As we’ve noted in previous posts, we have a project underway to at least visit all of Oregon’s 47 established federal wilderness areas that we’d missed visiting in years past (less the two – Oregon Islands and Three Arch Rocks – that are closed to public entry). This time, in conjunction with a rafting trip through Hells Canyon (and, coincidentally, the Hells Canyon Wilderness), we went for short hikes in the North Fork Umatilla River Wilderness and in the Oregon side of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.
The land surrounding these wilderness areas is mostly “open range” – which usually means places where cattle are free to roam regardless of land ownership. It was fun to see that the locals have broadened that definition to include free-roaming pot roast!
North Fork Umatilla River Wilderness
This wilderness covers an area of 20,225 acres and is located in northeast Oregon just east of Pendleton, Oregon. The gently sloping hills of this wilderness fall into extremely steep, timbered canyons below a high plateau. We had a choice between the North Fork Umatilla River Trail (USFS #3083) or the Nine Mile Ridge Trail (USFS #3072). The Nine Mile Ridge trail offers views but can be a hot climb in the summer. So, anticipating heat, we went with the North Fork trail because it’s shadier. Then, as fate (or irony) would have it, a cold front passed through the day of our hike and temperatures were 10-15 ºF below normal, with some clouds. We could have had the views but the out-and-back hike along the river to Coyote Creek was a fine way to visit this wilderness. We learned later that you can connect, by crossing a bit of non-wilderness tableland, the Buck Creek trail with the Buck Mountain trail to form a lovely 15-mile loop.
The North Fork trailhead is easily accessible from Pendleton, Oregon on paved roads, with only about three miles of good gravel road right at the end. The trailhead features a sign but no amenities.
The trail itself was generally in good condition, with some encroachment by brush but only a few climb over or around obstacles.
Although this is called a “river” trail, and does follow along the canyon that holds the river, it doesn’t often make close or direct contact with the water and even actual sightings of the river are rare. Which is not to say you can’t get down to the water if you want to do so.
For the first 5 miles or so past the trailhead, the trail is usually in the trees but occassionally it breaks out into one of the open meadows, where we were able to get a brief look at the surrounding hills.
About 2.7 miles from the trailhead, we came to Coyote Creek, our destination for this day’s visit to the wilderness. Just before the creek crossing, there is a side trail to a large campsite with river access. Judging from its size, it’s a popular destination for many users of this trail.
We’d expected to have to ford Coyote Creek and thus were pleased to find it spaned by a classic pedestrian bridge,
which saved us from having to try to hop over the creek itself, which was still running pretty good even this late in the year.
Although we had planned to turn around at the creek, we couldn’t keep ourselves from going a little further east on the trail “just to see what’s there.” The trail does get a little closer to the river in this section but the river itself is also correspondingly smaller. Still very pretty though.
We would have had to have hiked 2.8 miles past Coyote Creek – and climbed to 3,400 feet – in order to have any chance for a big view, but this extra effort wasn’t part of the plan, so, after about a mile, we headed back.
Along the way, the LovedOne chanced on this beautiful greenish-grey snake, which stayed on the trail just long enough for one photo.
All in all, a short, easy hike (7.6 miles round-trip; 500 feet of elevation gain) that was more than enough for a visit to this wilderness. If we ever get a chance to come back for another visit, we’ll try the Nine Mile trail (for its better views and (in season) its wildflower fields) or the Buck Creek – Buck Mountain (because loops are good).
Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness (Oregon Side)
This wilderness covers a total area of 176,739 acres, of which approximately 65,114 acres are in Oregon and the rest in Washington. It is a maze of deep, sheer-walled canyons that cut into what was once a flat and expansive plateau at the northernmost reach of the Blue Mountains. We accessed the Oregon side via the Timothy Springs trailhead (USFS) and the popular Wenaha River Trail (USFS #3106). There are over 200 miles of trail in this wilderness and many on the Washington side stay high on ridgelines. Conversely, the Wenaha River trail descends along the canyon of the South Fork of the Wenaha River (a designated Wild and Scenic River) from Timothy Springs to Troy, Oregon. The primary attraction here being the rugged scenic beauty of the canyon. For our visit, we did an out-and-back to the ford where the trail first crosses the Wenaha River.
You can get to the Timothy Springs trailhead from Troy, Oregon to the east (per the USFS directions) or from Tollgate, Oregon to the west (per Sullivan’s directions in the third edition of his Eastern Oregon guide). We followed Sullivan’s directions along about 15 miles of good gravel and dirt road to the primitive campground and historic guard station at Timothy Springs.
There was a fair amount of traffic on these backroads given that it was the Labor Day weekend. It was also the start of hunting season, so there were bow hunters about, as well as “pre-hunters” scoping out locations for camping and hunting once their season starts. We were acutely conscious of the fact that we’d forgotten to pack our orange blaze hiking clothes! The trail itself, at least as far as the ford, was in great shape, with only a few uncleared trees just before the ford.
The trail is all under the forest canopy but is otherwise pretty open. Soon after leaving the trailhead, we crossed a minor drainage lined with ferns,
and passed though a field of past-their-prime coneflowers (Rudbeckia sp.), many sporting chilled, very slow moving bees trying for the last pollen grains of the season.
The LovedOne was feeling unusually frisky for this early in the morning and expressed this exuberance as we crossed another, but wetter, minor drainge.
Then it was back under the canopy on this very good trail,
where we came upon some Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora), also known as the ghost plant or corpse plant. It’s a flowering plant (we’d missed the flowers) but contains no chlorophyll to provide nourishment. Instead, it has short, stubby roots that contain fungi which extend in a web-like way through dead rotting leaves and connect up to the roots of conifers. The conifers provide sugar, which the fungi carry to the Indian Pipe plant. So it’s really a parasite, but on fungi.
Sullivan mentions a small (6-foot high) waterfall just off the trail shortly before you reach the ford across the South Fork. We’re not sure it qualifies as a “waterfall” but as a water feature with a small pool surrounded by ferns it’s quite lovely.
With that, we pushed on to the ford across the South Fork of the Wenaha River. We had expected a crossing 20-feet wide and a foot deep but instead found something considerably narrower and shallower (maybe earlier in the year it’s bigger?). Some very judicious manuvers on water-slick logs could have gotten us across without wading but this was our designated turn-around spot so, after a snack, we headed back up to the trailhead.
Another short, easy hike (4.7 miles round-trip; 850 feet elevation gain) but more than adequate for our visit to this wilderness. Still, there are over 200 miles of trail here – and ready access from the Washington side – so we only barely scratched the surface of the hiking possibilities in this area.