Mystery of the Desert Mounds

Mount Adams framed by mysterious desert mounds found east of Mount Hood

A strange phenomenon plays out in the shadow of Mount Hood, across the broad desert ridges and plateaus of the Columbia Basin. Tens of thousands of dome-shaped soil mounds that range from a dozen feet to more than 60 feet in diameter rise atop the rocky bedrock, often in swarms that number in the hundreds. 

These mounds were given the unfortunate name of “biscuit scablands” by white emigrants arriving in the Northwest in the mid-1800s. They understandably loathed them as yet another miserable obstacle for wagon travel, no doubt having to weave among them on the rocky ground that typically surrounds these mounds. 

Later, they discovered that farming the “scablands” was equally difficult, and even today the sweeping wheat fields of the Columbia basin are still plowed around many of these odd formations where the ground has never been tamed.

White settlers arriving by wagon in the Columbia Basin in the 1800s gave “biscuit scablands” their name as they navigated thousands of these mounds along their journey (Oregon Trail Center)

Their pioneer name refers to “biscuits” of mounded soil on the scoured, rocky basalt substrate, or “scabland”, that typically surrounds the mounds. These mysterious humps in the desert are usually round, but depending on slight variations in slope, they also appear in oval and oblong shapes. 

A maze of desert mounds once covered a much larger part of the Columbia Basin, but more than a century of farming has erased many of the “biscuit” fields from the landscape. Still, even after 150 years of farming, they can still be found in the thousands, and their origin is still debated by geoscientists.

What are they?

Many theories on the formation of these mounds have been put forth since white settlement in the Pacific Northwest began. Among the early theories were Indian burial mounds, giant anthills, gopher mounds, wind-blown dunes, bison wallows and (of course!) extraterrestrials. While creative, none of these explanations are supported by field observation.

Similar mounds are found around the world, and often called “mima mounds” after the famous Mima Mounds near Olympia Washington. Recently, the early theory that they were created by pocket gophers has found favor again. 

While it sounds far-fetched, the gopher theory was boosted in the 1980s when a scientist used metal tracing to show that pocket gophers living in soil mounds in California actually pushed soil toward the top, and not outward, as was expected. This gave new life to the idea that gophers could create massive mounds over time.

Did pocket gophers create the desert mounds east of Mount Hood? Field science still says otherwise…

Scientists hoping to build on this discovery have since created a computer model to show that, over millennia, generations of pocket gophers could create large mounds on this scale.

While the renewed gopher theory might hold true for soil mounds found elsewhere in the world, the desert mounds found east of Mound Hood are different. The mounds of the Columbia Plateau are highly organized in their shape and distribution in a way that can’t be explained by the gopher model. These mounds clearly formed in direct relationship to the slopes they have formed upon, something that scientists have yet to explain with gopher models.

There’s also the fact that computer simulations of gopher activity are only as valid as the model inputs used by the scientists, especially when the simulations involve thousands of iterations, as the gopher model does. The gold standard in science is still direct field observation, and only the magnetic tracing research from the 1980s supports the gopher theory with this rigor.

So, for this article I’ve turned to original field research completed in the 1970s by a pair of Oregon graduate students. Their work continues to make the most compelling case for how our desert mounds formed. Clark Nelson of Oregon State University and John Baine Pyrch of Portland State University completed their research separately, but they came to the same conclusions on the general origin of the mounds. Both found that desert mounds are geomorphic relics from the last ice age, and were created by soil heave and sorting from repeated freezing and thawing, not gophers.

In 1973, John Pyrch completed his thesis on the origin of rock stripes, a related phenomenon to desert mounds in the Columbia Basin. Clark Nelson built on this research with his 1977 thesis focusing on soil mounds and their surrounding rock rings, the main focus of this article. Perhaps most importantly, both Pyrch and Nelson based their research on conditions specific to the Columbia Basin, as it’s likely that other origins for soil mounds exist, depending on where they originate in the world.

