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Blue Mountains - North Hiking Oregon Trip report

Lower Wenaha River

After dealing with snow the day before at Freezeout Saddle (post) we called an audible and decided not to try hiking at Hat Point. That trailhead is a little higher in elevation along Hells Canyon than we had been during the Freezeout Saddle Hike. We turned instead to the Wenaha River Trail starting from Troy, OR. This trail provided us with the opportunity to make our first visit into the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. We planned on visiting this wilderness later on this year but knowing our plans are always subject to change we jumped on the chance for a warmer, drier hike that visited another of Oregon’s wilderness areas.

The drive to Troy from Wallowa Lake was an eventful one. The wildlife was out in force. We kept our eyes on the numerous deer that we spotted along Highway 3 between Enterprise and the turnoff to Flora. At one point several elk ran across the highway ahead of us from one field to another. There were two deer in the second field that upon seeing the elk running away from the road toward them decided they should run too, only they ran toward the road (and us). The lead deer realized its mistake and turned around chasing after the elk leaving the second deer looking confused before also turning around. A short while later we were slowed by a turkey in the road. Its escape plan appeared to be to try and outrun our car. If you’ve seen a turkey try and sprint its a pretty funny sight. Eventually it remembered its wings and flew to the side of the road.

Thirty five miles from Enterprise we turned left at a sign for Flora, a ghost town that peaked in the early 1900’s. Beyond Flora the road was paved for the first 4 miles but then turned to mostly dirt with some gravel. For about 7 miles this road wound steeply down to the Grande Ronde River and Troy. Numerous hairpin turns with steep dropoffs made for a bit of a tense drive down but we arrived at the Troy Trailhead in one piece.
Troy Trailhead

Not only were we at a much lower elevation (under 2000′) but the forecast was for just a 30% chance of showers on this day so we were optimistic that we’d have a little better weather experience. The sky seemed to back that up as we looked back over Troy and the Grande Ronde River.
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This lower portion of the 31.3 mile long Wenaha River Trail passes through the 2015 Grizzly Fire scar.
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Some of the trees survived the fire.
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We had seen a trip report from the end of April over on Oregonhikers.org which indicated that the trail was in pretty good shape, but might be a bit brushy in spots. The author had also spotted big horn sheep during the hike so we were going to be keeping on the lookout for those.

In April it looked like there had been a nice display of balsamroot along the trail but most of that was now done but we were pleased to still find some flowers in bloom.
IMG_7762Vetch

IMG_7768Spreading dogbane

IMG_7776Wild rose with a beetle

IMG_7778Yarrow

IMG_7787Houndstongue

IMG_7784Paintbrush

IMG_7792Catchfly

IMG_7795sticky purple geranium

The trail itself began above the Wenaha River but soon dropped down to river level passing through a flat. This pattern would repeat itself over the course of the hike. The sections along the flats ranged from open grass to overgrown brush. We appeared to be the first to be going through the brush since the leaves were heavy with water which quickly soaked the lower halves of our bodies.
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As we made our way along the trail we discovered additional flower types.
IMG_7812Oregon sunshine

IMG_7818Monkey flower

WatercressWatercress?

IMG_7822Fiddleneck

IMG_7827Rough eyelashweed

IMG_7829Blanket flower with two sleeping bees

After a mile we arrived at a gate which we at first mistook for the boundary with the Umatilla National Forest.
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While we were on the lookout for big horn sheep it was colorful birds that we kept seeing (and hearing).
IMG_7848Yellow breasted chat

IMG_7865Lazuli bunting

The contrast in the hillsides on the opposite sides of the river was interesting. The north side consisted of smooth rounded terrain while the south side was much more rugged.
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While we were admiring the ruggedness of the opposite hillside we spotted some promising brown dots (they are in the picture above). With a little help from the zoom on the camera and our monocular we were able to confirm they were some of the big horn sheep we’d been looking for.
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Just a bit further down the trail we spotted another group. These were engaged in some rowdy play around a burnt ponderosa trunk.
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We watched them for quite a while before continuing on. The north side of the river became a bit more rugged and the rockier terrain provided more diverse flowers.
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IMG_7919Penstemon

IMG_7921Clarkia

IMG_7932Phlox

IMG_7945More spreading dogbane

IMG_7949Buckwheat

IMG_7952Scabland penstemon

IMG_7953Cinquefoil?

