For the second hike in the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness we chose the North Fork Umatilla River Trail (Hike #40 in Sullivan’s “100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon” 3rd edition). We began our hike as we had the prior days for Ninemile Ridge (post) by hiking up the closed portion of Bingham Springs Road but this time after 0.3 miles we noticed a sign post for what apparently is the Lick Creek Trail which connects to the North Fork Umatilla Trail in 0.6 miles near the North Fork Umatilla Trailhead located at the Umatilla Forks Day-Use Area.
Closed portion of Bingham Springs Road (NF 32).
We had completely missed this trail along NF-32 the day before having been distracted by the large number of butterflies in the area.
Slugs were everywhere on this trail and became a theme for the day.
The trail climbed up from the road and traversed the hillside above the Umatilla River before dropping down to the North Fork Umatilla Trail.
We stayed right at this junction to head down to the North Fork Umatilla Trail.
Evidence of the February 2020 flooding covering the North Fork Umatilla Trail, also there is a squirrel on the base of the tree at center.
There was a warning on the trail sign regarding the flood damage. The Forest Service website had been updated in late May to say that the trail had been maintained as far as Coyote Creek (approx 2.7 miles from the trailhead) though so we figured that we would be able to get at least that far. The Ninemile Ridge Trail had received more maintenance than the Forest Service page had said so we thought there might be a chance that more of this trail had been cleared since the last update too.
Some signs of recent maintenance.
North Fork Umatilla River
We were excited to see that there was an actual wilderness sign on this trail. We hadn’t seen one along the Ninemile Ridge Trail, just a small metal sign plate.
It was evident that a lot of work had been put into restoring the trail given the number of slides we crossed and cut trees we encountered.
Debris from the flood in what appeared to be a new route for the river.
This big slide was across the river.
Some of the trail side was also lost.
A section of trail that survived intact.
Looking down another small slide.
More maintenance along another washout.
A number of slugs on the trail, Heather counted at least two dozen in just a few feet.
Stonecrop along an exposed section.
Ragged robin in the exposed area.
At one point this guy was hitching a ride on my pant leg.
View from the trail.
This section was a little overgrown.
I believe this is Sabin’s lupine.
Spur trail to a large campsite near Coyote Creek and the North Fork Umatilla River.
The footbridge at Coyote Creek was washed out in the flood and now lay broken on the far side of the creek. I crossed over on some nearby downed trees to scout out the trail ahead. Sullivan had shown a rough 0.9 mile scramble route leading up to the left on the far side of the creek while the North Fork Umatilla Trail continued 1.6 miles up river to more campsites before turning away and begin a climb up Coyote Ridge. In 1.2 miles the trail met the scramble route at a viewpoint then climbs another 1.6 miles to a fork at the tip of Coyote Ridge. Originally our plan had been to hike to that fork for an 11 mile out and back (from the Umatilla Forks Day-Use Area). Having to park at the gate would have made it closer to a 13 mile hike but after crossing the creek it was apparent that the Forest Service website was still up to date and the trail had only been cleared to Coyote Creek. Pink flagging marked both the scramble route and official trail but it appeared that was as far as anyone had gotten.
Missing a footbridge.
I crossed on that log.
Found the footbridge.
Flagging for the scramble route.
Flagging for the North Fork Umatilla Trail
We took a short break at Coyote Creek then explored the nearby campsites before heading back.
Butterfly on a cinquefoil?
Confluence of Coyote Creek and the North Fork Umatilla River.
Deep hole below the campsites along the North Fork Umatilla
Campsite near Coyote Creek.
Heading back on the trail.
Checkerspot on honeysuckle
As we neared the junction with the tie trail to the Lick Creek Trail we met a three person trail crew heading for Coyote Creek. They were going to be working on the trail beyond and added that a larger crew was coming in to camp at Coyote Creek and continue restoring the trail. We thanked them for their efforts and briefly discussed the Ninemile Ridge Trail which they were happy to hear was passable to the cairn at the high point. Instead of taking the tie trail back we hiked out via the day-use area and followed NF-32 back to the car.