Clark Nelson dissected this desert mound near Shaniko in the 1970s, unlocking some of the secrets of how these soil mounds and rings of rock formed

For his field research, Clark Nelson camped out near the semi-ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon, where huge swarms of mounds fan out across the high plains. Nelson literally dissected a soil mound and its accompanying ring of stony “scabland” to understand how these features came to be. 

Clark’s field work showed the soil mounds and their stone rings to be interrelated features, formed by the same freeze-thaw cycles during the past ice age, more than 11,000 years ago, when the Columbia Plateau was much colder and much wetter than today. Because these ice age conditions have long passed, Clark also found that the mounds themselves are no longer evolving, and instead are simply geologic relics frozen in time. 

The ancient setup

According to Clark’s research, three ingredients set the stage for the formation of today’s desert mounds. First are the sprawling Columbia River flood basalts that cover much of eastern Oregon and Washington. It’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of these lava flows, as they originated near today’s Idaho border 16 million years ago and flowed all the way to the Oregon Coast of today. More than 300 of these massive flows spread for hundreds of miles over the millennia, burying the landscape in layers of basalt.

Today, we see these flood basalts prominently in the Columbia River Gorge, where the river has carved through them, revealing layer upon layer of basalt that forms rocky features like Crown Point and the cliffs behind Multnomah Falls. Clark found these expanses of solid bedrock to be an essential foundation for the soil mounds and rock rings.

The second ingredient came much more recently, at least in geologic time. As the last ice age began to wind down, continental glaciers that once extended as far south as Olympia (and scooped out the Puget Sound) began to retreat northward. The continental glaciers produced an immense amount of glacial silt that was spread far beyond the glacial extent over the millennia. We know today that wind played a major role in redistributing this glacial silt southward into Oregon, piling it in layers on top of the ancient Columbia flood basalts to depths of several feet. 

Finally, the third ingredient is the ongoing building of the Cascade Range, which has laid down countless layers of volcanic ash across the Columbia Basin over time. When Clark Nelson dissected his desert mound near Shaniko, he found both the wind-blown glacial silts and volcanic ash interspersed in the soil layers that make up the mounds. 

Nelson’s research also showed these layers of glacial and volcanic soil to be relatively undisturbed, and that the same sequence of layers could be found across groups of mounds in a given area. This observation casts further doubt on the gopher theory, since burrowing gophers would have mixed these soil layers up over time, had they been the builders of the mounds.

How the mounds formed

Clark Nelson believed the desert mounds and their rock rings formed through a process of natural sorting, where fine soil material is pushed up into mounds and rocks pushed out to the edges to form rings through countless cycles of freezing and thawing.

Nelson made his case with well-established research on the sorting effects of freeze-thaw cycles, and he argued that sorting on such a profound scale could only have happened during the end of the last ice age, when conditions were much colder and wetter than today’s arid desert climate. The schematic (below) is from Nelson’s thesis, and describes this process.

Nelson’s research also revealed that soil mounds tend to form where the soil depth is shallow atop the relatively impermeable basalt bedrock layer. As the schematic (below) from his thesis shows, the shallowness of the soil layer played an important role in forcing the sorting of rocks from fine soils through continuous movement from freezing and thawing.

Nelson believed that this freeze-thaw process, played out over millennia, created the soil mounds and rock rings in flat or gently sloping areas where the mounds were more protected from surface erosion. He observed that mounds only formed on gently sloping terrain, with less than 10 percent slope, and that they became oblong as the slope increased. 

He also observed that mounds formed in rows, aligned in the direction of the slope. This phenomenon shows the effects of gravity on the mounds as they formed, with their shapes stretching downhill when slopes increase. As shown in the first schematic in this article, Nelson described the interconnected rock rings that surround these round and oblong mounds as “nets”.

Finally, Nelson argued that only during the end of the Pleistocene epoch (the geologic term for the last ice age) would there have been enough moisture and cold to produce the thousands of freeze-thaw cycles needed to create today’s desert mounds. He believed that the climate that has since emerged in the Columbia Basin is not only too warm and dry to continue this sorting process, but that the desert climate has also protected the static mounds from erosion and being disturbed by forest cover. 

