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Oregon Trails

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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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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Trail Facts

  • State: OR
  • City: Portland, OR
  • Distance: 15.8
  • Contact:
  • Land Type: National Forest