March 14, 2019

Into the Wilderness

userBy Gwen Dildine user0 Comment

In the blink of an hour, it is amazing just how different the terrain can look. Starting in Walla Walla, surrounded by rolling wheat fields, the drive south offers some of my favorite views paralleling the Blue Mountains. Passing through Milton-Freewater and turning toward the mountains a few more miles south, the road starts wrapping the hillside and climbing into the forest. The Umatilla National Forest offers a number of trails in and around the Tollgate, Oregon area. Many of those trails are the upper trailhead access points and/or connect into a quite intricate trail system.

If you are local and don’t want to camp or if you are from out of town and want to curl up in that cozy hotel bed you rented, no problem. The North Fork Umatilla River Trail is great for a day trip. It is also a trail garnering quite a bit of attention lately as the Blue Mountain Land Trust’s Blues Crew in partnership with the Umatilla National Forest has been hard at work clearing and maintaining the trail. Steve, our son, and myself enjoyed a day out on the trail working to clear an incredible amount of vegetation from the trail, actually so much we couldn’t even see the trail in some places. If you are local and enjoy the mountains, the Blues Crew is an awesome way to enjoy a community project in the wild.

So now that the trail is clear, go enjoy it! It is a magnificent trail that shows off the finest of Blue Mountain geology and the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness. One of my favorite things to do is look across to another hillside and see what color it reads―is it green forests or is it golden tan grasses? Then I look at the ground around me, and it never fails how many different colors there are whether from wildflowers or lichen or various bushes or grasses that up close turn those golden tans into purples, pinks, oranges, and yellows. We are huge fans of the A Pocket Naturalist Guide pamphlets as they don’t weigh the backpack down but still boost our IQ each time we use them.

The kids love taking those guides around to try and identify different species of trees, flowers, bugs, you name it! We purchased ours at Book and Game on the corner of First Street and Main Street in Walla Walla, so be sure to grab a few that interest you before heading out. Book and Game also has all the books referenced on our Resources page as well.

Photo Credit: Steve Dildine

This area is perfect for a weekend getaway. Enjoy big views on the North Fork Umatilla River Trail, and explore the Umatilla National Forest in many different ways. To learn more about our area to really appreciate our unique geology, pick up a copy of The Blues: Natural History of the Blue Mountains.

At the trailhead the sign will read Coyote Ridge Trailhead, but it is the North Fork Umatilla River Trail. The trail is roughly 10 miles long and ends near the Umatilla Forks day-use area. Obviously, if you start at the top, the outward journey is downhill. It is mostly exposed so pack sunscreen, but there are many places to stop and rest and rehydrate in the shade. If the trek back up warrants a rest before getting back in the car, there is a spur trail not far from the trailhead that leads to a rather level grassy field where a lone picnic table waits. We noticed a plethora of elk tracks dried in the mud after a spring rain shower, so be sure to look for signs of animals and whip out the tracks version of the A Pocket Naturalist Guide.

If you managed to plan ahead and pack a tent and sleeping bag, consider an overnight stay in the mountains. Or if you enjoy campering like we do, you have your house on your back and can make a decision at moment’s notice! A number of campgrounds hug Highway 204 and offer plenty of reasons to ditch the comforts of home or hotel for at least a night. Woodward Campground is right off the highway, so easily accessible regardless of vehicle. It actually borders Langdon Lake, but this lake is private and not accessible to campers. The campground, at just under 5,000 feet, is heavily wooded and offers plenty of privacy despite its proximity to the road. An especially great location if exploring further into the Blue Mountains or potentially reaching as far as the Wallowa Mountains.

As a history major, I would be remiss to forgo mentioning Target Meadows Campground. Slightly more off the beaten path than Woodward Campground but not as far as Jubilee Lake Campground, Target Meadows Campground was aptly named as it was used by US Army soldiers stationed at Fort Walla Walla. In the summers between the late 1880s through 1906, soldiers would use the area as an artillery range. A sign at the campground details its history, and campers can search the engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine for signs of being struck by calvary bullets.

The campground is quite lovely―a nice, quiet spot that left me wishing for the kids’ bikes to let them roam a bit on the campground road. Not far past the campground is the Burnt Cabin Trail which starts at the Target Meadows Trailhead and connects to the South Fork of the Walla Walla Trail (once Burnt Cabin bridge is fixed). In the meantime, the 3.3 miles to that junction is open to hiking and mountain bike riding, among other activities. A great, close trail for all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts.

There are plenty of choices in this particular area that offer unique day trip adventures. We actually think you’ll have so much fun you’ll turn it into an overnight! Whatever fits your fancy―hiking in a wilderness area, getting the day’s adrenaline rush on a mountain bike, or reading a good book back at the campsite―this area can answer those calls. Enjoying our special, protected places is such an honor, and we are having so much fun discovering those places―we hope you will too!