According to Clark Nelson, this is the sequence of events left us with the thousands of desert mounds we see today. He makes a compelling case based on field research in our region that stands up well against other, more generic theories on the origin of soil mounds.

For his part, John Pyrch studied the origins of rock stripes that mark many of the steeper slopes in areas where soil mounds otherwise occur. Like Clark Nelson’s work, Pyrch’s research found these stripes to be relics of the last ice age. 

First, Pyrch showed the strips to be distinct from common talus slopes, where an obvious source of rock at the head of the talus flow exists. Rock stripes lack such a source or falling rock. He also found that the desert rock stripes in the Columbia Basin aren’t moving like talus slopes, where rock is actively being added to the talus flow. Instead, rock stripes are gradually weathering but have become mostly static since their formation during the ice age. 

Pyrch also observed that rocks within these stripes are sorted, unlike talus slopes, suggesting the same ice age freeze-thaw origins as soil mounds and rock rings. Pyrch and Nelson both believed the rock stripes were simply extensions of the rock circles that surround soil mounds on flatter ground, the rock “nets” that Nelson described. As the earlier schematic from Clark Nelson’s research shows, these “nets” of interconnected rock rings eventually become so elongated as slopes steepen that they become rock stripes.

Tygh Ridge Quarry

Clark Nelson’s dissected soil mound near Shaniko has likely disappeared under sagebrush after 40 years, but a small quarry near Tygh Ridge provides a fresh cross-sections of soil mounds that illustrate their origins, as explained by Clark Nelson and John Pyrch. About six feet of the underlying basalt bedrock has been quarried here, with several soil mounds and rocks rings bisected in the process, as shown below.

A closer look (below) at one of these quarried mounds shows the distinct soil layer perched on top of the bedrock, as well as a profile of the rock ring surrounding the mound.

A closer (below) look at the floor of the quarry reveals truncated columns of basalt from the ancient lava flows that make up the bedrock under the desert mounds.

Basalt columns make up the bedrock under the mounds

The importance of basalt in the development of the mounds comes from its impermeability. Nelson believed the poor drainage typical of basalt flows ensured regular ponding of surface water, and therefore ensured a ready supply of moisture to drive the freeze-thaw cycle when the Columbia Basin was much colder and wetter.

Seeing Desert Mounds on the Ground

Desert mounds can be tough to spot on the ground, precisely because they formed on flat or gently sloping ground. But the advent of modern mapping tools has brought these features to life in a way that John Pyrch and Clark Nelson could not have imagined in the 1970s. The following image sets combine Google Earth aerial imagery with on-the-ground photos of the same areas to give a sense of what the mounds look like at eye level.

The first schematic (below) shows a flat-topped ridge in the Deschutes Canyon, just south of Tygh Ridge, with a well-developed swarm of desert mounds plainly visible. The underlying basalt layers can also be seen at the margins of the ridge, and flow lines on the ridge top can be seen where rows of mounds are aligned in the descending direction of the slope. 

[click here for a larger view]

Mounds in this schematic are round where the ground is flat, then become oblong in the direction of the slope where the ridge falls toward the canyon. The mounds finally disappear where slopes exceed 10 percent. This mound group does not include rock stripes, but in many similar examples, the stripes would continue down the canyon slopes below the lower limit of the soil mounds.

The following image shows what this terrain looks like on the ground in mid-spring, when the soil mounds are still holding moisture and supporting green vegtation, but the flat, shallow rock rings surrounding the mounds have already browned for the summer. This view is across a nearby ridge top in the Deschutes Canyon to the one shown in the previous schematic.

Mound swarm on a ridge top above the Deschutes River

The small farming community of Dufur is surrounded mostly by wheat and alfalfa fields, but a sizeable swarm of desert mounds survives due east of the community. It’s unclear why some mounds have been flattened and plowed while others were passed over by farmers, but one possible explanation could be the original depth of the soil in the mounds, and whether enough soil existed in the mounds to support farming when plowed flat.

