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May 2002

Hike Through Washington’s Blue Mountains

City life got you down? Head for the quiet hills of southeastern Washington, where the air is clean, the water clear, and bighorn sheep outnumber hikers.

In the upper left corner of the country, the soggy Olympic Mountains are famous for their old-growth rainforests. The Cascades are celebrated for their craggy summits and volcanic peaks. The Rockies form a world-famous border between the Northwest and Mountain West. Even the jagged Wallowa Mountains are well known. But mention the Blue Mountains to a backpacker from Seattle, Spokane, or Portland, and you’ll almost certainly get a blank stare, because the Blues are the Pacific Northwest’s unknown range. Ranging in elevation from 1,600 to 6,500 feet, these mountains rise out of the plains of southeastern Washington, their southern edge spilling over into Oregon to form a gentle rampart just west of Idaho’s Hells Canyon. Blanketed by forests of dark-green pine and spruce, the Blues boast superb scenery and empty campsites just 5 hours from the region’s major metropolises.

Having hiked all the great Northwestern ranges, I’m nevertheless drawn back to these remote mountains, primarily because of the abundant wildlife. During my last trek down the Slick Ear Trail, I saw great gaggles of wild turkeys dodging and sprinting through the pine forests. I saw mule deer as big as elk, and plenty of elk to help me make the comparison. After reaching the Wenaha River Trail, which heads down into Oregon, I watched small herds of bighorn sheep tiptoe across sun-drenched rimrock bluffs high above the river. In the evening, I pulled plump rainbow and brown trout from the gin-clear waters of the Wenaha, but released them quickly; fresh scat and tree scrapes suggested black bears were in the area. Indeed, I soon spied a cinnamon-colored bear, its colorful coat reminding me that not all black bears are black (reddish-brown is common here).

The Blues are a small, young range dominated by deep river valleys and modest peaks. The Umatilla National Forest encompasses much of the range, with the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area protecting the heart of the backcountry. Scores of trails bisect the Wenaha-Tucannon (named for the pair of pristine rivers that flow through the heart of the wilderness), but the Wenaha River Trail is my favorite. During a recent midsummer visit, I hiked through old-growth pine forest along the upper portion of the Grizzly Bear Trail, listening to the resonant “whomp, whomp, whomp” of nervous spruce grouse. Dropping to the valley bottom, I walked through lodgepole and fir forests that opened into airy ponderosa pine groves littered with broad, open meadows–perfect country for wildlife spotting.

Come late afternoon, I pitched camp in one of the countless quiet sites lining the Wenaha, and waited for darkness and the mournful cries of resident coyotes. In decades of hiking here, I’ve rarely encountered more than one or two parties of hikers or horsepackers in these camps. The only two-legged beasts I saw during my last outing were turkeys, by the hundreds. Add the steady stream of four–legged travelers-deer, elk, bighorn, and black bears–and you’ll understand why even a solo hiker will never get lonesome in the isolated Blues.

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