Hikers start low for spring high in Blues
North Fork Asotin Creek a wild trip on a gentle trail
Streams are magnets for spring hiking.
From the maze of trails in Riverside State Park along the Spokane River to a wilderness experience along the Wenaha River near Troy, Ore., Inland Northwest hikers often can find worthy early-season routes by going with the flow.
A trail that’s little known beyond the Lewiston-Clarkston area is among the jewels discovered by hikers who let streams be their guide.
The North Fork of Asotin Creek trail is open only to hikers, bikers and horses in the early season. It starts just a short drive up into the Blue Mountains foothills from the Snake River at Asotin, Wash.
Mule deer, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and California quail were common in the area on a March visit. Wild steelhead were pushing up the stream to spawning areas.
Other wildlife highlights included a blue grouse falling prey to a goshawk just a few feet off the trail. The cascading call of a canyon wren echoed down from the basalt cliffs above the ponderosa pines and Douglas firs that shade the creek. Chukar partridge live there year-round.
“Bighorn sheep, black bears and cougars, too – this place has it all,” said Bob Dice, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife habitat manger for the area.
High up the drainage, hundreds, maybe thousands of ladybird beetles swarmed up from their hibernation in the matted grass where snow had just recently receded.
Mountain quail have been reintroduced to the Smoothing Iron Ridge area south of the North Fork, but none was spotted on this hike.
The area is important year-round to elk, and it’s not uncommon to see rattlesnakes later in the season.
Yes, a few ticks were plucked in the post-hike check.
As wildflowers begin blooming, keep an eye out for thorny blackberry vines and the occasional patch of poison ivy.
The lower trailhead is on the Asotin Creek Wildlife Area at just under 2,000 feet elevation. The first 3 miles are closed to motorized vehicles year-round, although Fish and Wildlife Department staffers run ATVs on it occasionally when doing work and controlling weeds.
At the cattle guard marking the Umatilla National Forest boundary, the route becomes Trail No. 3125 and continues 11 miles to elevation 4,600 feet and the junction with Forest Road 41, a main gravel route on the Pomeroy Ranger District. This road was still plugged with snow in March.
Trail 3125 is open to motorcycles from July through November, but closed the rest of the year to offer security to elk, especially during their May-June calving season.
Traveling light with daypacks in March, two friends and I easily hiked the 20-mile round-trip from the trailhead up to the confluence with the Middle Branch of Asotin Creek in less than nine hours. And we had time for a side-trip exploration.
In other words, the lower section of the trail is in good shape for cruising, with a forgiving grade that pleases mountain bikers who have discovered it.
Backpackers with more time will find plenty of streamside campsites. To savor the best scenery, make detours from the creek to the open ridges and basalt cliffs above. However, be aware that the sun bears down on this area during summer.
The North Fork trail deteriorates and heads up steeply for a while in the last 4 miles from the confluence with the Middle Branch up to the Pinkham Butte trailhead. But relief is on its way.
Using federal stimulus funds, the Forest Service will be making improvements to Trail 3125 over the next two seasons, said Rich Martin, trail maintenance supervisor for the Pomeroy Ranger District.
That will spell bliss for hikers and especially for mountain bikers who might work out a shuttle for a trip starting at the upper trailhead when the road opens later in the season.
From Forest Road 41, the entire route drops about 2,700 feet in a delicious 14 miles to the lower trailhead.