Joseph Creek: Hiking the Warm Springs Trail: July 30 & 31, 2011

All of my previous trips into Joseph Creek have been in the spring or fall.  The water temperature gets high in the summer for trout and it is best to leave them alone until cooler temperatures return to the water in the fall.  It would also be hot in the canyon.  Rock is not the best material for reflecting heat but rather absorbs and radiates heat well and by afternoon most canyons in Eastern Oregon get very hot if they are not shaded by trees.  Hiking out of a 2,400 feet deep canyon is hard enough in the spring and fall when temperatures are mild and running towards cool in the morning and evening.  But hiking out in summer could be torture.  I decided to hike back into Joseph Creek anyway.


Joseph Canyon

Joseph Canyon

I had seen a couple of smallmouth bass in the creek earlier in the spring and I thought I might as well see if the smallmouth bass fishing was any good.  What was drawing me back to Joseph Creek more was the history of the canyon.  When I first began hiking in last year I was ignorant of its history.  My first trips were in pursuit of pristine trout fishing.  I had read one description of the fishing that mentioned 18” rainbows.  I began to dream of a beautiful small creek far away from human civilization that was full of large rainbows just waiting to take a fly.  I mistakenly thought the creek would be full of big fish.  In reality Joseph Creek offers good trout fishing along parts of its banks, but most fish will be around six inches long.  Each good spot in the creek will offer up a larger rainbow in the 8”-12” range.  There are some trout that go longer as well, but they are not everywhere and you have to work to find them.  The biggest I have landed were close to sixteen inches, true champions among fish to grow that large in such skinny water that becomes much too warm for ideal trout water in the summer.

Joseph Canyon is awe inspiring.  Scenic vistas are never in short supply as you hike down a ridge.  The geology of the canyon is enough to drive my curiosity and make me want to explore the ridges for strange looking hoodoos and large basalt dikes.  Once on the bottom of the canyon each turn in the creek provides its own small mystery: a few logs might remain from an old cabin, a square of an old rock foundation with a stove sitting in the middle, a rusty horse drawn plow that is nearly covered over with brush, or a bit of old harness hanging from a tree.  There are some old cabins still standing with stoves and other house items still inside, looking as though someone walked out the door one morning with the intent to come back in the evening.  The amazing thing is the number of them.  If they were all inhabited at once, you would have plenty of neighbors within a short walk.  Most of the meadows have been farmed, evidenced by rock piles at the edge or farm equipment abandoned to the slow decay of time.

Cabin on Joseph Creek

Cabin on Joseph Creek


Reading C.F. Buttons mystery novel Coyote Staircase stirred my imagination and made me look at the canyon from a new perspective.  Before all those cabins were there with homesteaders trying to farm, the Nez Perce used this canyon as a travel corridor and as a winter home.  I am told that there are meadows where faint teepee rings are still evident, although most will not be visible anymore because of the farming that came afterward.  I am no expert when it comes to seeing old teepee rings and I have seen some large circular depressions in the soil where rocks form part of the circle on the outside edge.  I personally am not confident enough to say, “Yes, that is a teepee ring!”  I only think to myself, “That might be a teepee ring?”

According to Nez Perce tradition, young Chief Joseph was also born in a cave in the bottom of Joseph Canyon.  I was not familiar with this knowledge last year or I might have spent all of my time looking for caves rather than fishing.  This year as I have walked the canyon I have had a hard time pulling myself away from the intrigue of each meadow, hoodoo, and basalt dike to devote a lot of time to the fishing end of things.  Several weekends ago I hiked in and camped on the BLM section of Joseph Creek downstream of the Forest service ground and it wasn’t until the canyon walls became extremely hot that I would quit exploring and go down to the creek bottom and fish where it was cooler.  There is too much to see and while keeping your eye open for that cave, you might walk past a teepee ring, or miss an old cabin that is now only three feet high and covered with brush.

I headed to the Warm Springs Trail Saturday morning.  This trail is on the Nez Perce Precious Lands that was purchased with funds from the Bonneville Power Administration for fish and wildlife mitigation.  It is managed for wildlife habitat but is open for public use as long as that use does not deteriorate the habitat.  It is a beautiful canyon, but I don’t think they have to worry about a lot of people using it.  Access is difficult at best and it is not an easy hike.

I went down this trail in the spring of 2010 and it was my first hike into Joseph Creek.  I had lost the trail in spots where a more dominant game trail would lead away from the manmade trail.  As I started down I again had doubts several times whether I was on THE trail or just a trail.  There is a lush green meadow at the top and the trail was even faint through this.  I did not get an early start and after getting halfway down the canyon it was hot.  By the time I got to the bottom where the warm spring flows out below a tree with rock walls on each side, all I wanted was some shade.  I threw my pack off and looked at the hot water wishing it were a cold spring instead.

Grasshopper season is now in full swing and hundreds fled from my path as I walked toward the creek.  Last year as I stood on the high bank looking at Joseph Creek, I could see spawning sucker fish in the gravel bars.  This year as I surveyed the scene five otters made their way blissfully down the creek stopping and playing under the shade of a tree just below me before they again headed downstream.

