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Hike of the Month: South Fork Walla Walla River

June 19, 2019

By John Sparks, Volunteer, Trailkeepers of Oregon

Distance: up to 10.6 miles / Elevation gain: up to 2,405 feet

For an early summer excursion in Oregon’s northern Blue Mountains, try the well-graded Rough Fork Trail, which descends 1,800 feet in three and a half miles to join the 18.5-mile South Fork Walla Walla River Trail in the middle of its secluded canyon.

This is an isolated outing on open grassy slopes and through a lush river bottom that provides views of the rugged roadless territory below the canyon rim. Wildflowers will be at their prime in June, and you can extend your stay by backpacking farther up or down the canyon. The Rough Fork Trailhead is near the Umatilla National Forest’s Mottet Campground, from which you can stage your trip.

A brown trailhead sign in a meadow with fir trees in the background

Trailhead sign for the Rough Fork Trail #3227. (Photo by John Sparks)

From the Rough Fork Trailhead, you’ll enter a coniferous wood of Douglas fir and white fir, but this soon opens up to a parkland slope with ponderosa pines. You’ll begin getting views across the South Fork Walla Walla canyon to its western rim.

A pine tree shading a hiking trail which drops off steeply into a valley.

A ponderosa pine on the Rough Fork Trail. (Photo by John Sparks)

As you descend, pass through thickets of snowbrush, Douglas maple, thimbleberry, buckbrush, and bitter cherry. Note the rock fins above the trail as the vistas open up. Sheep Creek runs down the forested gully to your left. Look across the South Fork canyon to Reser Creek. Nearing the bottom, you’ll first hear the South Fork Walla Walla rushing below you, and you’ll soon get your first glimpse. Tall Douglas firs and white firs tower above as you make a final switchback to a campsite and the foot / bike / horse bridge over the South Fork. Reser Creek joins the river above the bridge. Hike up to an unsigned junction, and make a left to explore about two miles of the canyon on the South Fork Walla Walla River Trail.

Pale purple wildflowers against a background of green leaves.

Showy Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium californicum) on the Rough Fork Trail. (Photo by John Sparks)

You’ll get a great view down to the river from a clifftop viewpoint. Cross a cliff face about 20 feet above the river, and then pass along a talus slope. Traverse through a thimbleberry thicket, and drop to almost river level before hiking under mossy cliffs dripping with seeps that attract a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Pass through more thimbleberries, and reach the wide footbridge at Box Canyon Creek. This is a good turnaround point for your day hike.

A small frothy river rushing through a green, forested canyon, seen from high above.

A view down to the South Fork Walla Walla River. (Photo by John Sparks)

See the South Fork Walla Walla  River via Rough Fork Hike in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide for more details and trailhead information.

John Sparks: john.sparks@trailkeepersoforegon.org

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