As a kid I remember stopping at the Joseph Creek Viewpoint on our way to Enterprise and peering down into the steep canyon with awe. Later in life as I was perusing the waters on a map I would look at the continuous switchbacks of the creek and wonder how much water was in the bottom of it and whether there was any good fishing to be had. Last year I decided to try and start exploring more waters and I bought Complete Anglers Guide to Oregon. Under Joseph Creek it says that there are rainbows up to 18” primarily because of the sheer remoteness of the creek. The book also says you have to either have deep pockets to pay for access at the end of the road on private property or you had better have “the lung capacity and stamina of a mountain goat.” Deep pockets, no. Lung capacity of a mountain goat . . . I’m not sure.
Reading about Joseph creek peeked my long lingering interest and I began to think seriously about hiking into it. I first gathered the right maps. I had good topo maps from my mapping program on my DeLorme Earthmate PN-40 Waterproof Hiking GPS. To get more detail of property boundaries and roads that get close to the creek I ordered a BLM map of the resource area and a Forest Service map of the Ranger district. Armed with these I had an excellent picture of Forest Service & BLM ground on the creek.
As I went through last fall and winter my interest would peek and then wane in cycles. I had a hard time deciding if I had the lung capacity and stamina of a mountain goat. But sometime in January I made up my mind and began training. Since January I have been hiking up ridges on the South Fork of the Walla Walla that gain around 2300 feet elevation, going up to 4 times per week. Most of them gain that elevation in roughly a mile. I began packing 30-40 pounds of rocks in my pack as well to get my legs in shape for the hike out. By early May I felt like I could give a mountain goat some competition even if I couldn’t beat him.
If you have googled Joseph Creek you have found, as I have, that there is not a lot of information. Your access points are limited. There is Ninebark Outfitters who own the property at the upper end of the creek and they own the ground that the county road dead-ends on. To access Joseph Creek on their property will cost you a minimum of $900. To some that may be well worth it.
There is the Chico Trail which is somewhere around 12 miles long. This trail drops down from Highway 3 to Davis Creek, climbs a ridge, drops down to Swamp Creek, and then winds its way down to the confluence of Swamp Creek and Joseph Creek. According to the Forest Service office in Enterprise, The Back Country Horsemen of Oregon go through and maintain this trail once a year. This trail is a bit long for a weekend fishing trip powered by your own two feet, but I do plan on making a trip down this trail with some other mode of transportation.
The other options are a bit more rugged. According to the book, there was a trail leading from the viewpoint on Highway 3 at some point in time. But I have found no secondary source to confirm it. All of my maps do show an old packer’s trail that drops down from a ridge across the canyon from the viewpoint. Basically you would need to find a ridge that looks hikeable and try it out.
In one of my google searches I did finally find some good information. I found that the Nez Perce tribe was given 15,000 acres of ground on Joseph Creek. What I found online was a 23 page management plan that called for open access to the public and building a trail down into the canyon from Rye Ridge Road. The plan was almost 10 years old and I could not find any other information about public access to this ground or whether or not they had built a trail into the canyon. There is also a trail that begins on Forest Service ground on the east fork of Tamarack Creek that leads onto the Nez Perce ground.
Joseph Creek apparently gets pretty warm in the summer and it is best to fish it right after runoff or in the fall. The head waters of Joseph Creek are actually quite low so as other rivers were beginning to rise and swell, Joseph Creek was dropping and looking like it might be fishable by the opening day of fishing. The only trouble then was deciding which spot to try and access first. I decided on the Rye Ridge Road access point, not knowing whether or not they had actually constructed a trail. This spot did have a pretty gentle ridge that I could walk down though.
As May 22 approached the weather forecasts were looking bad. Rain and possible snow showers were in the forecast. My plan was to hike in Friday afternoon, fish Saturday and Sunday exploring up and down stream and then hike out Sunday afternoon. Thursday night when I checked the weather forecast again it had a special alert for overnight lows to be close to freezing and snow levels down to 2500 feet. At that point I don’t think a forecast for tornadoes could have stopped me. I had been waiting and planning for this trip all winter. I called Jeff and asked to borrow his good GoreTex coat that he had bought last fall and luckily my new waders showed up Friday morning as well so I wouldn’t have to worry about leaky waders.
Friday afternoon I hit the road. On the drive over it rained, snowed, and hailed. I was definitely wondering if I had also inherited the brain power of a mountain goat with all the hiking I had done this winter. The weather was much better once I dropped down into Elgin. It was still cloudy and rainy looking, but it wasn’t a fierce storm anyway.
I found the spot where the Nez Perce ground intersected with the road without a problem. They had built the trail after all and it is called Warm Springs trail. There was a nice sign there welcoming me. I had been a little worried about parking my rig in some random spot on the road all weekend, so I was really relieved that there was kind of a trailhead area.
