s “rough, old ranching roads.”

Those wishing to experience the John Day in a kayak, raft, canoe or driftboat can launch from the J.S. Burress day-use area, adjacent to the park entrance.

The campground is small — just 21 sites — with no RV hookups. Reservations are not accepted; first come, first-served.

Four cabins can be reserved; but to minimize traffic, you must pack your stuff in from a parking area.

A barn and other structures — open for browsing — remain from the park’s former life as a ranch.

We had the campground virtually to ourselves when we arrived midweek. I hopped onto one of the park’s free bicycles and pedaled around.

By dusk Friday, cars were rolling in, and I suddenly remembered that, for all its middle-of-nowhere vibe, Cottonwood Canyon is only about 20 miles south of I-84 and two hours from Portland.

Breezes swirled through the campground, turning people’s efforts to set up tents into slapstick routines. I enjoyed a few chuckles on my way to the shower.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

Cottonwood Canyon, photo courtesy Oregon State Parks