On the ground, desert soil mounds near Dufur (below) are also most prominent in late spring, when the mounds are still green with new growth but the surrounding rock rings have browned for the summer. This view shows three separate swarms of mounds, one in front of the closest row of trees, a second swarm between the rows of trees and a third on the distant slope.

Desert mound swarms near Dufur

One of the most accessible places to see desert mounds is on the Rowena Plateau, in the Columbia River Gorge. These mounds formed at the western margin of where mounds occur in the Columbia Basin, but share all of the typical features of soil mounds. 

This aerial schematic (above) shows a couple of ice-age features whose origins have been long-debated by geologists. First, the soil mounds show up prominently, and seem to fit the explanation given by Clark Nelson for their origin. But the plateau also includes at least two kettle (or “pothole”) lakes that are typically formed by ice age glaciers leaving blocks of ice behind that are initially buried in sediments, then melt to leave a depression, or “kettle” behind.

But the “kettles” at Rowena are formed in solid basalt flows, so geologists believe they were carved into the basalt by the series of massive ice age floods known as the Missoula Floods. They believe floodwaters eroded these depressions much like the potholes commonly found in rivers, except on a massive scale.

Timing is key to the story at Rowena, as the ancient floods also swept away all but the basalt bedrock on the plateau, and any soil mounds that had formed before the floods wouldn’t have survived. The Missoula Floods occurred more than 13,000 years ago, so with the ice age winding down by about 11,700 years ago, that leaves a window of less than 2,000 years for windblown glacial and volcanic sediments to accumulate here, and for freeze-thaw action to sort the sediments into the mounds we see today. Was that enough time for these mounds to have formed according to Clark Nelson’s theories? This uniquely narrow geologic window could make Rowena Plateau the place where the mystery of the desert mounds can finally be unlocked by researchers.

On the ground at Rowena Plateau, the rock rings are prominent between the soil mounds (below). Consistent with Clark Nelson’s theory of a standing water table atop the bedrock, they often form vernal pools in winter and spring.

Rock rings surrounding the soil mounds at Rowena

Hikers on the plateau may not recognize the mounds as geologic features, but they cover most of the plateau and are surprisingly easy to spot, along with their network of rock rings (below).

Hikers passing through the soil mounds at Rowena

In this view (below), a hiking trail weaves among the mounds as it makes its way across the plateau, much as pioneer wagons must have dodged the desert mounds in the mid-1800s.

Trail meandering between desert mounds on the Rowena Plateau

Clark Nelson chose the Shaniko plateau for his field research in the 1970s, and it’s easy to see why from modern aerial photos, as shown in the following schematic (below). The terrain here slopes gently toward the surrounding canyons, creating the perfect geologic setup for soil mounds. 

The expansive extent of the desert mounds at Shaniko also shows how closely their formation follows slopes, with mounds radiating from a barely discernable high point in the plateau toward the canyons beyond the town.

This second view (below) of the Shaniko swarm of desert mounds provides some context, with a pickup truck and semi-truck captured in the aerial imagery for scale. 

In the tiny farm community of Kingsley, located a few miles south of Dufur and west of Tygh Ridge, there are more headstones than residents these days, with two pioneer cemeteries providing close-up views desert mounds. In this aerial view (below) a swarm of desert mounds has survived the plows next to the Kingsley Cemetery. Many other isolated mound swarms are located throughout the Kingsley area.

On the ground, the Kingsley mounds are prominent, especially in mid-spring when wildflowers and native grasses flourish on the mounds. The rock rings surrounding these mounds (below) are also well-developed and easy to see.

Green-topped desert mounds in spring surrounded by barren rock rings at Kingsley

As summer sets in and the desert green fades to brown, desert mounds are harder to spot. This view (below) shows the same group of mounds near the Kingsley Cemetery in June, as the last spring wildflowers on top of the mounds are fading to brown for the year.

