Shed winter with this early season hike through wildflowers and wildlife in Oregon

The blue skies and warmer weather the last weekend in March made for a perfect time to do an overnight backpack along the Wenaha River Trail into the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

Located south and west of Clarkston about four hours from Tri-Cities, this is a top early season destination for hikers looking to get stiff muscles moving after the winter and get in shape for the coming months.

The weather was partly sunny when we left Tri-Cities. We drove down Interstate 84 through La Grande then headed east to Troy, Ore. The roads above Wallowa were open and snow-free for the most part.

We hit snow at about 3,000 feet and the road turned a bit muddy with snow melt in places.

Along the way, we saw a few elk and mule deer. At a convenient turn-off along the Grand Ronde River, we looked up to the hillside to our east and spotted a large herd of bighorn sheep, including a couple who were intent on smashing their hardened heads into each other.

We entered the booming metropolis of Troy, which was counted in the U.S. Census for the first time in 2010.

The 2017 census population is listed at 818, an increase of 1.24% since 2010. There are no red lights, and we found the trailhead and a parking lot that accommodates maybe five cars, depending how they park.

The trail follows the south-facing slope above the Wenaha River. It is an exposed trail with very few shade trees. The views are spectacular.

The warmer temperatures had pushed the early wildflowers into bloom, including several types of Lomatium, buttercups, waterleaf, balsamroot, beautiful blue Mertensia chiming bells, yellow bells, shooting stars, and even an uncommon variety of a stunning white and pink dutchmen’s britches.

Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC) hiking group on the Wenaha River Trail.

The trail runs parallel to the river, gaining a little elevation in places and then dipping back down to the creek bottom then back up again. There are also two memorable tiny switchbacks. The views up and down the river valley reveal the remarkable geology of the ages.

You enter the wilderness area six miles in with a stack of rocks that have a metal plate with the number 6 on it - probably built by hikers, an unofficial wilderness boundary marker. There are several good camping spots in this next half mile.

Along the way we encountered two men on the way out, each carrying a giant pair of elk racks they’d found way up on the hillsides some 15 to 17 miles in. They referred to them as “sheds” — antlers that had been shed by the elk after the winter.

An elk rack collected by a shed collector in the Wenaha River valley near Crooked Creek.

The trail then heads north, following Crooked Creek, where we found a place to pitch tents in an open meadow and hang out for the night. We had dinner, shared stories, and watched carefully as two middle-aged men with over 100 years of outdoor experience between them entertained us by throwing rocks with a rope attached up in the air to hang the bear bags sufficiently high between two trees. Success!

Then we stared upward at the stars till the chilling evening air convinced us it was the best time to climb into our sleeping bags for the rest of the night.

Morning came and we found that the temperatures had dipped to freezing. There was frost on the tents, and the grass and leaves and some of the water vessels had a thin layer of ice crystals on them.

After retrieving the bear bags, we set the stoves aflame and got the coffee and breakfast going. In half an hour, the sunlight marched down the hillside in front of us, illuminating the rock formations and warming up the valley bottom.

Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC) hiking group on the Wenaha River Trail.

We packed up around 9 a.m. and headed back to the trailhead. A little over halfway down we encountered two fly fishermen. As we walked by one of them howled as he got a large feisty trout on the line and lost it in less than 10 seconds.

With numerous flower and photo stops, we finally arrived at the trailhead and decided to head into Troy for a well-deserved lunch. The only store/café/pub in town is the Troy Resort – Wenaha Bar and Grill. Every inch of the wall from floor to ceiling is covered with wild animals and historic local memorabilia. I asked the manager, Doug Witherite, whether they had any Wi-Fi. He said, “no, but I think my wife can get email messages on the sat phone”.

“Relax You’re on River Time!” – says one of the signs pegged on the wall.

The menu is classic Americana, and they do not have a machine that can take credit cards. A unanimous consensus was openly voiced by members of the group that the Wenaha Burger was very probably the best burger they ever had. The homemade Apple Pie a la mode was great as well.

What you need to know:

  • Travel time/distance from Tri-Cities: Four hours – 180 miles each way.
  • Hike distance: 5 to 7.3 miles each way
  • Difficulty: 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. Just a few short, steep sections.
  • Elevation: Start at feet. Turnaround: 1,600 feet.
  • Time: Three to four hours each way on your flower and photo stops.
  • Details: Park at the trailhead in Troy. Nearest restroom facilities are in Troy.

Hiking activities

Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC) organized outdoor and hiking activities this month include:

  • Lyle Orchard (Columbia River Gorge, Lyle, WA) Saturday, April 13
  • Badger Candy Mountain Trail Maintenance (West Richland), Sunday, April 14
  • Hat Rock/McNary Beach (Umatilla, OR) Saturday, April 20
  • Catherine Creek (Columbia River Gorge, Lyle, WA) Friday, April 26
  • Juniper Dunes Wilderness (Pasco, WA), Saturday, April 27

Find out more at the Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC) at www.imacnw.org.

Paul Krupin is an avid local outdoor enthusiast and a member of the Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC). He has been hiking the trails of the Pacific Northwest since 1976. He can be reached at pjkrupin@gmail.com.