Upper North Fork


Forest Service Trail #373

Why: Relatively easy walk, possible wildlife.

Season: Mid-June through October

Ease: Moderate. It’s 4 ½ miles to Vanderbuilt Creek, with minimal elevation change.

I’m a sucker for wildlife. Give me the worst trail you can imagine, and if I see wildlife, I’ll love it. The problem is expecting to see it, as on a hike to a place you’ve been told has lots of wildlife. How often have you been expecting wildlife and the best you’ve done is see a few birds? Lots of times, if you’re like me.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy seeing birds, but only to say that I wish they’d been supplemented with a few of the larger, furry, four-legged varieties of wildlife.

Of course I know time-of-day has a lot to do with whether you see wildlife, and it’s hard to hit the trail as early as many animals do. But I always assume that those who’ve written up the trail descriptions take that into account.

In any case, maybe I’m just an optimist or maybe I’m just naïve, but I always set out on a “wildlife” trail ready to see some. And I’m always happy to see some, expected or not. The latter was the case when I walked a few miles up the trail along the Upper North Fork of the Clearwater River.

The trail parallels the Fly Hill Road that’s on the opposite bank of the river at the start, but the road soon veers off and is out of sight. In the clearing that follows its disappearance, I watched a white tailed doe and her spotted fawn work their way along the edge of the opposite bank. The doe alternated between walking in the river shallows and on the bank, over and through brush and grass. The fawn bounced, partly because he wasn’t tall enough to step over some of the brush his mom could. But it also seemed that he bounced because he was a fawn. The doe was patient and careful, the fawn exuberant and unrestrained.

I got pretty excited when I saw a large, dark animal in the next clearing, but the excitement didn’t last. The animal wasn’t alone, but in the company of many other, variously-colored animals. It was a mixed herd of horses and mules.

But the next clearing brought elk cows and calves. All were involved in the serious business of drinking, grazing, resting and gamboling. As with the deer, the cows were careful, quiet and watchful, the calves bouncing and carefree.

I probably don’t need to add that even though I didn’t see much else along the trail that day except for a snake, some birds and a tree where a bear had scratched, I rank the hike as superb.

I’ve made it about 4 ½ miles up this trail, to where it crosses Vanderbilt Creek without the aid of a bridge and disappears into the trees as it continues up the North Fork. Along the way, the river, like most, does a lot of twisting and turning – meandering, if you will. The trail is what you would expect of one following such a river. There are ups and downs of relatively minor grades and an occasional side stream to cross.

The scenery is pleasant, mostly forested mountains, and the area ahead looked unscarred by clearcut.

Not far from where Vanderbilt Creek joins the North Fork is what looks like an aleuvial fan deposited by the flow of a tributary. The only problem is that the waterway that would have been necessary to produce the fan isn’t on any maps or on the ground, either.

I saw lots of wildflowers when I hiked the trail in June, including thimbleberries, strawberries, elegant cats’ ears, two varieties of clover, bunchberry, yarrow and a penstemon. My second hike up the trail produced none, not a surprise since we followed a work crew from Orofino that was finishing trail reconstruction. It was in September, a time of year when foliage can take the place of wildlife – almost. It’s a time to enjoy the river, to take advantage of the low water levels and check out the fine river bottom rocks if the water is clear. You also can see a lot of boulders that lie hidden earlier in the year when the water is high.

I tried hard all through the hike that September day not to be jealous of the wolf one member of a work crew had seen the week before.

Note: The birds I saw along the Upper North Fork included a small group of Western tanagers. I was reminded of the first time I saw these birds when I first hiked up the Selway River many years ago. I thought they were pretty exciting and exotic with their red heads and yellow bodies. The tanagers accompanied us that day as we hiked the Selway, and a few of the North Fork birds did the same for me in June.

Directions: Take Highway 12 east from Lewiston to Greer. Turn east on Highway 11 at Greer and continue through Weippe almost to Pierce. Just before Pierce turn east on French Mountain Road. Soon after, you’ll see signs indicating the mileage to Kelly Creek – 49 miles. This road is paved at the start, then gravel, as is the road along the North Fork of the Clearwater which you’ll turn east on 30 miles later.

Turn left on Road 250 at Kelly Forks, and stay on this road after it crosses Long Creek. Just past the left turn to Cedars campground there is a pull off on the right. The trail is on the left by the brown sign, and it is not labeled.

You can also come in over Hoodoo Pass from the Montana side, but that wouldn’t normally be available until early July.

Information: North Fork Ranger District, CWNF, (208) 476-4541.

Maps: USGS Hoodoo Pass, Idaho, has most of the hike, although its start is on Osier Ridge.