Tenderfoot Wagon Road


Forest Service Trail #1819

Why? Wonderful views

Season: July through mid-October

Ease: Difficult. It’s 7.1 miles with 1,400 feet up and 300 down, from the Tenderfoot Trailhead to the North Fork Imnaha River.

I will admit that my hiking of the high areas of the Tenderfoot Wagon Road went in the other direction, up from the North Fork Imnaha, an easier hike by far. But either way you go, this hike is worth the effort for the views that come when you’re on the North Fork side of the divide between Big Sheep Creek and the North Fork – and for views from the divide, too.

The trail starts in a burned area. Low on the slope, the dead trees are small and grey, while higher up on the ridge, they’re large. All through, there are bright green small trees growing, working to fill in the spaces between these skeletons of forest past. Huge Douglas fir, a couple at least five feet in diameter, mark the border between the burn and the older, living forest beyond, where the trail continues.

From the border on, woods alternate with fields. The trail crosses the Middle and North Forks Big Sheep Creek several times, and a couple of those crossings could easily result in wet boots and feet. It’s along this section, before the fork in the trail that splits this and the Bonny Lakes trails, that you’ll first notice that there’s basalt in the hills around you.

Once past the trail to Bonny Lakes, the trail goes up hill. Though it starts rather modestly, it soon becomes steep – really steep – and stays that way till you pass from one drainage into the other, from the Big Sheep to North Fork Imnaha drainage. Then it’s relatively level for a time, along the south side of the divide and out in the open, before starting down to end at the North Fork Imnaha Trail.

You can pretty much always see the valley of the North Fork when you’re on that side of the divide, dark green below the surrounding ridges. From higher up, there’s Polaris Pass and the ridges on both its sides, including Pete’s Point, possibly the most beautiful mountain in the Wallowas. Its pattern of colors boggles the mind. The top of Cusik peeks over the ridge in front of it, a ridge where I’ve seen mountain goats cavorting. Swinging around more to the south, there’s Marble Mt. with Red Mt behind it and Cornucopia in the distance just to their left. Hard to beat.

Trail Notes: The Tenderfoot Wagon Road trail actually starts at Salt Creek Summit. The Tenderfoot Trailhead is miles from there and connects via a short connector trail with the Tenderfoot Wagon Road Trail, a connector that crosses Big Sheep Creek right at the start.

If you head up to the knob to left from the pass between the Big Sheep and North Fork Imnana drainages, you’ll be rewarded with great views of the Bonny Lakes Basin and, more interestingly, the basalt you walk through on your way there. The whole basin takes on a lumpy, bumpy character from this vantage point. Aneroid Mountain sits above and behind the basin, and again, there are fine views of ridge from Pete’s to Cusik. To the east, the Seven Devils are nicely in view above Big Sheep valley.

Directions: To reach the Tenderfoot Trailhead, drive 8 miles east out of Joseph on the Imnaha Highway, 350, then turn right on the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, Road 39. Drive 12 miles and turn right on Road 100 and drive approximately 4 miles to its end and the trailhead. The North Fork Imnaha end of the trail is 6.3 miles up the North Fork from its confluence with the South Fork Imnaha.

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

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

Connections: Bonny Lakes and Aneroid Lake are available via trail #1802 off this trail. You can reach the West Fork Wallowa River by hiking the #1802 and #1804 trails up to Tenderfoot and then Polaris Pass and beyond. The North Fork Imnaha Trail is at one end of this trail and connects Tenderfoot with the Imnaha River drainage.