While the trail was up on the hillside we had nice views of the Wenaha below.
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A little over two and a half miles in we passed a second fence which was the actual forest boundary.
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Just beyond the boundary was a viewpoint across from Dry Gulch.
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From the viewpoint the trail made a couple switchbacks down to another brushy flat.
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Although it wasn’t thick there was a few pockets of poison ivy along the trail so we kept a watchful eye when the vegetation was close to the trail. It was along these flat sections where we spotted most of the birds.
IMG_7970Woodpecker with a snack.

IMG_7978Northern flicker

IMG_8003Black headed grosebeak

We also spotted a few big horn sheep on our side of the river.
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After climbing up a bit again we found a nice combination of false sunflower and balsamroot blooming along a ridge end along with a few other flowers.
IMG_7985Blue dicks with a beetle

IMG_8010Lupine

IMG_8012Salsify

IMG_8021False sunflowers

IMG_8024Balsamroot

IMG_8013Clarkia with beetles

IMG_8028View from the ridge end.

We repeated the dip and climb a couple more times before arriving at a neat rock overhang a bit before the 6 mile mark (at least according to our GPS). Along the way spotted more birds, a deer, and what appeared to be a rattlesnake that had met its demise along the trail.
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IMG_8040Another bunting

IMG_8045Wallflower

IMG_8052Another chat

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20190525_095959Geranium

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Beyond the overhang we could see Crooked Creek Canyon ahead to the right where it joined the Wenaha to the left.
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From the overhang it was a little over a mile to Crooked Creek. The stretch began with another nice selection of flowers.
IMG_8077Skullcap

IMG_8081Stream globemallow

IMG_8083Thimbleberry

IMG_8084Threadleaf phacelia

The the wildlife kicked back in and not in the most welcome way for Heather. I had stopped to try and get a picture of a garter snake that had just moved off the trail.
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I heard Heather say snake a couple of time and I was thinking “Yeah I know I’m trying to get a picture of it” only she was talking about a second garter snake that was slithering into the grass on the other side of the trail. Then she notice the third one coiled a couple of inches from her left foot. She is not a huge fan of snakes but has gotten quite a bit more comfortable around them, but three in one spot was getting close to too much. The third snake slithered away when I approached and we continued on.

More welcome wildlife came in the form of a family of geese, a pair of Lewis’s woodpeckers, and butterflies.
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At the 6.3 mile mark we passed a rock cairn with a “6” on top. We weren’t sure but thought that it might have been marking the boundary of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.
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Whether or not that was the official boundary somewhere near the cairn we did enter the wilderness crossing one more off of our list to visit.
IMG_8134Officially inside the wilderness

We followed the trail to the site of the former footbridge over Crooked Creek which was lost in the Grizzly Fire.
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We spent some time pondering what the crossing would be like for backpackers wanting to continue on the Wenaha Trail. The water level looked like fording would be possible but we couldn’t see how one would get up to the trail on the far side. The best we could figure is that you would need to ford closer to the mouth of Crooked Creek and not at the old bridge site but we didn’t investigate further.

We turned around and headed back the way we’d come. The day was warming up nicely as blue sky began to emerge overhead. We ran into several groups of backpackers heading in and they all asked about Crooked Creek. We told them that we thought fording would be possible but they’d need to find a spot to get back up to the trail. One of them mentioned what we had suspected, that there was a way up a little further downstream.
IMG_8165Blue sky

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On the way back we kept our eyes open for anything we might have missed the first time by.
IMG_8177Wren

IMG_8190Spider and blue dicks

IMG_8194Old man’s whiskers

IMG_8220Wild onion

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Near the spot where we had seen the first group of big horn sheep across the river Heather spotted a small group on our side along the river bank.
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By the time we made it back to the trailhead the sky was mostly blue and temperatures were in the upper 70’s. It was a far cry from the snow shower the day before.
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20190525_134957The bees woke up at some point.

For some reason I had started craving pizza near the end of our hike so when we got cell signal I did a quick search of restaurants in Joseph and decided a calzone from Embers Brewhouse which really hit the spot and provided breakfast for the next day as well. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Lower Wenaha River

Categories
Hells Canyon Hiking Oregon Trip report

Freezeout Saddle

Day two of our Memorial Day Weekend trip to NE Oregon was set to be our first visit to the Hells Canyon Wilderness. Our planned hike was a loop described by Sullivan as “rugged” starting from the Freezeout Trailhead and utilizing the Saddle Creek, Summit Ridge, and Freezeout Trails.