Tawny summer colors taking hold on a swarm of soil mounds near Kingsley

Tygh Ridge is a broad, uplifted fault that forms the north wall of Tygh Valley and the lower White River canyon. The south side of the fault is steep, dropping abruptly into Tygh Valley and Deschutes River canyon, while the north slope is broad and gentle, extending nearly 10 miles toward Dufur. Because of its geology and gentle slope, the north side of Tygh Ridge provided the perfect conditions for thousands of ice age desert mounds to form. Though many have disappeared under plowed fields, thousands remain.

The aerial view in the following schematic (below) shows the swarms of mounds that seem to flow down the slopes of Tygh Ridge, and also how the mounds stretch into oblong shapes as slopes steepen into the ravines that radiate from the ridge.

A closer look at Tygh Ridge from the air (below) shows the relationship of mound shapes and orientation to the sloping terrain of the ridge. The mounds do seem to be “flowing” downhill. In a way they are, but only to the degree that the freeze-thaw sorting process that created these features was also shaped by gravity. 

[Click here for a larger view]

A closer aerial view (below) of this area on Tygh Ridge shows the order of the mounds strikingly, with longer mounds marking slopes and round mounds formed were the terrain is flatter. These patterns and the predictable order of the mounds on Tygh Ridge clearly defies the “gopher theory” that has found new life among scientists. 

The desert mounds here are plainly too ordered and predictable to be the work of gophers. Did gophers build soil mounds elsewhere in the world? Possibly. But the patterns we see in the Columbia Basin seem best explained by on-the-ground, freeze-thaw research by John Pyrch and Clark Nelson.

The desert mounds on Tygh Ridge are everywhere, though much less obvious on the ground than in aerial photos. This scene (below) shows why. The crest of Tygh Ridge, which forms the backdrop in this view, is almost entirely covered in desert mounds, and yet their low profile and the gentle slopes nearly hide them when viewed from ground level. 

Historic barn on the high slopes of Tygh Ridge

However, the closer you get to desert mounds on the ground, they more they begin to emerge in profile. These mounds on Tygh Ridge are typical, with wildflowers and bunch grasses established in the deep soil of the mound, and sparse growth in the rock rings that surround the mounds.

Mount Adams peeks between soil mounds on Tygh Ridge

Large areas along the north slope of Tygh Ridge remain unplowed, providing one of the best field laboratories for further understanding the phenomenon of desert mounds. Because the area is uplifted, it’s also some of the highest terrain (ranging from 2,500 to over 3,000 feet) in the Columbia Basin to show the desert mound phenomenon, which also might be of value for future research.

Rock Stripes

Rock stripes are abundant on the slopes of Tygh Ridge in Butler Canyon

Tygh Ridge not only has impressive displays of desert mounds, it’s also home to some of the best rock stripe examples in the area. Once group is located on a prominent shoulder of Tygh Ridge in Butler Canyon, where OR 197 crosses the ridge. 

Though this shoulder of Tygh Ridge (below) looks like an isolated bluff, it’s really just the end of a long ridge, with hundreds of desert mounds spread across the gentle crest of the ridge, out of view. It’s on the steep shoulders of the ridge that John Pyrch’s theory of rock stripes plays out. There is clearly no source of rock to feed these strips, and they are not migrating downhill like a talus slope might. Pyrch showed these to be are barely moving at all, in the absence of the ice age moisture and heavy freeze-thaw cycles that sorted them into stripes.

Rock stripes in Butler Canyon

A closer look (below) at rock strips on another shoulder of Tygh Ridge shows how the stripes correlate to the slope and to one other, marking the direction of the slope. 

Rock stripes on Tygh Ridge

While not as clearly formed as their desert mound and rock ring cousins, there is order here, with the stripes alternating with long islands of soil that Pyrch and Nelson believe are simply soil mounds becoming increasingly elongated by gravity as they slopes they formed upon became steeper.

(Author’s note: do you know John Pyrch or Clark Nelson? I tried to located them for this article with no luck, but would love to hear from them!)

_____________________

The Desert Mound Tour!

