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South Fork Walla Walla River via Rough Fork Hike

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

View into the South Fork Walla Walla River Canyon, South Fork Walla Walla River Trail (bobcat)
Ponderosa pine on the Rough Fork Trail (bobcat)
Showy Jacob's ladder (Polemonium californicum), Rough Fork Trail (bobcat)
Looking up Reser Creek from the Rough Fork Trail (bobcat)
Hot rock penstemon (Penstemon deustus), South Fork Walla Walla River Trail (bobcat)
The Rough Fork Trail descends into the roadless South Fork Walla Walla River Canyon (not a GPS track) (bobcat) Courtesy: Caltopo
  • Start point: Rough Fork Trailhead
  • Ending Point: Box Canyon Creek
  • Hike Type: In and out
  • Distance: 10.6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2405 feet
  • High Point: 5,170 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Seasons: Late spring into fall
  • Family Friendly: No
  • Backpackable: Yes
  • Crowded: No


Hike Description

The well-graded Rough Fork Trail descends 1800 feet in 3 ½ miles to join the 18 ½ mile South Fork Walla Walla River Trail in the middle of its secluded canyon. This is a good early summer hike on open grassy slopes and through a lush river bottom that provides views of the rugged roadless territory below the canyon rim. Wildflowers will be at their prime in June, and you can extend your stay by backpacking farther up or down the canyon. The Rough Fork Trailhead is near the Umatilla National Forest's Mottet Campground, from which you can stage your trip.

From the Rough Fork Trailhead, you’ll enter a coniferous wood of Douglas-fir and white fir, but this soon opens up to a parkland slope with ponderosa pines. You’ll begin getting views across the South Fork Walla Walla canyon to its western rim. Make two long switchbacks, and pass through thickets of snowbrush, Douglas maple, thimbleberry, buckbrush, and bitter cherry. Switchback four times to pass above some rock fins and get more open vistas. Sheep Creek runs down the forested gully to your left. Cross an open wildflower slope, and see across the South Fork canyon to Reser Creek. Switchback three more times. You can hear the South Fork Walla Walla rushing below you now, and you’ll soon get your first glimpse of it. Switchback twice in shady forest as you pass through a lush undergrowth of thimbleberry, bracken, Solomon plume, and cow parsnip. Tall Douglas-firs and white firs tower above as you make a final switchback to a campsite and the foot/bike/horse bridge over the South Fork. You’ll see Reser Creek joining the river above the bridge. Hike up to the unsigned South Fork Walla Walla River-Rough Fork Trail Junction, and make a left to explore about two miles of the canyon.

Head up a steep slope, getting views down to the river. The trail drops and rises in shady forest, and then bends away from the river to reach an open slope blooming with larkspur. Arrive at a clifftop viewpoint from which you can look straight down on the South Fork Walla Walla. Cross a small creek, and then negotiate a rocky cliff face to get views down to a bend in the river. The trail splits where it was rerouted around a slide: Take the right hand option (to the left is a very steep mountain bike chute). Cross a cliff face about 20 feet above the river, and then pass along a talus slope. Traverse through a thimbleberry thicket, and drop to almost river level before hiking under mossy cliffs dripping with seeps that attract a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Pass through more thimbleberries, and note a large white fir next to the trail before you reach the wide footbridge at Box Canyon Creek. This is a good turnaround point for your day hike.

Fees, Facilities, etc.

  • Information kiosk, vault toilet, campground nearby
  • Share trail with mountain bikes


Trip Reports

Related Discussions / Q&A

Guidebooks that cover this destination

  • 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon by William L. Sullivan
  • Oregon Hiking by Sean Patrick Hill
  • Pacific Northwest Hiking by Scott Leonard & Sean Patrick Hill

More Links

Page Contributors

Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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