Imnaha River


Forest Service Trail #1816

Why? Arguably the finest river trail in the Wallowas.

Season: July through September

Ease: Difficult. It’s 6.8 miles but just 850 feet up to the split of the Imnaha into its North and South Forks.

The trail up the Imnaha River from Indian Crossing boasts some of my favorite hiking spots. There’s a huge, open stream meander, two blue holes, a rugged granite canyon, and a funky waterfall. But you won’t see any of them in the first mile or so of trail, which is best described as “stately woods.” The trees are large and well spaced, and you can almost imagine a big house set somewhere out of sight behind them, with exotic animals roaming the grounds at daybreak and dusk. Rather than exotic animals, however, I’ve seen only deer, a horse and a spotted dog. All of which don’t make it sound too bad – it’s just not the best part of the hike, by far.

But once through the woods, you’ll come to the first of my favorite spots, a forested area that’s now an open meadow because it was part of the Twin Lakes Burn of 1993. You’ll know you’ve found the right place because the wilderness boundary sign sits near its start.

The area is a study in contrasts. If you look at eye level, there are black, barren and dead trees, monuments to the forest that once lived here, interspersed with the evergreen trees coming along to start the process of rebuilding that forest. If you look lower, you see lush green, primarily fireweed, snowbush and young pines. In season, you also get the vibrant pink of blooming fireweed and an assortment of white flowers to boot.

Because the area still is quite open, there are views. My favorite is of a rather nice stretch of river, a huge meander through a flat flood plain. It would have been mostly hidden had the trees not burned, and will be again when the evergreens get big enough.

The signed side trail to the famous Blue Hole of the Imnaha comes near the end of the area. The Blue Hole is worth the short hike off the main trail and is a good destination for almost anyone. A friend and I even took an out-of-shape, 67-year old buddy from the flatlands there.

But if you’re into blue holes, you need to walk farther. According to outfitters I met one trip, old timers consider the “real” blue hole to be about 5 miles in. Judging by the number of people fishing there, the outfitters might be right.

Another favorite spot is shortly after the first Blue Hole. It’s a mile or so of rugged, rock-filled canyon. The cliffs are vertical and the talus slopes are dotted with boulders the size of tractors and small homes. The river tumbles and leaps over its own collection of boulders, running almost pure white except where it’s found a sheltered spot and formed a quiet pool. This canyon wasn’t the spot I’d expected to find the largest toad I’ve ever seen. It hadn’t expected to see me, either.

But even when I wasn’t in one of my favorite spots, the river always has been enjoyable. I found that any time it was confined by rock walls, it was worth my time to check it out. There would be small falls or pools or interesting twists and turns, Imnaha Falls itself a combination of all of these. It’s not big as falls go, for the water drops just 8 feet or so. But after the drop it turns a hard left and then hard right, showing pure white at the bottom against the big, dark rocks that define the river’s course. The only negative is that you can’t really see the drop.

I saw lots of hummingbirds on one trip, maybe a dozen. I wondered as I watched them zip from plant to plant how they chose which fireweed blossom to stop at. A couple of optimistic ones even checked out my red pack. On another trip, a friend and I sat and watched a pair of water oozles take turns feeding their young in a nest in the rock over Imnaha Falls. The babies must hear them over the roar of the falls, for their heads pop out and they make noise when the adults come near. The babies also keep the nest clean by backing their behinds out and pooping over the edge, leaving an obvious white streak on the rock below the nest. In fact, it’s how we saw the nest the first time.

We also saw two small weasels in a hollow log.

About a half mile past the falls, you’ll come to the Lick Creek trail on the right. A half mile later, the trail splits, the South Fork heading left and the North Fork heading right.

Trail Notes: You’ll pass a fenced area occupied under permit during the first mile of the hike. The first Blue Hole is a signed left off the main trail near the end of the open, burned area. The second is at the base of a large rock formation about 5 miles in. You can see Imnaha Falls from the trail a hundred or so yards before you get to it. The trail is quite near the river at that point, then moves away. At that point, you’ll hear the falls. There’s an unmarked side trail to it as the trail heads up a small hill and moves away from the river.

Note: You also can hike the last 5 miles of the Imnaha River to it’s confluence with the Snake River, a hike that’s best done in the spring, before the poison ivy, stinging nettle and bramble along it get too big. That hike is covered in the Miscellaneous Section of the hikes in Washington and Oregon.

Directions: From the town of Joseph, go east on the Imnaha Highway #350. Turn right onto the Wallowa Mt. Loop Road just past milepost 8, then right on the 727 road at its end. It’s 29.5 miles to the turnoff for the campgrounds, another 8.6 miles straight ahead on the 3960 Road to Indian Crossing.

Information: U.S. Forest Service Wallowa Mountains Visitors Services, Joseph, OR, (541) 426-5546.

Maps: USGS Deadman Point, Cornucopia, Oregon; Imus Geographics Wallowa Mountains, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon.

Connections: There’s a fine camping spot 6.8 miles in at the confluence of the North and South Forks that makes for a good first and last night spot if you continue on up either the North Fork Imnaha River and South Fork Imnaha River. From the former, you can access either Wallowa River Trail or the Tenderfoot Wagon Road. From the latter, the Lakes Basin and more via Howkins Pass. Or you can hike out the Lick Creek Trail, a much less pleasant trip.