View from below the Kingsley Cemetery

If you’re up for a road trip, there’s a lonely and scenic loop through the Tygh Ridge area that provides close-up looks at desert mounds, along with sweeping views of the Cascades (on a clear day). In May and June, the route is lined with wildflowers, but the trip is fascinating to explore through summer and fall, as well. A pair of nearly forgotten pioneer cemetaries along the way make for interesting stops, too, and both are filled with wildflowers in spring.

Though this makes for an easy day-trip in a car, it could also work as a bicycle tour for cyclists open to some well-maintained gravel roads mixed in with the paved sections. With the exception of a couple of OR 197 sections along the loop, there is little or no traffic to contend with — and even the highway is lightly traveled. This is lonely country!

Here’s a map of the loop, along with a link to a larger version to print for your trip:

[Click here for a large, printable map]

The highlights of this 37-mile tour are keyed to the purple dots on the map and mileage for segments between the small orange dots is shown in the orange ovals. Here’s a segment-by-segment description of the tour:

1. From The Dalles, drive south on OR 197 for 8.7 miles to the Boyd Junction and turn left onto the Boyd Loop road. The tour begins here. Continue on this road toward Boyd.

Soon you will make a dogleg turn to the right through the tiny community of Boyd, then reach the beautiful Adkisson Bridge (A on the map) over Fifteenmile Creek. This historic 1925 structure was designed by Conde McCullough, the famed Oregon bridge engineer who designed most of the stunning bridges along the Oregon Coast Highway and several of the graceful bridge along the old scenic highway in the Columbia River Gorge. The nearby, historic Adkisson Mill completes the picturesque scene here. There’s a small pullout on the south side of the bridge.

Historic Adkisson Bridge designed by famed designer Conde McCullough

2. Reach a signed intersection with Dry Hollow Road 2.5 miles from Boyd Junction. Stay straight here and continue 6.2 miles up Long Hollow Road.

As travel through Long Hollow, you’ll notice the steep slopes of the hollow have kept the farmer’s plows mostly at bay, providing a glimpse of what the entire area once looked like, with sagebrush and wildflowers covering the desert landscape. In spring, blue Lupine and yellow Buckwheat are the predominate wildflowers here and throughout the tour. You might see deer and even antelope along this part of the tour, too, and the first desert mounds will come into view (shown on map).

A remnant of the natural desert landscape surives in Long Hollow

3. At a 3-way junction with Center Ridge Road and Tygh Ridge Road, turn right and begin following Tygh Ridge Road for the next 10.8 miles. This road is intially paved, but then turns to well-maintained gravel.

Immeidately after turning onto Tygh Ridge Road, watch for a wide shoulder pullout on a curve at the picturesque remains of the Nansene Community Hall (B on the map), located on the west (right) side of the road. This fading structure has its origins in the early 1900s when the area was still a center for sheep ranching. Now, it stands as the sole reminder of the community of Nansene, and its main residents are the hundreds of barn swallows that swoop in and out of the building and serenade visitors.

Historic Nansene Community Hall and Mount Hood

In spring, the meadows opposite the community hall (on the east side of the road) are filled with blue lupine and a view down Oak Creek Canyon toward the Deschutes River. There are great views of the meadow from along the fenceline, so please respect private property here. The view from Nansene also includes four Cascade volcanoes on a clear day: Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, the top of Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams!

Continuing south on Tygh Ridge Road, several desert mounds appear along both sides of the road. Watch for the quarry described earlier in this article if you’d like to inspect soil mounds that have been dissected. The soil mound quarry (C on the map) is on the east side of the road. This is private land and may be gated, though the quarried mounds are visible from the main road. 

Where Tygh Ridge Road turns to gravel, look to your left for a picturesque, abandoned farmhouse (D on the map) that dates back to the days of sheep ranching, but please observe private property here. There’s a pullout on the right side, opposite the farmstead.

Abandoned farmhouse along Tygh Ridge Road

Continue on Tygh Ridge Road as it gradually turn to the west, and begins to parallel the crest of Tygh Ridge (the long, gentle ridgeline to the south with communication towers marking its summit). Tygh Ridge and nearby Tygh Valley were named for the native peoples who lived in the area before white settlement in the mid-1800s. 

