Despite the prevalence of black bears, poison ivy and rattlesnakes, the Wenaha River is among the most accommodating backcountry muscle-power destinations in the Northwest.
Looking for an overnight wilderness destination free of snow as early as spring break in April or as late as Thanksgiving? Check it out.
Need a trip for a wide range of ages and abilities? The Wenaha fills the bill.
Buy a Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness map published by the Umatilla National Forest. For starters, zero-in on the small roadside parking area for Trail 3106, a couple hundred yards above Troy.
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Then ponder the possibilities for fishing and hunting, a gentle rolling getaway or lung-searing vertical challenge, a short trek or a multiday odyssey.
The river drains a roadless section of the Blue Mountains, flowing 30 miles through forest and basalt outcroppings to its confluence with the Grande Ronde River at Troy. The river trail, a small portion of the 200 miles of trails in the wilderness, follows the Wenaha to its headwaters.
The Wenaha holds rainbow and bull trout and attracts steelhead in autumn. An Oregon fishing license is required. Big-game hunters pack into the area starting in September.
Sportsmen, like everyone else, must hike in or ride horses to get to the wilderness area’s fish, elk, deer, bears and cougars.
The river is an early-season favorite for Spokane Mountaineers group backpacking trips. Last week, trip organizers Ken Ratz and Deb Hansen led nine backpackers ranging from 20-somethings to age 75 up the Wenaha. The three-day trek had options for everyone.
The riverside group-size campsites start just a few miles in. One never hikes more than two or three miles without finding a potential place to pitch a tent. This group hiked in to a base camp. The second day they spread out day-hiking, with individuals covering anywhere from a few miles to 18 miles as their hearts desired.
The Wenaha River is accessible from several trails that lead sharply down to the river from the south side. These are more favorable later in summer, when the river flows are lower for safer fording to the main trail along the north shore.
The river also is accessible from several trails on the north side, such as the Crooked Creek, Weller Butte, Slickear and Grizzly Bear Ridge trails. However, these north-side routes as well as Diamond Peak trailhead were inaccessible because of a few snow patches still blocking high-elevation roads last week.
Meanwhile, hikers have been wearing out their soles on the route upstream from the Troy trailhead since April.
By May, the lower hillsides were beaming with the yellow blooms of arrowleaf balsamroot.
The trail has some ups and downs to get over riverside basalt cliffs. Squarish hoof prints indicated bighorn sheep were in the vicinity in May.
But the river trail is a walk in the park compared with the steep drops past the wild sheep lairs to the Wenaha from the lateral trails accessing the river canyon.
Despite all the pluses of Trail 3106, it’s not heavily used. Summer heat and rattlesnakes get some of the credit for keeping crowds at bay.
Rattlers interrupted the Mountaineers’ brisk pace at least four times during their visit last weekend. Just as startling were the dozens of encounters with several varieties of nonpoisonous reptiles, including gopher snakes, which look just enough like a rattler at first glance along the trail to spike a hiker’s heart rate.
But rattlesnakes are among the most civilized of critters that pack a punch. They almost always offer a buzzing warning when approached too closely.
Tick checks and snake experiences were exchanged the first evening, when the backpackers grouped around their stoves and one-pot meals. Snake tips included:
-- Never intentionally mess with a rattler — this is when most snake bites occur.
-- Probe the trail ahead with a hiking pole when grass or brush covers the tread.
-- Keep your tent door zipped.
Established in 1978, the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness is composed of 177,412 acres, of which 110,995 are in Washington with the remainder in Oregon. The wilderness is within the 1.4-million-acre Umatilla National Forest.
The area consists of horizontal basalt flows thousands of feet thick that have been deeply and steeply eroded by streams. Trails either follow the broad rolling ridgetops near 6,000 feet or drop down to parallel the streams 2,000 to 3,000 feet below.
Camping areas above the river are determined by water availability. Most springs noted on the maps are viable even during summer. Some are mere murky trickles and others can disappear.
Exploring the trail that leads up from the Wenaha River to Smooth Ridge and Weller Butte, I gained 1,400 feet in elevation up dry open slopes where I was entertained by hawks soaring on canyon thermals and Western fence lizards scurrying at my feet.
At the first tier of timber, the forest became lusher with lupine, huckleberry and ninebark through green ponderosa pine parkland.
I startled a Portland couple on the trail. They were one night from finishing a 45-mile backpacking loop.
“You’re the first person we’ve seen in three days,” the woman said.
Two hours later, I startled a black bear on the same trail.
Pistol Spring was a bust, but Mud Spring had been developed with a stock trough hollowed out of a log.
I filled my water bottle with the pencil-thick trickle from a PVC pipe poking out of the slope. Taking no chances, I used a SteriPEN ultraviolet lamp to purify the water. After hiking 11 miles — and still a couple of hours from camp — I sat and enjoyed the most remarkably cold, clear, sweet water available on Earth — out of Mud Spring.
I drank the entire liter, refilled it and my Camelbak, and walked like a new man 7 miles back to a full evening of adventure stories from other hikers at camp.