Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

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Charley
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Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by Charley » June 28th, 2016, 7:45 am

We get a lot of requests for hikes to do in our spring. It's "summer" on the academic calendar, so people want to get out and do high mileage trips "not in the Gorge," but the high Cascades are still full of snow. Over the years, I've recommended a lot of trips in the desert areas of Eastern Oregon, but here are some ideas from a different area: the Blue Mountains north of I-84 and south of the Washington border. While it's only a 4 hour drive away (on average), this area gets a lot less use by Portlanders. The views can be great, the wildflowers are beautiful and long-lived, and the snow melts earlier here than the high Cascades. The North Fork Umatilla Wilderness and Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness both have networks of legacy trails that have good car access and the potential for long, very wild loops.

I bought my copy of Sullivan's 100 Hikes in Eastern Oregon in 2009, and I've been whittling away at these hikes ever since. My long term goal is to hike all of the routes he recommends. It'll take me about 30 years, I think. :) Anyway, I've been working at a music camp at Wallowa Lake since 2010, and I've usually been able to tack a few days of hiking and mountain biking on to both ends of the trip, so I can break up the drive, get some exercise, and check off some trails in this otherwise out of the way area. It's been very rewarding, and I've come to love these sort of relaxed mountains dearly. Here are some recommendations. I'll start with the hikes that I recommend whole heartedly, and finish with a few others that aren't my favorite but you might love.

My favorite, so far, is the Ninemile Ridge Trail. This trail has easy road access and is about 25 miles past Pendleton. The route starts in forest and then moves into sparse trees:
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Most of the hike is in meadows facing South, which means early snow-melt and flowers:
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If the weather is clear, you might get to see the silhouette of Mt Adams and Mt Rainier in the distance at sunset:
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Or you might get to see a bear digging for bulbs in the meadow:
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The views from the top of the ridge are quite worth the walk, and there's a flat area which allows for level camping, if you want to see the sun go down and the moon go up:
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The walk down in the morning will be refreshing:
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Charley
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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by Charley » June 28th, 2016, 8:10 am

While searching for trails to ride on my bike while traveling through the Blues, I heard about the Umatilla Rim Trail. Though it's a little higher than the Ninemile Ridge hike (it melts out later) the access is almost all paved. The ride here is medium difficulty awesome...
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. . . and the scenery is excellent:
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One year I bikepacked in as far as a large camas meadow...
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. . . where I staying the night in the shelter of old-growth:
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I didn't expect any sunset, because I was in cloud the whole ride, so I was surprised when everything started turning colors wildly. The Rim creates the clouds through orographic lifting; just below the Rim, the sun sets on banks of clouds:
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The trail can be found on USGS Topo maps.

[You'll note that the trail is signed open to bikes and dirt bikes at it's upper, non-wilderness trailhead. I've never actually seen dirt bikes on the trail, and I've met several friendly Walla Walla locals on bikes a few times (there's an Aussie or South African guy who owns a bike shop in the area). The lower end of the trail passes into the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness at Rimrock Springs.]

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Charley
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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by Charley » June 28th, 2016, 8:25 am

I hiked the Rough Fork Trail to South Fork Walla Walla River, part of Sullivan's "Jubilee Lake" trip, just the other day. A word of warning: my 2wd Tacoma was fine on the approach drive, but, the last mile and a half might be too much for a low clearance vehicle. I'd probably have managed in my old Civic, but I was gonzo with that poor car. :)

There are views of the canyon country:
rough fork (1).jpg
There are ponderosa meadows with wildflowers:
rough fork (2).jpg
There is old-growth near the river bottom:
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A healthy looking river with a nice bridge:
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There are lots of thimbleberries, strawberries, and currant along the way. A later season trip might be very, very filling:
rough fork.jpg
Note that this is one of several trips that starts up high, goes low, and obligates you to hike uphill on your way back out. Don't say I didn't warn you. :)

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Charley
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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by Charley » June 28th, 2016, 8:32 am

The Lower Wenaha River starts quite further from Portland than the other hikes, in the tiny town of Troy. It's worth the drive if you're into river hiking (there are fish in there, but I tend to separate my fishing from my hiking).