According to the weather forecast, day two was also the most likely to provide precipitation with a 90% chance of showers as the day wore on. It had rained a bit overnight at Wallowa Lake so we were pleasantly surprised to have a nice view of the mountains as we drove into Joseph that morning.
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From Joseph we drove to Imnaha where we turned right onto the mostly gravel Upper Imnaha Road for 12.3 miles. Just before a bridge we veered left from the wide gravel road onto a much narrower, steep, more dirt than gravel road for 2.7 miles to the large trailhead.
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Two trails leave from this trailhead, the Saddle Creek and Freezeout. We took the Saddle Creek Trail on the left side of the informational signboard.
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There was a decent amount of blue sky behind us to the east as we began to climb up the trail.
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Ahead of us the Sun was still rising in the east where a few lighter clouds filled the sky.
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We also noticed a few cows on the hillside ahead of us.
IMG_7343(The black dot in the center of the hill is one such cow.)

We were busy looking for flowers and ignoring the cattle.
IMG_7345Western stoneseed

IMG_7346Prairie stars

IMG_7352Lupine

We couldn’t ignore them for long though as we soon rounded a bend to find several of them in the trail. They began to head up the trail so we followed having played this game before (post). More cows began to hurry down the hillside and cross the trail and then we noticed the bull. He didn’t look overly please with us but he managed to get the rest of the herd off the trail and uphill a bit. We passed on by and then promptly heard several of the cows coming up quickly behind us. I knew this game too from my time moving irrigation pipes in Central Oregon as a teenager. I turned and they stopped then we repeated (like the school yard game “red light, green light”). Knowing this could go on for awhile when we got into a brushy section of trail we sped up and left them behind.
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IMG_7364Heather emerging from the brushy section.

We could relax and start enjoying the hike again. The trail climbed up through open grass hillsides with occasional stands of trees. Views abounded.
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About a half mile from the trailhead the Saddle Creek Trail made a wide arc into the tress to Saddle Creek.
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The trail crossed the creek only to recross it moments later.
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The forest hosted a few different flowers than the grassy hillsides.
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The trail climbed away from the creek and began a series of switchbacks leading back to the open hillsides.
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As we gained elevation the number of blooming flowers increased.

IMG_7415Blue Dicks

IMG_7417Balsamroot

IMG_7421Balsamroot, paintbrush and biscuitroot

The views also got better as we climbed but we also began to notice showers passing by. A bonus result of the showers was a faint rainbow that framed the snowy Wallowa Mountains to the west for a time.
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The Saddle Creek Trail kept climbing, sometimes via switchback and others up and around ridges.
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There was a good number of flowers in bloom with quite a few more to come.
IMG_7464Larkspur and monkeyflower

IMG_7474Paintbrush

IMG_7490Chickweed

IMG_7470Possibly going to be a penstemon

IMG_7459Unkown

IMG_7461Lupine

We finally arrived at Freezeout Saddle after gaining over 1900′ in what our GPS claims was 3 miles.
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A trail signpost marked the junction with the Summit Ridge Trail.
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Despite the showers nearby we had a pretty good 360 degree view.
IMG_7493West to the quickly vanishing Wallowa Mountains.

IMG_7496North

IMG_7497South

IMG_7509_stitchEast into Hells Canyon

We rested briefly at the saddle admiring the view.
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After the break we headed south on the Summit Ridge Trail passing more views into Hells Canyon and some different wildflowers.
IMG_7514Cutleaf daisy

IMG_7529A little white alpine pennycress

IMG_7533Largehead clover

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The view toward the Wallows had taken a hit though as some dark clouds and rain showers now lay between us and them.
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We began to run into quite a few yellow glacier lilies when we reentered the trees as we traversed around the west side of a rise along the ridge.
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There were also a few kittentails present.
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We ran into our first non-bovine obstacle in the form of a downed tree in this section.
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Oh if that had been the only other obstacle. As we came around the hillside and spotted a snowfield in the distance.
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The rain “showers” had made their way over to us and at an elevation of approximately 6200′ we were partly in the clouds.
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We hoped it would pass quickly and stuck to looking for more flowers which we found in a clump of hairy clematis.
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We arrived at the snow field and sized it up. There was a clear track crossing from the side we were on.
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We had brought our microspikes for just such an occasion but the snow looked narrow and the footprints were well established from what we could see so we eschewed the spikes and started across. Big mistake as the footprints had smoothed over on the far side of the snow (which was icy and even slicker than usual with the rain falling). I managed to heal kick some footholds and get off the snow without too much trouble but Heather had gone higher thinking it would be easier to get off by going up. Luckily she was able to kick in a little bit of footing and jam her poles into the snow to help keep her from sliding down the hill. I was able to the get a hold of her pack and we got her off the snow as well. Lesson learned, we carry the microspikes for a reason, use them!

