Downriver Imnaha River


Forest Service Trail #1713

Why? Marvelous granite canyon

Season: Technically, April through October. But the trail becomes overgrown with poison ivy, bramble and stinging nettle quite early, plus is very hot in the summer. So go as soon as the road is open.

Ease: Moderate. It’s 4 ¼ miles and about 200 feet down from Cow Creek down to the Snake River.

The Imnaha River has been a favorite of mine ever since I first hiked up it from Indian Crossing. Since then, I’ve managed to cover all the trails along its length, most of which are west of Indian Crossing, and I’ve driven the road along the rest of it to Cow Creek, where this trail starts.

The trail downriver from Cow Creek travels a narrow granite canyon that is intimate and friendly rather than overpoweringly grand. The walls are dark with red overtones, and there are numerous narrow side canyons, some with waterfalls. In places, the high reaches of the Snake River breaks are visible over the top. If you’ve chosen a clear day for hiking, the blue sky and white clouds will make a fine topping to the rugged skyline and white water.

The trail stays close to the river along its length, and the grade is quite gentle. Early in the season, there might be evidence of what the canyon is like during high water – piles of water-worn wood along the trail.

I’ve hiked the trail in June and seen little evidence of other hikers. One year, we met a couple mountain bikers. They stopped for help, wondering what had caused the stinging red patches on their legs. Our guess was the stinging nettle that grows along the trail. Poison ivy takes longer to show up as a rash on your skin, and brambles would have made scratches as well as red patches.

I’ve enjoyed flowers, a distant elk, and a few out-of-place-looking rock walls that have been built to protect the river edge of the trail in low spots and to form a barrier to keep unwary hikers from falling in higher spots. I also enjoyed being fooled sometimes when the sound of the river bounced back off the steep canyon walls so that I was sure there was a waterfall or stream to the side where there was, in fact, none.

The gravel bar at the confluence of the Imnaha and the Snake makes a good lunch spot.

Note: The Mountain Chief Mine is visible across the Imnaha at Eureka Bar on the Snake. The mine tunnel is excellent habitat for hibernating bats and is closed for that reason from October 15 to March 15. On the Snake River end of the tunnel there’s information about the various kinds of bats that use the tunnel and their requirements.

Directions: In the town of Imnaha, turn left along the road to County Road 735. That road will become Forest Road 4260. The trailhead is on the left 18 miles from town, just before you cross the river on the Cow Creek Bridge. It will seem like farther.

While the drive is stunning, and the views of Haas Butte and the Imnaha valley are worth the trip even if you don’t want to hike, do note that the road is narrow, rugged and sometimes steep. It’s not recommended for passenger cars, though the little Honda wagon I had the first time drove this road didn’t think it was too bad. But if it had been wet, there are several sections that could have been nasty and slippery.

Information: U.S. Forest Service Wallowa Mountains Visitors Services, Joseph, OR, (541) 426-5546; the Hells Canyon NRA in Clarkston at (509) 758-0616.

Maps: USGS Cactus Mountain and Deadhorse Ridge, Oregon.

Connections: The trail continues from the confluence with the Snake up to the Cherry Creek Road, an elevation gain of almost 2,700 feet over 5 ½ miles, a section of trail I haven’t hiked.