In 1845, Tygh Ridge also saw the ill-fated Stephen Meek party pass through in a harrowing effort to reach The Dalles after losing their way on the Meek’s Cutoff. The “cutoff” was a supposed shortcut along the Oreogn Trail, but it turned into a dead end for the 200 wagons and 1,000 white emigrants in Stephen Meek’s party when they reached the chasm of the Deschutes Canyon. At this point, the party had come to realize that Meek had never traveled the route and they were now lost.

Mountain man Stephen Meek in the 1860s

Starving and desperate, the Meek party crossed the Deschutes River at Sherar’s Falls, using ropes to haul their dissembled wagons across in an effor that took two weeks. From there, they somehow scaled Tygh Ridge with the help of a rescue party and eventually reached The Dalles. 

Dozens died along the disatrous Meek’s Cutoff trek, and many more died of exhaustion after reaching the The Dalles in October 1845. As you travel across the sweeping north slopes of Tygh Ridge, it’s easy to imagine these weary emigrants to Oregon making their way across this terrain in creaky wagons. Their story was made into the acclaimed film “Meek’s Cutoff” in 2010.

In the westward section of Tygh Ridge Road, the continuous view sweeps from Mount Hood to Mount Adams on a clear day. Watch for a rustic, century-old barn on the left (E on the map) and several wildflower meadows and swarms of soil mounds and their accompanying rock rings on the right (F on the map) in this section of the tour.

4. Continue following Tygh Ridge Road until you reach OR 197. Turn left here in the direction of Tygh Valley, following the highway for 1.6 miles south to Dufur Gap Road, just beyond the Tygh Summit marker. Turn right to continue the tour on Dufur Gap Road.

You will now enter the Kingsley portion of the tour, which has some of the most accesible and interesting desert mounds in the area. There are several mounds in a swarm located along the east (right) side of Dufur Gap Road. This quiet road was the original highway through the area until it bypassed in the 1960s by the modern OR 197.

5. After traveling 1.2 miles on paved Dufur Gap Road come to the junction with Kingsley Road. Turn left (west) and follow gravel Kingsley Road for the next 2.6 miles.

As you continue through the Kingsley district, you’ll pass more swarms of desert mounds that have survived the plows. I’ve dubbed one group of these mounds (G on the map) as the “Garden Mounds”, as they are topped with a beautiful display of wildflowers in spring and frame a nice view of Mount Hood (see photo, below).

“Garden Mounds” along Kingsley Road with Mount Hood on the horizon

You probably won’t realize that Kingsley Road has became Hix Road at a bend by a farmhouse, but soon the route reaches a short paved section along this part of the tour, where Friend Road briefly joins Hix Road. There’s is an excellent group of desert mounds and rock rings at this intersection (H on the map), with views south to Mount Jefferson and Postage Stamp Butte. The latter is the broad western extent of Tygh Ridge and once had a fire lookout on the summit. The mounds here have especially well-developed rock rings and vernal pools in winter and spring.

6. From the junction with Friend Road, continue north along a brief paved section, then keep straight where paved Friend Road veers left and gravel Hix Road heads north. Continue on Hix Road for the next 4.0 miles. 

Heading north on Hix Road you’ll pass another farmhouse on the right before reaching a sharp right turn, where a rough, dirt road heads off to the left toward a stand of Ponderosa pine on a low crest. If you love pioneer cemeteries but fear deep ruts, I recommend parking on the shoulder here and making short walk up this road to the pioneer Kingsley Cemetery (I on the map). Thanks to  the rough access road, this is one of the loneliest places around, and in spring, yellow Balsamroot fill the cemetery. Mount Hood is big on the horizon and there are also some nice soil mounds bordering west and south sides of the cemetery.

Just beyond the dirt road spur to the Kingsley Cemetery, watch for the Kingsley Catholic Cemetery on the north side of the road (J on the map). Park on the north shoulder for a short walk to tour this beautiful pioneer cemetery, where the views on a clear day include Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. Soil mounds border this cemetery, as well, and are covered with blue Lupine and yellow Buckwheat in late spring. 

