Portland, OR: Chico Trail, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

Get the Wallowas to yourself on this loop through prime bear habitat in the rugged Joseph Canyon. BY PATRICE LA VIGNE
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Get the Wallowas to yourself on this loop through prime bear habitat in the rugged Joseph Canyon. BY PATRICE LA VIGNE

Instead of blazes, we follow bear paw prints. Some are solidified in the soil like concrete, while others are so fresh it sends a chill up my spine. Most people who adventure in the Wallowas head up to the 9,000-footers—they don’t come here, to the bottom of the rough and rugged Joseph Canyon. I bet that lack of humans is why this basalt canyon doubles as an animal highway; we follow scat piles and bear, deer, and even mountain lion prints all the way to camp. When we get there, a surprised black bear lumbers up the hillside and out of sight. There may not be any people here, but no doubt we’ll be sharing this riverine camp with a warm-blooded visitor or two.

Trip stats
Distance: 15.8 miles
Time: 2 days

Turn-by-turn
From the Chico trailhead

(1) Head 1.2 miles east on the Chico Trail (#1658) to Davis Creek.
(2) Cross (it’s usually an easy rock-hop in autumn) and continue 2.4 miles over Starvation Ridge and down to a junction at Swamp Creek.
(3) Ford the creek (can be shin-deep) before picking up the Swamp Creek Trail (#1678); follow it 4.8 miles north to the confluence of Davis and Swamp Creeks.
(4) From camp, locate the unmarked Davis Creek Trail (#1660) on the embankment and take it 6.2 miles south to a fork.
(5) Veer west onto the Chico Trail and retrace your steps 1.2 miles to the trailhead.

Campsite
Confluence of Swamp and Davis Creeks (mile 8.4)

Bed down in a plush meadow on the other side of Swamp Creek (rock-hop across) for tent-door views down the basalt canyon. There are a bunch of flat spots that back up to ponderosa pines.

Solitude
Don’t expect company: While more than 150,000 people visit the 2.3 million-acre Wallowa-Whitman National Forest each year, fewer of than 1 percent of them visit Joseph Canyon. Best part: It isn’t even hard to get to. Find this wildlife mecca just off OR 3—no dirt roads required.

Wildlife
Most animals are active in Joseph Canyon in October; explore the meadows at twilight for the best chance of viewing black bears, moose, deer (white-tail and mule), and elk. Coyotes, mountain lions, mountain goats, and eagles are more elusive, but scan the canyon walls for these critters.

DO IT
Trailhead 45.713732, -117.271328; 21 miles north of Enterprise off OR 3 Season April through November; September through November for fall colors and cooler temps Permits None Custom mapbit.do/ChicoTrlContactfs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitmanTrip databackpacker.com/ChicoTrl

Trail Facts

  • State: OR
  • City: Portland, OR
  • Distance: 15.8
  • Contact: www.fs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitman
  • Land Type: National Forest