McCully Basin


Forest Service Trail #1812

Why? A beautiful basin and, if you hike to the pass, fine views

Season: Mid-June through mid-October

Ease: Difficult. It’s more than 5 ½ miles and 2,100 feet up to the lower basin, 7 miles and another 1,100 feet up to the pass, 3.5 more miles and 2,000 feet down to the Tenderfoot Trail.

The word “amphitheater” fits the McCully Basin to a “t.” McCully sits below Aneroid, Hidden and East Peaks on the west, Ferguson Ridge on the east, and the pass to Big Sheep Basin with its fine, toothy ridge on the south. There are dark evergreens at the base of the ridges, and the bright green McCully meadow would be dotted with flowers in season. Sounds like the kind of place I’d like to be when listening to a concert or watching a play.

McCully makes a fine destination hike, place to spend a day or two, or good overnight stopping spot for a longer hike. The scenery within obviously is enough to warrant the trip, and Big Sheep Basin is just a pass away (see below). However, getting there isn’t the most exciting hike you’ll ever do. In fact, the first ½ mile is a drag, on a gravel road that gets you to what used to be the trailhead prior to the Canal Burn of 1988. The views are limited to a foreground peak as you walk up the road. (Coming down is better as there are views of the Wallowa Valley and the Seven Devils.)

After you pass the old trailhead, however, it’s basically a woods walk with just occasional peeks at the creek and one brief foray through the edge of the burn.
As you near the basin, you spend more time closer to the creek, then hike up a switchback and finally cross the creek. From there, it’s just another ¼ mile or so of woods before you hit the lower basin, the place I’d like to be when listening to music or, as is more likely, the sounds of nature.

But unless you’re short on time, don’t pass up hiking beyond the lower basin. While the upper basin is, in my mind, less picturesque, the pass between McCully and Big Sheep is well worth the walk. Looking back, you can see almost the entire McCully Creek drainage, the ridges that sit on its flanks, and the area east and northeast of the town of Joseph. Looking the other way, it’s the Big Sheep Creek Basin with a huge open area in its upper reaches, a mosaic of bright green low vegetation and dark green trees. The top of Sentinal Mountain peeks over from a ridge or two beyond. There are great rocks all over, on both sides and at the pass between. A fine spot indeed.

Trail Notes: Before you cross McCully Creek, the trail switchbacks, a feature not on the map. The switch probably replaces some of the steep uphill that is shown instead.

If you do plan to hike over the pass above McCully and into the Big Sheep basin, there’re a couple of things to keep in mind. When you’re at the pass and up high, do look down and note where the trail goes. It’s a tad difficult to follow in places when you’re down there on the ground. It goes roughly through the center of the big meadow, with some cairns to mark the way. At the edge of the meadow, it heads up and over the knoll, then is faint and to the left through the next small wet meadow. After a sharp left into the trees, it’s pretty clear trail downhill to the creek crossing and junction with the Tenderfoot Trail.

Directions: Drive out of Joseph on the Imnaha Highway 350 for 5.5 miles, then turn right on Tucker Down Road. Turn right 4.3 miles up this road, about ¾ miles past the road to the Ferguson Ridge Ski area. The trailhead is signed ½ mile later, at the closed road. The old trailhead is at the end of the closed road, with a hitching post still standing. Head left there.
Once you know the territory, you’ll realize you can see the upper reaches of the amphitheater from the 350 Road, between the Howard to Aneroid mountain ridge and Ferguson Ridge.

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

Maps: USGS Aneroid Mountain and Joseph, Oregon; Imus Geographics Wallowa Mountains Eagle Cap Wilderness

Connections: McCully is a good starting spot for several circle hikes. If you go over the pass into Big Sheep, the Tenderfoot Trailhead makes for an easy two-car through hike. You can hike on over to the Bonny Lakes Basin. From there you can head to Aneroid Lake and the Wallowa Lake trailhead, another easy two-car hike, or continue on from Bonny over Tenderfoot Pass and down the North Fork Imnaha River. From there, you can leave via Lick Creek, a harder hike but much shorter car shuttle, or Indian Crossing via the main fork Imnaha River. Any of these can and should include a side trip to Polaris Pass.