I threw on my pack and hit the trail. It was cloudy and looked like it could rain at anytime but it held off for the walk down. The trail the tribe constructed does not look like it gets heavy traffic. I lost it several times on the way down where game trails diverged and were more heavily worn than the manmade trail. I found my way to the bottom and sure enough there was warm water running out from under the rocks at the bottom. This spring smells a bit bad to be honest, a bit like rotten eggs or something. It must have something to do with the minerals in the water. My brother lived on a place on Grouse Flats (above the Grande Ronde River) and when you heated the water it smelled the same.
I walked to the edge of a small drop off and looked at the creek. I could see fish all over the place. There were quite a few in the shallow gravel beds and they appeared like they might be spawning. I knew the fish were definitely not trout, but could not quite tell what they were. I only had a few hours until dark so I began hunting for a good place to hang my Hennessy hammock tent.
It took a bit of hunting to find two trees of a big enough size and close enough together to hang a hammock. I had expected the fir and pine trees to go all the way to the bottom of the canyon but they don’t this far down the creek. After some searching I finally found some sort of scrub brush/tree about a half mile downstream I could hang my hammock on. I set up camp and had about an hour left of daylight so I took a walk downstream to see what the trail and creek was like.
This section of the creek was mostly riffles and pocket water. Just a ¼ mile from where I camped there was an old homesite. The roof was completely gone from the cabin and the log walls were leaning a bit. There were several pieces of old horse drawn farm equipment there as well. It seemed strange to me that someone tried to farm that creek bottom. The flat parts with decent soil are pretty narrow and short. They would have had to drag their equipment across the creek constantly to get to the next field. I guess I am just used to modern agriculture where farmers work fields that are thousands of acres instead of small acre plots.
The next morning I set out with great anticipation. I was anxious to revisit the water below the warm springs to see if the unidentified fish were still there. According to the DOE’s website, Joseph Creek was running at 115 cfs that day. The water was off color but not brown. I checked the water temperature that morning as well and found it to be about 48 degrees. I tied on a woolly bugger and a couple of nymphs and cast downstream to where I knew those fish were holding. First swing and wam, I had a fish on. “Man”, I thought, “that sure feels like a rainbow.” And it was a nice 12” rainbow. After releasing him I cast a few more times and had a second rainbow on. After releasing a second decent rainbow I began hooking into some larger but definitely different feeling fish. Pretty soon I got one landed and saw that all those fish I was seeing were suckers. The creek was full of them. They seemed to be spawning and the rainbows seemed to be waiting behind the suckers for eggs.
I worked my way upstream catching a rainbow here and there but hooking a lot of heavier fish that I did not get landed. Presumably these were suckers since when I did land one of the heavy ones it was a sucker. As I came around the bend of the creek to a deep long pool, I stood there just looking at how pretty it was, and a post-spawn steelhead came floating down towards me and swam right beside me on its way downstream. I also began to see small pods of small fish with dark tails. I knew I should know what they were but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what species they were. As I fished the upper end of one of the pools I hooked a decent fish that did not feel like a sucker. It got close to the surface and it did not look like a rainbow either, it was much browner. I did not get that one landed, but upstream my suspicions were confirmed. It was smallmouth bass. This section of creek was full of suckers and smallmouth bass.
I was a little disappointed, but I had a great time anyway. It was my first camping trip of the year and I forgot how good it feels to get out, stretch your legs, and do some exploring on new water. And the smell of my first campfire of the year, it was heavenly laying there in my hammock at night with a warm fire beside me. Sure it rained most of the time I was down there, and sure I was catching mostly suckers, but I was out where the world feels right. I got to hike down a beautiful canyon, and to boot, Sunday was a beautiful clear day.
I had planned on fishing Sunday as well, but decided to hike out early and spend the rest of the day exploring other access points for Joseph Creek. After hiking out I basically drove around the mountains all day seeing how close to the ridge roads led me and seeing what ridges looked like good prospects for another weekend. Stay tuned. I will be trying to explore Joseph Creek every weekend until the Wenaha is wadeable. So, probably most of June I will be hiking into Joseph Creek.
Some Trip Notes:
For those who just like to hike and explore it would make for a fun hike to go down the Warm Springs trail, hike a few miles down stream to the East Fork Tamarack Creek Trail and then hike out. This would make a great 2 day hike. The Trail going down the East Fork Tamarack Creek is actually a road that leads to some buildings owned by the tribe. The public is welcome to hike or ride horses or bikes (no motors) on this road. After the road reaches the buildings the trail is not visible from google earth. I have no idea if it is maintained by anybody the rest of the way to Joseph Creek. But that last part is fairly short. There is about a 2500 feet elevation difference between where you park your car and where you reach warm springs. The trail is about 2.5 miles long, or if you simply follow the nose of the ridge you will cut off roughly a half mile.
Upstream from warm springs there is another old cabin that is pretty neat. This one has the roof partly intact and is still mostly furnished although not usable. There is a big wood cook stove in there that is half sunk into the floor and part of the roof is on it as well. There is also an old bed, stools, and shelves in there still.