As someone who’s recently tested myself against the Wallow-Whitman National Forest area, I’m sympathetic to those looking for a few gentle hikes to ease themselves into this rugged wilderness. Luckily, I struck gold by finding the Tenderfoot Trail, a little shortcut up through the mountains. It’s perfect for adventurers who are still getting used to Oregon’s more daunting mountains, but challenging enough to satisfy.
The trailhead’s proximity to some great destinations (Bonny Lake for instance) gives hikers an immediate leg up, plus you’re already 2,000 feet higher than any other trailheads in the area. Start hiking, and you’ll plunge into the wilderness area by descending about 200 yards down to Big Sheep Creek. You’ll have to cross the creek via fallen logs.
On the opposite shore you’ll wander into patches of fireweed, which in the spring makes for a gorgeous, colorful welcome. In the fall, the wildflowers give way to lush green plant life. The trail starts to gently climb, up the hill and through standing burned snags. The woods here are still recovering from the massive 1989 Canal Burn, so you’ll see a more robust understory in some areas as shrubs and flowers take advantage of the absence of forest foliage.
Less than half a mile in, you’ll exit from the burned area and head west along the north side of a canyon. You’ll see great views here of Mt. Nebo and the basalt ridges of the Imnaha Divide. The forest here is a mix of larch, Douglas fir, and a few lodgepole pines, broken by spots of sagebrush.
At the 1-mile point, you’ll cross the North Fork of Big Sheep Creek, and then hit a trail junction. Stick on the main trail, heading westward across wet meadows threaded with tiny creeks. The 2-mile point means another crossing of Big Sheep Creek, again on downed logs. Then it’s time to dry your feet on the trail again, as the path climbs southwest up an old wagon road. You’ll roll for a while through a forest and then hit another junction, where you’ll bear right following the sign for East Fork Wallowa River.
There’s another crossing of Big Sheep Creek (this is the last time!) again on downed logs. This will be the most challenging of crossings, as the stream splinters into several branches, so take your time finding the most secure route across. Once over the creek, the trail rises up basalt benches, with scrubby plant life growing through the cracks. This is the steepest section of the trail, but it’s arguably also the most scenic, so don’t rush it.
Just above this rocky stretch unfold beautiful wet meadows, rich in wildflowers in the summer, and hauntingly lovely in the cooler months. The trail then links up with Bonny Lake, a sparkling splash of water set near a sprawling willow marsh. It’s a great place to stop and picnic under the shadow of alpine peaks, resting in the shadow of whitebark pines.
There are trails that lead out from here to even higher elevations if you’re feeling adventurous, or you can return to the trailhead the way you came.