North Fork Imnaha River


Forest Service Trail #1814

Why? A good route to or from several fine places.

Season: July through September

Ease: Difficult. It’s 8-plus miles and 3,100 feet up from the Imnaha River end of the trail to Tenderfoot Pass.

The trail up the North Fork Imnaha River can take you to two very fine places: Tenderfoot Pass and the Tenderfoot Wagon Road Trail. As if that weren’t enough, the trail also passes through a wet rock garden and wide open high areas, and it will take you to the trail to Polaris Pass.

The North Fork trail is the right fork of the Imnaha River trail when the North and South Forks trails split from the Imnaha River Trail just north of the confluence of the two rivers. There are some ups and downs in the early going as it travels through woods and small open areas, some of the woods featuring large larch with grass underfoot. Views of the North Fork itself are common, and it’s a fine stream to watch as it grows smaller and smaller as you head up.

There’s a side trail that crosses the North Fork about 2 ½ miles in – it leads a short way up the Middle Fork Imnaha before petering out about 1 ½ miles in. In another mile, the trail crosses the North Fork, a crossing that’s a bit difficult to understand since you’ll cross back over the river in not much more than 1/3 mile. When doing the first crossing, don’t be surprised if the trail is faint on the west side – it has been both times I’ve been there. Just head through the grass, look for signs of traffic, especially horse traffic, and eventually you’ll pick up a better trail. On the second crossing, note the cairns and that the trail on the other side is up a bit from the flat camping spot.

It’s 3 miles up from this camping spot to the junction with the Tenderfoot Wagon Road Trail. Much of that mileage is far enough away from the river that getting water would be a drag if it weren’t for side streams. In one spot, as the trail begins switchbacking up the hill, there’s a section along a stream with a fine little waterfall and, in season, fine flowers. And actually, in season, there are fine flowers all along the switchbacks.

Once past the Tenderfoot Wagon Road junction, you’ll find the wide open high areas I like so well, with vistas and streams and possible campsites. From some of the high switchbacks and open areas, there are good views down into the upper North Fork drainage and of Polaris Pass.

The trail to Polaris heads off to the left about 1/3 mile before Tenderfoot Pass.

Tenderfoot Pass is a broad, flat saddle sitting at the base of Pete’s Point, a mountain I often mistake for Cusik because they share many fine features. The swirling bands of white and brown and grey and reddish rock on Pete’s are especially visible from Tenderfoot, highlighted when I visited with snow patches in spots hidden most of the day from the sun. There aren’t the usual far vistas from this pass, but the place is lovely enough in and of itself to warrant a long, leisurely stay.

The first time I hiked the North Fork, we camped at the second river crossing mentioned previously, after a long hike up from Aneroid Lake, with a side trip to Polaris Pass. We were glad to find that spot, though it was a tad buggy, for we were tired. And glad the next morning when three elk passed near camp, a cow followed by two young bulls in velvet. They browsed near the river for maybe five minutes, then crossed the river and headed up on the other side into the woods. Not to forget the small frog or toad that hopped by that morning, too.

Directions: The trail up the North Fork starts about 6.8 miles up the Imnaha River (hike 42) from Indian Crossing and ends at Tenderfoot Pass.

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

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

Connections: There are several ways to get to and from the North Fork Imnaha. You can come up the Imnaha from Indian Crossing, from Lick Creek, via Polaris Pass, from the Tenderfoot Wagon Road Trail, from Aneroid Lake via the East Fork Wallowa River, or from Bonny Lakes. All of this suggests that, in fact, many different circle or through hikes are possible. Your available time, energy level and imagination are the limiting factors.

The #1801 Boner Flat Trail that appears to connect the North and South Forks Imnaha on the map is not maintained.