OUTDOORS — Silence surrounds Oregon's Big Sink

The silence and sense of foreboding surrounding the three-mile-wide, horseshoe-shaped indentation in Umatilla National Forest is made more mysterious when compasses are occasionally rendered useless



Ladybugs swarm across a log on the path to the Big Sink.


A sign directs hikers to the Sinks Trailhead.


A fallen tree hunches like a monster beside the trail.

When I shuffled across pine needles to the edge of the Big Sink, I stopped to listen.


I studied the 70-foot fir and tamarack trees below. They stood motionless.

Silence. No breeze soughed through the boughs.

Nora the Schnauzer padded softly along the edge of the cliff in front of me.

She climbed onto a four-foot high boulder.

I snapped her photo to indicate the boulder's size.


No ravens.

No song birds.

No squirrels.


Not until I inhaled.

Visitors often approach the Big Sink with a sense of foreboding.

Or of the really weird.

The sink's outline on the Umatilla National Forest map shows a deep horseshoe-shaped indentation.

A Google search of ‘the Big Sink' provides this description:

"Located on the Walla Walla Ranger District roughly two miles southeast of Jubilee Lake is an area known as ‘the Big Sink.' The area is accessible on foot from Forest Road 63. … (I)t is an interesting geological formation that looks as though a large piece of the earth simply sank into the ground. It is an area of curiosity and puzzlement and has been the source of rumors and stories for years, including many local Indian legends. To enhance the mystery, compasses do not always work correctly in the area, causing much consternation to hikers and hunters. ..."

And a Whitman College 2006 Geology Newsletter reports:

"Jamie Hinderliter, Shannon Othus and Don Malkemus each analyzed aspects of the ‘Big Sink', a geomorph feature located in the Blue Mountains, Oregon. Jamie's research was on the geomorphology of the ‘Big Sink.' Her results indicate that the depression is a remnant of an ancient landslide. Shannon looked at the composition and stratigraphy of the interbeds in the Columbia River Basalt Group and their suspected role in initiating mass wasting in this area. Don used radiocarbon dates of buried charcoal to determine the forest fire history of the Blue Mountains."

One less reliable person suggests a space ship about three miles wide left the indentation.

I first visited the sink years ago. I parked along Forest Road 63 three miles or so down from the junction with FR 64. I walked east to a drop off into the sink. I explored a bit and left.

I made two similar trips after that.

I also hiked briefly on Trail 3233, beginning eight miles down on FR 63.

A few days ago, Darlene, Nora and I passed a sign on Road 63, two miles down from Road 64. It said "Sinks Trail 1 mile."

I drove more than a mile and didn't see a trail sign. I drove back and started over. At half-a-mile I parked at a spur road with a gate. Nora and I walked east for 20 minutes, and didn't see a trail sign.

I did see a million ladybugs crawling on three logs.

From there, I drove four miles down to Lugar Springs loop road and back without seeing a sinks trail sign.

At home, I Googled Mottet/Sinks Trail 3233.

A map there says it begins off of Road 63, travels north along the east side of the Big Sink, bends to the west and meets Road 63 again after five miles.

So, the next day Nora and I visited the Big Sink.

We drove to the lower trailhead (N 45 46. 434/W117. 875 at 3,549 feet) and set out at 11:02 a.m.

Ten minutes from Road 63, we turned north at a trail marker and started up a gentle incline through waist-high ferns. I put Nora on the leash to keep her in sight.

We passed through dark woods with gigantic Ponderosa pines.

At 1:55 p.m. the trail curled to the west across a gully I'd not seen before and up a hill. I peeped over the sink's edge, down a 100-to-300-foot cliff with a tumble of 20-ton boulders.

I set a GPS waypoint (N45 47. 657/W117 55.586 at 4,165 feet).

I slipped, stumbled and slid down the slope to the bottom for photos. I scrambled among endless deadfall that a keyed-up Nora barely noticed.

We explored, I snapped photos and we finally heard an animal: a grey squirrel scolded Nora.

Eventually, we climbed a game trail up the slope and headed back. We would finish the trail when we had two cars.

Dusk approached as we left the trailhead. Deer lounged along the road, and we spent an hour on the 20-mile drive to Highway 204.

We didn't reach home for supper, and the silence of the Big Sink faded into a fond memory.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com.

If You Go

Turn left from Highway 204 onto Forest Road 64 at Langdon Lake. Drive 11 miles toward Jubilee Lake, and turn south onto Forest Road 63. Drive about eight miles to the sign pointing to the left toward Sinks Trail No. 3233 at a quarter-mile.


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