The trail runs along the bottoms...
wenaha (1).jpg
. . . through balsamroot meadows and ponderosa:
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The trail also reaches a few higher viewpoints, which is nice for some variety:
wenaha (2).jpg
I went as far as Crooked Creek, but it's another 25 miles to Timothy Springs, if you're into that kind of long hike.
wenaha.jpg

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Charley
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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by Charley » June 28th, 2016, 8:54 am

The Upper Wenaha River has closer but more unpaved access than the lower, but is overgrown, very wet (lots of fords from the get-go), and relatively few views. On the other hand, it's remarkably similar to the Cascades in terms of forest, and there are lots of berries to be had later in the season.

The upper parts of the route are pretty well maintained, with beautiful trees and undergrowth:
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As one hikers further down, the trail becomes overgrown (and consequently wet, if there's any rain or dew on the plants) and there are several fords. Some are just ankle wetters, but one was up to my tall calves.
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There are relatively few views of any distance:
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Though this one is kind of nice; the bands of basalt remind me of the Gorge:
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The route ends at a ford of the Wenaha River. As of last weekend, there is a large downed cottonwood that allows one to cross, carefully, over the deepish river. It's full of thimbleberries and other plants down there at the forks, but there's a nice campsite across the river, making the ford worth it, if you're interested in camping.
upperwenaha (6).jpg

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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by VanMarmot » June 28th, 2016, 8:56 am

Thanks for posting this! We're planning on hiking Nine Mile Ridge and the Lower Wenaha in conjunction with our Hells Canyon raft trip in September - part of our "visit all Oregon wilderness areas" project. We'll obviously have missed any wildflowers but with early start maybe we can mis some of the late summer heat!
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Charley
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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by Charley » June 28th, 2016, 9:00 am

Jubilee Lake is not my kind of hike, but if you're into hiking flat trails with lots of people around an artificial lake in a re-growing clearcut, and paying a private concessionaire for the pleasure of doing so, it should fill the bill.

There were lots of anglers on the Sunday I visited, and even some human fish, too:
jubilee (1).jpg
The views are mostly like this:
jubilee (2).jpg
Though there are a few spots that are kind of pretty, I wouldn't bother with this hike unless your an obsessive list-ticker like me, or staying at the campground, which gives every indication of being crowded and possible yahoo-ish on weekends.
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retired jerry
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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by retired jerry » June 28th, 2016, 9:05 am

Thanks. This is good for my list of spring hikes. I've been eyeing the Lower Wenaha but it is a long way from Portland, and the road there goes up in the mountains some so can have snow.

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Charley
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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by Charley » June 28th, 2016, 9:09 am

The North Fork Umatilla River is actually better than the Jubilee Lake trip but I got out of order working on this project. I think it fits somewhere between the S. Fk. Walla Walla and Jubilee Lake.

I hiked this years ago, and mostly remember that the trail was overgrown, and that there was a trail crew out there, camping for weeks while working on the trail. They lost their mule the night I was out there, and the mule ended up hanging out in the meadows far up the trail, which they didn't seem too bothered about.

At about about 4.3 miles of possibly overgrown forest hiking, one enters meadows and begins switchbacking up Coyote Ridge:
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There are beautiful yellow lupines early in the year:
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There are some pretty good views up here, but it's been a long way, especially compared to the Ninemile Ridge and Umatilla Rim hikes.
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Thanks for reading! For more information, go buy a copy of William Sullivan's book. It is excellent.

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bobcat
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Re: Early Summer Routes in Oregon's Northern Blue Mountains

Post by bobcat » June 28th, 2016, 4:34 pm

Thanks for this list. I've done Ninemile Ridge in both the spring and the summer and I'd go for the former any day - well, if you can get a cool day in the summer, fine, but the wildflowers are burned out by June.

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