Kingsley Catholic Cemetery

The family plots in Kingsley Catholic Cemetery include a surprising number of grave markers for children, a poignant reminder that at the turn of the 20th Century the child mortatilty rate was nearly 1 in 5 in our country, thanks to deadly childhood diseases that have since been nearly eliminated by modern vaccines. 

As you resume the tour heading northeast on Hix Road, you’ll pass still more swarms of soil mounds on the right and a couple more ranches as the road makes a gradual descent to Mays Canyon. On the far horizon, you can pick out the wrinkled Columbia Hills that mark the north wall of the Columbia River Gorge and some of the hundreds of modern, white windmills that now rise along the ridges of the Columbia Basin.

7. Reach a junction with paved Dufur Gap Road 4.0 miles from where Hix Road left paved Friend Road. Head left on Dufur Gap Road and travel 1.7 miles to a junction with OR 197.

This section of Dufur Gap Road travels through Mays Canyon, where you will pass several farm homes and likely see deer and possibly antelope along the way, as well as the distinctive magpies that are common in Oregon’s desert country. 

You may also have noticed burned trees scattered throughout the Kingsley and Mays Canyon segments of the tour. These were victims of the massive Substation Fire that burned nearly 80,000 acres in July 2018. Though the ground was blackened across much of the area, wheat fields and wildflower meadows have since covered most traces of the fire in just two years, with only the scattered tree snags to remind us of the event.

8. At the junction with OR 197, turn left onto the highway and continue north 2.5 miles to Dufur, forking left onto Dufur Valley Road where a sign points to Dufur, and staying straight when the town of Dufur comes into view.

Be sure to make a stop at the Historic Balch Hotel (K on the map), which offers vintage lodging and fine meals. It’s the large brick structure on the right as you pull into this small town. Dufur has lots to offer, and makes a nice lunch stop for the tour, including a city park for picnicking.

Historic Balch Hotel in Dufur

If you make the tour during the second week of August, you’ll miss the spring wildflowers but be just in time for Vintage Dufur Days — known to old-timers as the Dufur Threshing Bee. And remember, when John F. Kennedy visited Dufur during his 1960 presidential campaign, he famously challenged the locals with “Ask not what Dufur can do ‘fer you, but rather, what you can do ‘fer Dufur!”

9. Continue through Dufur and rejoin OR 197 on the north end of town. Turn left toward The Dalles and head 3.9 miles to the Boyd Junction, which concludes the tour loop. Continue north on OR 197 to return to The Dalles.

The last secion of the tour follows OR 197 through more ranch country, but if you’re still up for another pioneer cemetery stop, don’t miss the well-maintained Dufur Community Cemetery (L on the map), located on the west (left) side of the highway, just north of Dufur. Watch or a grove of locust trees, the somewhat hard to spot cemetery driveway is just beyond. Graves here date back to the 1860s and trace some of the earliest white settlement in Oregon, when Dufur was along the Barlow Road route used by white settlers to reach the Willamette Valley. Mount Hood fills the western horizon on a clear day.

Big Jim’s Drive-in is a local institution in The Dalles

Still feeling hungry before the drive home? No trip to The Dalles is complete without a stop at Big Jim’s Drive-in, located just west of OR 197 on Highway 30, near the I-84 interchange. It has been a comfort-food institution in The Dalles since the 1960s.

You can go fancy at Big Jim’s with salmon and chips (or even grilled wild salmon!), but I recommend starting with the Jim Dandy burger basket. The house fries are excellent, and if you’re an onion ring fan, be sure to request the upgrade for $1 (or order both! You won’t regret it… though your cardiologist might). In our pandemic era, Big Jim’s has patio seating, a drive-thru and you can even call an order in from a marked space in their parking lot and have it delivered to your car window.

Travel safe, everyone!

_________________

Tom Kloster | June 2020

3 thoughts on “Mystery of the Desert Mounds

  1. Outstanding article. I really appreciate the way you included original scientific data. I’ve always wondered about those mounds. Now I know. Gracias!

    Like

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