Signboard at the trailhead.
Sign for the Blues Crew at the trailhead. These volunteer organizations are so vital to keeping the trails open.
We were delayed twice along the way by swarms of swallowtail butterflies.
Not swallowtails but these lorquin’s admirals sure liked this scat.
The first mass of swallowtails was on the far side of the river along this stretch.
The second and larger group was at this wet spot along the road.
In addition to all of them on the ground dozens more were swirling around our heads. It was one of those moments on the trail (even if it was a road) that we wont forget.
Our hike came in at a reasonable 8.5 miles round trip with a little under 500′ of elevation gain. A much more manageable day than the one before. While it was a bit disappointing not to reach Coyote Ridge it was probably for the best for our bodies in the long run. It helped that we had gotten plenty of views of the area on Ninemile Ridge too so we didn’t feel like we missed out much there.
We drove back to Pendleton and after cleaning up had dinner at Moe Pho before turning in for the night. Happy Trails!
As we continue to explore the trails in the Pacific Northwest we are working on completing a number of “goals”, one of which is having hiked in each of Oregon’s 36 counties. We began the year missing just two, Gilliam and Umatilla. We checked Gilliam off our list over Memorial Day weekend with a hike at Cottonwood Canyon State Park (post) leaving just Umatilla County. One of our other goals is to hike in the 46 Oregon wilderness areas open to visitors (post). (Oregon Islands and Three Arch Rocks off the Oregon Coast are off limits.) We began the year with just four wilderness areas left to visit; Black Canyon, Devil’s Staircase, Monument Rock, and North Fork Umatilla. We used a week of vacation to finish the county hikes, visit the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, and check off three more featured hikes in one of William L. Sullivan’s guidebooks, this time his “100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon” (3rd edition). Our long term goal is to complete the 100 featured hikes from at least one edition of each of Sullivan’s five guidebooks; Oregon Coast, NW Oregon & SW Washington, Southern Oregon & Northern California, Central Oregon Cascades, and Eastern Oregon (post).
We started our week off by driving to Pendleton stopping along the way at the Cold Springs Wildlife Refuge near Hermiston, OR. This stop came about while I was looking for hikes in areas around Oregon where we hadn’t hiked yet. At four hours from Salem the short Memorial Marsh Trail system looked like a good leg stretcher on our way to Pendleton and it would be our first hike in Umatilla County. We parked at the trailhead for the Memorial Marsh Unit at the east end of an access road.
The brochure, which is available online and at the trailhead, is dated 2014. We didn’t realize that when we grabbed one to use as our map. What we should have done is paid more attention to the laminated map posted on the trailhead signboard.
The brochure map shows a total of three loops (see above). There is a triangular loop from the parking area, and two loops around marshes. The laminated map however only shows the triangular loop. While the brochure indicates that there are loops around both the Lower Pond and the Upper Pond the other map did not. Having missed that detail we set off with a plan of staying left at junctions to complete the non-existent loops. The trail led us through a sagebrush landscape similar to what we had seen at the nearby Umatilla Wildlife Refuge (not in Umatilla County) in 2019 (post).
After .3 miles the dirt trail met a gravel roadbed at the Lower Pond.
Looking right down the roadbed which would lead back to the parking area.
We weren’t off to a great start as we were already confused at the roadbed. We weren’t sure exactly where we were on the brochure map and spent some time debating on which direction we should go. Before we figured that out though Heather realized that we’d left her GPS unit sitting on top of the car so she headed back to retrieve that and I wandered to the right up the road a ways where it became clear that it was going to lead back to the trailhead which let me know that it was part of the triangular loop.
Ducks in the Lower Pond
A lone phlox blossom
Having retrieved the Garmin and figured out where we were we headed left from the dirt trail along the gravel road which curved around the Lower Pond.
Female red-winged blackbirds
Blue-winged teal and a black-necked stilt.
When we came to a “Y” junction in the road we went left.
This road led between the hidden Cold Springs Reservoir on the left and the Middle Pond on the right. We spooked a couple of deer along this stretch but they both vanished in the sagebrush before I had time to retrieve the camera.
