Wenaha River


Forest Service Trail #3106

Why? Beautiful basalt canyon, bighorn sheep, spring wildflowers

Season: All year.

Ease: Easy to moderate to maybe even difficult, depending on how far you hike. It’s 6 miles to Crooked Creek, 9.9 miles to Fairview Bar, 21 miles to Wenaha Forks and just 1,500 feet in elevation change for the entire 21 miles.

Although I’ve hiked the first six or so miles up the Wenaha River more often than any other trail, I find it the most difficult to describe. I hike the Wenaha because I love the landscape that the river has carved through the many layers of basalt that are exposed along its hillsides. Early in the spring, when I first hike it most years, I love the gentleness of the trail. I love the wildlife that I usually see, and the fact that I know there’s wildlife that I don’t see. I love the wildflowers.

It would be misleading to say that the trail along the Wenaha is flat, for it’s a standard river trail, with a multitude of ups and downs along its length. Most are short and not too steep, and there are frequent flat areas suitable for camping.

At the start, in the first few miles out of Troy, the trail is most often in the open, passing through flat, open areas level with the river, wide open grassy slopes many feet above it, and along basalt outcrops. But there are short stretches of wooded areas too, primarily ponderosa pine, to provide shade if the sun is hot. By the time you reach the forks, not only are there a lot more woods, but the tree species have changed, too. There are a lot more spruce, fir, Douglas fir and big larches upriver.

The highlights along the way are numerous. One spot about 2 miles in has a somewhat steep dropoff. On my first trip up the river, it felt intimidating, for heights aren’t my thing. But now, I’ve made so many trips in that I hardly notice anything except that this area is the start of my favorite part of the hike, a wide, wide open mile or more in which I often see sheep. I’m also partial to a couple spots where the rocks just alongside the trail are dripping wet, no matter what the season. The rocks glisten darkly, a fine backdrop for the bright green growth that takes advantage of each nook and cranny that holds a bit of soil.

There’s a particularly fine spot of basalt just before Weller Creek, and a spiffy rock sitting on the hillside all by itself just upriver from Fairview Bar and the Smooth Ridge Trail. There’s a fine weeping wall just before Butte Creek, a long stretch of rock above the trail that’s always dripping wet, making a lovely home for many ferns of several types.

What else you’ll see up the Wenaha depends on the season and how far you walk. There’s a wide variety of wild flowers in the spring, tucked into the rocks, hidden in the grass or under bushes, or spread over entire fields. My favorites include arrowleaf balsam root, yellow glacier lilies, yellow bells, Dutchmen’s breeches, bluebells, shooting stars, and trillium.

Early in the spring, before the snow has disappeared entirely, there are elk on the high hillsides morning and eve. Bighorn sheep aren’t rare, though I have made a couple trips up river without seeing them – only a couple. There always are deer and a fine variety of birds.
In the late spring and summer, rattlesnakes are common. According to those who’ve met them, the rattlers have a “this is my place” kind of attitude.

Hiking above Weller Creek means fording the side streams that swell the Wenaha, fords that can be relatively easy late in the season, quite interesting early on. There’s Butte Creek that used to have a bridge. Beaver Creek, which had the deepest water the year I hiked from the forks to Troy. The North Fork Wenaha, which appears to have moved given that there’s a nearby bridge over a dry stream bed. And then there’s the South Fork. I crossed it once in the fall, barely a 6-foot jump. In May, it was amazing. We waded half, shimmied across a log on our backsides for the other half.

The National Forest boundary is about 2 miles in from Troy, and the wilderness boundary is about 5 ½ miles in. But you don’t have to walk all that way to get the feel of this country, of the beautiful Wenaha canyon and the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.
It’s obvious that the upper end of the trail, for some miles downriver from Wenaha Forks, is little used. While it’s no problem to follow, it is brushy and rocky and loggy, with lots of stuff growing in the trail and the brush tight against your legs. It looked and felt as if it hadn’t been cleared for some time.

Personal Note: My first backpack was up the Wenaha, in March of 1991, four months shy of my 50th birthday. The first night of that trip, the temperature dropped to 13 degrees. Another March it was too hot to sleep inside of sleeping bags, and the ticks were numerous. One year we watched a young elk travel a hillside we had climbed the day before. It took us most all of the morning. It took the elk five minutes.

I watched Hale-Bopp from here, and have checked out a multitude of stars. I’ve tied my boots at the trailhead while watching 50 or so turkeys walk down the road toward me, and I’ve played hide and seek with bighorn sheep in that open area that’s my favorite spot. One year a bighorn passed no more than 30 feet in front of us as it headed up the hill from the river. I’ve even done trail work here.
It is, without a doubt, my favorite trail.

Trail Notes: The trail actually runs from the Timothy Campground to the Wenaha Forks to Troy, but I haven’t hiked it from the forks to Timothy. I’m told that section was maintained in 2011.

Directions: From Lewiston, drive south to Asotin and take Highway 129 south from there to the Grande Ronde River. Turn right on Road 100, just before the river, and continue along 16 miles of paved and dirt road to Troy. Just before you reach town, turn right on the road to Pomeroy. The trailhead is 3/10 mile up the road, at the switchback on the left.

Information: Pomeroy Ranger District, UNF, (509) 843-1891.

Maps: USGS Troy, Eden, Elbow Creek and Wenaha Forks, Oregon; Forest Service Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Map.

Connections: You can make a fine circle hike out of the first 6 miles of the Wenaha, the trail up Crooked Creek and the Three Forks Trail. You can head up Crooked Creek into the body of the wilderness or head up to the higher reaches of the wilderness via the Smooth Ridge trail or Grizzly Bear Ridge Trail. You can hike out up Elk Flats, though I would suggest going the other direction, from Elk Flats, if you want to hike the entire 21+ miles of the Wenaha.