A bit shaken we continued on stopping to admire a yellowbell.
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The rain was not letting up so we’d thrown on our rain jackets which we had put off putting on thinking that we were liable to get wetter from sweat while we climbed than wearing them in the rain. The trail had leveled off along the ridge now and we began encountering more patches of snow.
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Just under three miles from Freezeout Saddle we arrived at another signed junction.
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In our guidebook Sullivan has you go straight at this junction showing the fork to the right petering out after a short distance. The Forest Service map which is also on the GPS unit shows the right hand trail (Marks Cabin Trail) going all the way over to the Freezeout Trail. We initially headed straight but the footprints that we had been following through the snow patches disappeared and so had the trail. After about 450 feet we decided to go back to the junction and try the other way which would be shorter and we hoped less snowy. Incidentally the 450 foot excursion from the junction officially took us into the Hells Canyon Wilderness so we at least were able to mark off another wilderness area as visited.

Marks Cabin Trail was no easier to follow as it was faint even when there was no snow.
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We used the maps to stay close to where the trail was supposed to be having to correct course a number of times due losing sight of it under the snow only to find it again by spotting cut logs or a bit of tread.
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After crossing over a barbed wire fence we spotted a cairn in the grass but there was no sign of a trail anywhere near it.
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More map work led us to what at least looked like a trail.
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By now the rain shower had not only not passed over but it was now a snow shower. At some point we wound up a 100 feet or so above the trail and had to climb over a number of logs to get down to it.
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Luckily we managed to get back to it near the junction with the Freezeout Trail which was marked by a small piece of white flagging (not shown as my hands were too cold to unclip the camera from my waist) 1.5 miles (they route we took) from the junction. Heather kept asking where the cabin was which I thought was a strange obsession to see some private cabin while all I wanted to do was get down below the snow. A couple days later she pointed out that we might have been able to warm up at the cabin (if it had been open or if someone from one of the vehicles at the trailhead had been using it) or use it to orient ourselves and make sure we were on the right trail.

We headed down the Freezeout Trail which quickly became faint in the grass.
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The good news was it reappeared and the rain/snow was finally starting to let up.
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The bad news was that after passing over a ridge the trail headed into a gully that was holding quite a bit of snow among trees and other vegetation (again not pictured due to cold hands and a bit of frustration). The trail is described as an old cattleman’s trail in the guidebook and that description fit in the steep gully. We knew the trail crossed the gully but we couldn’t see where and we didn’t want to try and cross any of the steep snow even with our spikes so we picked our way through the best looking gap in the snow patches and found what turned out to be the trail somehow.

We were now done with the snow for the day and soon we were back traversing an open hillside with views albeit more limited than those from the morning.
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(The rest of the photos were a fight with moisture and numb fingers so please excuse the numerous water spots. 🙂 )
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Despite being cold and soaked we were still looking for flowers.
IMG_7668Brown’s peony getting ready to bloom.

IMG_7650Mariposa lily starting to open.

This portion of trail alternated between grassy open areas and ponderosa pine forest.
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After the first mile from where we’d turned onto it, the Freezeout Trail steepened a lot as it headed downhill fast to an unsinged junction with the Long Ridge Trail.
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Shortly beyond the junction we crossed a scenic unnamed creek that refused to sign a waiver forcing me to blur out its identity.
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The trail leveled out somewhat beyond the creek and at another opening we were able to look back up towards the ridge where we’d come from.
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We were now traversing a hillside above Freezeout Creek and gradually making our way down to it through the forest.
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Along this strecht we spotted this cute little flower.
IMG_7721Small flower miterwort

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As we neared Freezeout Creek we passed a junction for the Morgan Ridge Trail.
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Our final obstacle of the day was navigating around Freezout Creek which has claimed a chunck of the trail as its own. A scramble path led up and around a tree which was lucky because the water actually looked quite deep where the trail had been.
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From there it was just over a quarter mile back to the trailhead where we were more than happy to put on some dry clothes and warm up. The GPS tallied a 13 mile hike and it felt every bit of one with approximately 3700′ of elevation gain. The climb up really wasn’t all that bad but we were feeling the steep decent in our knees.

The day had one more bit of adventure in store for us as we headed down the narrow road from the trailhead. A pair of trucks, one with a horse trailer, were heading up and where we met the road was too narrow to pass. Heather had to back up a good distance until we found a spot where they could pass.

After the trucks went by we were able to get back to Joseph with the only other excitement being a pair of turkeys along the road.
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In Joseph we stopped at the R & R Drive In for some comfort food which really hit the spot. Happy Trails!

Flickr: Freezeout Saddle