Nisqually John Habitat Management Unit


Why? Rugged canyon off the Snake River with views of the river, wildflowers in season.

Season: Year-round, with caution in the hunting seasons. It would be very hot in the summer, and snaky.

Ease: Moderate, though a tad steep in places.

The main trail up into the Nisqually John Habitat Management Unit off the Snake River travels about 2½ miles up a gradually narrowing but open canyon. The hillsides are covered in low annual and perennial vegetation. There are frequent side canyons, with bushes only on their north-facing slopes, and there are some superb basalt outcrops. Those near the start of the trail look rather like mushrooms imbedded in the hillside, while those later are the more traditional columnar walls.

In spring, the hillsides are green. In April, I’ve seen clusters of ladybugs warming in the sun. The bushes and trees along the stream were budded out and decorated with short strands of spider web. Newly hatched spiders use these “floats” to disperse to new homes.
There also can be flowers – I’ve seen the fragrant yellow lomatia or parsley, golden current, prairie star and some tiny pink and blue and yellow flowers.

The trail itself is used rather than maintained, and it gradually deteriorates into pretty much a game trail over the 2½ miles or so I’ve hiked. That spot makes for a reasonable turn around, for there’s an old cabin on the other side of the creek. In places, brambles threaten to overrun it and bushes branch over it. But given that downhill is back to the car, and the Snake River is at the bottom, it’d be difficult to get lost and relatively easy to bushwhack almost anywhere you choose to wander.

Until I headed back to my car, I found the area a quiet place with only the stream and some birds providing sound. (see below) A hiking friend said she saw the largest herd of deer ever in the area – she estimates 75 – and I’ve been told that a couple of elk pass through the area periodically. I saw only insects and snails and evidence that mammals and birds also use the trail.

Note: The Nisqually John Habitat Management Area totals 3,070 acres and was created in mitigation for land lost when Lower Granite Dam was built. It’s fenced and posted, surrounded by private land that at the top provides no access for hikers and hunters. Deer and game birds are the primary hunting targets, and the area should be avoided during the appropriate hunting seasons. It is open during spring turkey season, too, but few if any turkeys live there.

Warning: The Sunday I hiked, I heard shots as I hiked down the trail toward the parking lot. I was a bit disturbed, for my car was clearly visible and obviously indicated that someone was up the trail. The shooters did at least pause as I passed behind their target area, and I have subsequently been told that their activity was illegal.

Directions: From Lewiston, take Idaho 128 for 16.8 miles along the Snake River to the small parking lot for the Nisqually John Habitat Management Area. From Moscow or Pullman, turn south off 195 in Colton at the high school, signed Steptoe Canyon, then right again on McKinley after you pass the school. Turn left onto the Steptoe Canyon road at 2.1 miles, then right on the road along the Snake River at 10.2 miles. Pass the Nisqually John boat landing on the left and turn right into the small parking lot at 14.9 miles. The second trail is half mile up river (closer to Lewiston) and there’s just enough space for two cars to park between the fence and the road.

Information: Army Corps of Engineers, (509) 751-0240.

Map: There’s a handout map available from the Corps (which says that target, clay pigeon shooting and “plinking” are prohibited.) It doesn’t show the trails, but is a topo map with contours and shows you the kind of country you’re hiking in.

Connection, sort of: There’s a second “trail” in the area, a half mile upriver from the main trail. It goes up a short canyon parallel to that of Nisqually John. I was told you could follow the trail all the way to the top, but I didn’t. I found this trail even harder to walk than the other, and we sidehilled our way back to the car because it was easier than following the trail. Actually, it’s more of a “way” than a trail, but it’s probably even harder to get lost in this canyon than in the other. It should also be noted that both bramble and poison ivy or oak are near or on the trail in spots.

We saw one coyote, several chukkar and quail and a nice herd of deer. The flower list expanded to include a blue flower I always think is a wild hyacinth but is probably a triteleia. And at the right time of year, this spot could be a feast – there is more blackberry bramble along the bottom of this canyon that you can imagine, perhaps enough to mitigate for lost bramble habitat from all four of the lower Snake River dams.

I’d been told that the bramble can be a problem in the winter, and found that to be the case on a February hike. Clippers would be a good thing to take along.