We ignored a side road on the left for hunting blind 5 and then again forked left when the road split at the Upper Pond.
Spur road to hunting blind 5. The blinds were well signed but not marked on the brochure map. The laminated map at the trailhead though did show the blinds which would have also been very helpful.
Yellow headed blackbirds
We wrapped around the pond to the edge of the refuge where we were carefully watched by a herd of cows on the other side of a barbed wire fence. The gravel road eventually gave way to a cut grassy track near blind 1b and then vanished altogether.
Not going to be making a loop around the Upper Pond.
A little confused we turned around and passed the equally confused looking cows. We backtracked to the fork between the Middle and Upper Ponds and went left thinking that maybe we had misread the map and this was the loop.
This roadbed began to loop around the Upper Pond before petering out near blind 8 (again all of this would have been clear had we used the laminated map). The saving grace here was we got to see an owl fly out of the trees along the pond (no time for a photo though) and we saw another deer which I did manage to get a picture of.
Once again we found ourselves back tracking. Having not yet learned our lesson when we made it back to the split between the Middle and Lower Ponds we once again attempted a loop and headed between them.
Great blue heron
The road had turned into a grassy track before ending in some sagebrush where a faint trail? could be seen.
We did pass at least one sign facing the other direction which indicated that at least at one time this had been a loop but it was now very overgrown.
We passed blinds 7 and 7b which were also quite overgrown and in the process I manged to pick up at least a half dozen unwelcome guests in the form of ticks.
When we finally made it back to the gravel road we stopped for a tick check to try and make sure there were no stowaways left and then followed the roadbed .3 miles back to the trailhead. I wound up doing 4.4 miles here (Heather wound up with ) which was quite a bit more than we had planned due to the backtracking for the GPS unit and the non-existent loop around the Upper Pond.
Before we started our drive to Pendleton we did attempted another full tick check. Despite stripping and attempting to look under any flap on our clothing we somehow missed two of the little blood suckers. One we spotted crawling up my pant leg before we started driving which we quickly dispatched of but the second appeared on my knee while we were on Interstate 84. Heather attempted to get it into a container since there was nowhere for me to pull over at that moment but instead of going into the container it wound up on the floor and vanished (at least for the time being). For the rest of the drive we were on high alert watching for it to reappear.
We still had a second hike to do so after filling our gas tank (and searching in vain for the missing tick) we drove past Pendleton to a temporary trailhead along Bingham Springs Road (National Forest Road 32).
Severe flooding in February of 2020 washed out roads and trails in the area and work is still being done to repair the damage. We had actually planned on doing this trip in 2020 before the flooding (and COVID) and at that time were planning on camping at the Umatilla Forks Campground since our next three hikes all began within a half mile of the campground. Since that option was off the table staying in Pendleton (just 31 miles from the temporary trailhead) made the most sense.
After searching again for our missing tick we set off on the closed road which we followed for 1.2 miles to a fork at the far end of the campground where we turned up FR 045 for another 0.2 miles to a trailhead sign.
The road walk wasn’t all that bad as it followed the Umatilla River the whole way.
This was a popular spot with the butterflies, particularly swallowtails.
Dragon fly watching the butterflies
Approximately 3/4 of a mile from the gate we passed a sign for the North Fork Umatilla Trail which was our destination for the next day.
Just beyond the sign we crossed the North Fork Umatilla River.
FR 045 on the left.
Another gathering of butterflies
Three trails start at this trailhead, the Ninemile Ridge, Buck Creek, and Buck Mountain Trails.
Today’s plan was the Ninemile Ridge Trail. In the original plan this was the shortest of the three hikes with Sullivan listing it as a 7.2 mile out and back. Adding the road walk was going to add close to 3 miles round trip but the road walk was necessary for the other two hikes as well. We weren’t sure though how much of the trail we were going to be able to hike. While the Umatilla Forest Service listed all the trails in the area as open the most recent updates from late May 2021 indicated that only parts of the trails had been maintained since the flood damage. In the case of the Ninemile Ridge Trail the webpage stated that as of 5/20/21 the trail had not been logged out.
