South Fork Imnaha River


Forest Service Trail #1816

Why? A fine early July backpack to the awesome basin of the South Fork below Hawkins Pass.

Season: July through September

Ease: Difficult. It’s 10 ½ miles and 2,930 feet up from the Imnaha River to Hawkins Pass, but shorter hikes are certainly worth doing.

I’ve been accused of being a “basin bagger” by none other than Dave Imus, the man who made the Eagle Cap map we all love and use. He could be right, although the term seems to imply that I have a list of basins and check them off one by one as I hike to them. I really doubt that I have such a list, however, since I can’t find one anywhere, even in my head. Instead, I like to revisit basins I’ve found and loved. One such place is the South Fork Imnaha River Basin.

I first saw the basin early in my backpacking career, from the top of Hawkins Pass. That day, the bowl that is the South Fork’s birth spot was bright green, and Cusik Mountain above it had superb markings in browns and greys. Swift moving clouds made for alternating sunlight and shade across it. I remember red, too, probably Jackson Peak on the southwest side of the basin.

It took many years to get into the basin, however, more than 10. The first problem was that early in my backpacking, I did base camp hikes, and I didn’t relish the thought of doing a hike that involved moving camp most every night. The second was that, once I decided I could handle moving camp, my descriptive skills apparently weren’t good enough to entice anyone else to go. Oddly, when I did convince people to go, it was as a default hike, a replacement for a hike we couldn’t do due to snow.

The South Fork basin was worth the wait, the hike to it such a delight that I have returned more than once.

South Fork Trail #1816 actually begins life as the Imnaha River Trail from Indian Crossing but comes into its own at the split between the North and South forks, heading left or south at that junction and crossing the North Fork on a wooden bridge. From there, the trail traces the bases of Marble, then Cusick, Mountains. It alternates between woods and small meadows until the Cliff Creek area, all the while passing among fine, large larch trees. Then there are some up sections and some through-the-woods sections as well as a mile or so in a wide open area below Cusick. That area is dotted with a few small groves of trees and the sides of the mountains are decorated with many fine waterfalls, even more fine rocks. There’s a river crossing just before the trail heads up the treeless talus slope to the pass, where we had fine views of the basin dotted with pink snow and just starting to green up in early July.

From Hawkins Pass, we saw even more snow, for the year of my first visit to the basin and the pass from that side was a big, late snow year. We could see the Eagle Cap and Glacier Peak, but we couldn’t wander far enough around to see the Matterhorn area. On one subsequent visit, we hiked over the pass and down to Frazier Lake and out via the West Fork Wallowa (see below).

Directions: Trail #1816 actually starts at Indian Crossing as the Imnaha River Trail, but the first 6.8 miles are covered separately (hike 42). It ends at Hawkins Pass, which also can be reached from trail #1820, the West Fork Wallowa River Trail (hike 34).

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

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

Connections: One of the finest through hikes in the Wallowas starts at Indian Crossing, continues along the South Fork to Hawkins Pass and down to Frazier Lake and the Lakes Basin. Several different exits from the Lakes Basin are possible: West Fork Wallowa, Hurricane Creek, East Fork Lostine or West Fork Lostine.