Oregon’s Northern Blue Mountains are unique in that instead of rising upwards into ice-tipped peaks, they are elevated plateaus located within deep canyons. Amid the contrast of harsh rock and thick forests lies vast tracks of roadless lands, including the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness and the smaller North Fork Umatilla Wilderness. Both areas are terrific places for experienced, adventurous spirits to take on less-traveled hikes.
I recently tackled the Round Butte Trail, situated in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area, and arguably on the best trails in the area in terms of the view. Just over seven miles roundtrip, the trail offers a nice mix of terrain, moderate uphill stretches, and panoramic views of the Wenaha River watershed. It’s also far enough in the wild that few hikers tackle these slopes, and during my visit I was left in solitude for the entire trip.
From the trailhead at Indian Camp the trail wanders southeast for a mile, winding up the side of ridge. Big Douglass firs hug the slopes, offering shade and the spicy scent of bark and needles. And for all that the trail is less-traveled, it’s nicely packed and easy walking. The uphill incline is easy to take, but I’d recommend pacing yourself, as steeper inclines lie ahead.
Just past the second mile mark the trail traces the ridge crest, passing above groves of subalpine firs and through rocky scrublands. On the top of these balds are few trees or shrubs, and instead the landscape is replaced with grass and wildflowers. I spotted mountain balm, yellow buckwheat, soapwort, purple horsemint, red paintbrush and what was either blue or purple penstemons (or maybe a mix of both).
There’s a trail junction around mile two at which the main route bears left to Round Butte. The terrain changes here to mix back in deep fir forests with stretches of open basalt flats. The trees thicken and larch adds to the fir mix the closer one gets to the northwest flank of Round Butte. Keep a sharp eye out here as the trail route leaves the main path and turns into a fainter game trail reaching northwest.
Use the summit of Round Butte as your compass point to follow the light trail cross-country up the ridge. You’ll see misleading paths on the way up – these are elk paths, and while they may lead to the summit, it’s smarter to stick to the true path. If you approach the top of the butte quietly you might be lucky (as I was) and catch sight of a small herd of elk resting and taking dust baths. They bolted at the sight of me, but I had a few wonderful moments watching these beautiful creatures.
At the top of Round Butte you get an amazing, panoramic view of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. It’s an beautiful stretch of wilderness from this perspective – all dark banded basalt rock and rippling fir trees turning from green to blue in the distance. Look for Sawtooth Ridge and the North Fork Wenaha, as well as Milk Creek and the faint line of the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains. You can really get a sense of the vastness of the canyons from this perspective, and maybe even a sense of awe at how easy it is to lose yourself in the massive folds of the land.
Note that the trailhead is an hour drive on a rough dirt road. Bring a high-clearance vehicle that can take a bumpy ride.