We headed uphill from the signboard a tenth of a mile to a 4-way junction.
Here the Ninemile Ridge Trail headed uphill to the left while the Buck Creek Trail was straight ahead and the Buck Mountain Trail was to the right. We turned uphill onto the Ninemile Ridge Trail and soon entered the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness for the first time.
It was evident fairly early on that some maintenance had been done since the last update on the webpage.
The trail climbed steeply through the forest at first but soon the trees gave way to open hillsides.
Ragged robin (Clarkia pulchella)
Lingering snow in the distance.
While manny of the flowers were well past there were quite a few ragged robins blooming and few other flowers at the lower elevations.
Bettles and a crab spider on rose
As the trail traversed up the hillside it passed through some forested gullies where some maintenance had been done to remove the worst obstacles while those that were more easily navigable were left for later.
As we climbed the views kept getting better.
You might be able to make out the trail continuing up the far hillside.
Now on the far hillside heading for that small tree on the ridge end.
Looking back along the trail and at Ninemile Ridge.
Near the 2.25 mile mark from the trailhead signboard (3.6 from the temporary trailhead) we reached the ridge end and turned up Ninemile Ridge.
South Fork Umatilla River from near the ridge end.
Heading up to the ridge top.
Gaining the ridge and a view ahead of what’s to come.
From the turn at the ridge end it was another 1.8 miles to a cairn at the high point of Ninemile Ridge. The trail gained over 950′ in this stretch, often times in very steep sections. The steepness combined with the heat (it was a warm day) made for a challenging climb.
Paintbrush and prairie smoke
Turkey vulture checking to see if we were dead yet.
Ravens also interested in our carcasses.
There was a 20% chance of showers according to NOAA so these clouds forming weren’t a surprise.
A flat stretch along the ridge before another steep climb.
Buckwheat and Large-flower triteleia
The trail was actually down to the left but the ridge seemed like it would take less climbing.
Ball head sandwort?
Paintbrush along the final climb.
A parsley and naked broomrape
The trail became suddenly overgrown near the high point and I left the trail and headed uphill cross-country to a cairn near the top.
Cairn on the right.
Heather had stopped a couple of climbs back under a tree unsure if she was going to attempt reaching the top or not. I wasn’t alone at the cairn though as I made friends with a local lizard.
Clouds starting to pass over.
High Ridge Lookout to the left
High Ridge Lookout
Looking back down Ninemile Ridge
I spotted Heather making her way up the trail again so I waited at the cairn for a while.
Heather making her way up.
I had just started down thinking that she may have balked at the final steep climb when I met her just below the start of the off trail climb to the cairn so back up we went. I was looking for more flowers to document.
Blue-eyed Mary and elegant mariposa lily
Hoary balsamroot (most of it was way past)
After a nice rest at the cairn we headed down under increasingly cloudy skies.
A welcome. albeit brief, shower passed overhead as we were in one of the small forested sections of the trail.
Arnica and small flower miterwort
We were nearly out of water by the time we reached the road walk and wound up getting more from the Umatilla River before continuing on to our car. We had originally planned on a 9 to 10 mile day which we then had bumped up to 11 to 12 due to the road walk but the hike at Ninemile Ridge came in at 10.9 miles for me (I added a 1/4 mile coming down from the cairn to find Heather and go back up).
Add the 4.4 miles from the Cold Springs Wildlife Refuge and it came to a 15.3 mile day with 2200′ of elevation gain. It was also a lot later than we’d expected. We didn’t get back to the car until after 6:30pm (having left Salem at 5:00am) and it was close to 7:30pm when we finally checked into the Rugged Country Lodge in Pendleton. We did however finally find that missing tick. At some point, despite all our searching, it managed to get onto Heather’s back. I used our tick key to remove it and we kept it in a plastic container just in case but it couldn’t have been on there too long given the number of times we checked for it.
Despite that and a couple of other misadventures it was a good but tiring start to six straight days of hiking. Happy Trails!