Otters on Joseph Creek

Otters on Joseph Creek


Knowing that the temperatures for the weekend would be somewhere between 90 and 100 I packed as light as possible.  I picked up a pair of super light weight pants with zip off bottoms and decided I would wet wade rather than bring waders.  I also did not bring a tent and opted to simply take my rainfly from my hammock tent.  After packing I weighed my pack and was happy to see that it only weighed 32 pounds with fishing gear, food, water and my good camera with a wide angle lens and a telephoto lens.  I decided I would not take my pistol since I was trying to get my pack weight as light as possible, but ended up changing my mind at the trailhead.

After watching the otters head down the creek I waded across to find somewhere I could tie up my rainfly.  It was hot out and I thought the best looking spots were on the creek between the alder and birch trees, but I couldn’t find much of a flat spot.  I settled for the open meadow and tied one end of my rainfly to a thorn bush and gathered a few sticks to make a tripod of sorts to hang the other end.  Satisfied with my camp and sweating from the heat I decided I would zip off the bottom of my pants and leave them at camp while I explored downstream.  I would later decide that was perhaps one of my worst decisions.

Since I had really focused my attention on the creek last spring this section of canyon still felt pretty new to me.  Each meadow I came to I crisscrossed hoping to find the remains of an old teepee ring and looking at the remains of the old homesteads and their wares.  I really wanted to find some sort of sign of the past Nez Perce use.  I stopped many times at different rock walls hoping that I might find a drawing of sorts.  I found a few circular depressions in the ground where it didn’t look the meadow would have been farmed and wondered and circled the spot trying to decide if I what I was staring at had been inside a teepee a hundred and some years ago.

A few miles downstream I came to a narrow spot on the creek bottom where two huge basalt dikes came down each canyon wall.  It was an impressive sight and I am sure that if the Nez Perce used this canyon to move from winter grounds along the Grande Ronde and Snake to summer grounds on the Wallowa, they would have had a name for this spot and perhaps a story to explain its existence.  Just downstream of this I found a cave right on the creek.  It had no bank between it and the creek and I did not think it looked like a good place for a pregnant woman to give birth to a future chief.  Just downstream of this first cave I found four more caves though.  The first two might be described as large alcoves.  Both of these provided good shelter though and I could see a person using these spots, although I again was not sure about someone wanting to give birth in one.  The next one was a good cave, but too small for human use and the last one made my imagination go to work.  This last cave was deep, flat, and wide.  It was also elevated about fifteen feet off the creek bottom where it was easy to get to but not so close you would roll into the creek at night.  Unfortunately there were no cave drawings that said “Joseph was born here.”  But I sat in the cave for a bit and imagined teepees setup in the flat meadow directly across the water.  This could be the cave.

Large Cave on Joseph Creek

Large Cave on Joseph Creek


It was time for me to be heading back and I began my walk upstream.  I stopped at the pools by the two large basalt dikes and fished for a moment until I looked upstream and saw a rattlesnake swimming downstream towards me.  I decided swimming rattlesnakes had the right of way and stepped out of the creek and got out my camera.  Snakes swim quite well.  This snake didn’t like seeing me either and decided to get out of the creek on the bank opposite of me.  I went on my way upstream.

There are many fruit trees and at least one walnut tree planted in some of the meadows near the old homesteads and I enjoyed a freshly plucked apple on my way downstream and up.  There is a trail that goes through each meadow and then crosses the creek when the meadow ends.  It is often overgrown though and in many spots with black berries.  My legs looked like they had been in a fight with a herd of cats and the several inches of my exposed socks above my boots was a solid mass of burrs.  Shorts are a dumb idea I thought again as I tenderly tried to work my way through another black berry bramble.  I can count the number of times each year I wear shorts outside on one hand and this day only served to reinforce my habits.  Pants provide protection against thorns, make ticks crawl a lot further before they get to your skin (yes I was pulling those off my legs right above the mass of burrs), and pants provide a much larger target for rattlesnakes so that if they ever do try to strike they might only get cloth instead of flesh.

Back to my camp I brought water from the creek to boil for my dinner and got out my small air mattress and sleeping bag.  I changed into some dry clothes and took my pistol off.  As I was going through things I thought I heard something crossing the creek.  I stood up and took a few steps towards the creek to try and see over and through the brush, but saw nothing.  I decided I would put the pistol back on anyway.  I would hate to be walking around the meadow when I needed it and have it a hundred yards away.  As I prepared my dinner I again thought I heard something down by the creek and once again I looked and saw nothing.  Maybe I was beginning to hear things.  I sat down and ate my dinner and drank the rest of the water I had, but was still thirsty.  It had been a hot day.  I stood up and took two steps down the meadow towards the creek when I saw a mountain lion.  It jumped out of the brush into the open meadow and began sprinting down the meadow.  I had frozen in my steps.  It had all happened so fast.  The cougar began to slow down a little as it got farther away and I pulled out my pistol and fired a shot to encourage it not to slow down until it was much further away.

I was not hearing things after all.  That cougar watched me eat my dinner.  It probably thought I was much smaller prey when I was sitting down.  I don’t know if it was my size when I stood up or the fact that I walked right toward it that made it run off, but either way I am glad it did run away rather than pounce me on my walk to the creek.  I was not scared, but I didn’t feel particularly comfortable sleeping that night.  I laid my pistol across my chest and tried to sleep after it got dark.  I slept terribly though as every small sound was the possibility of that cougar circling back for a second chance.  The thing I hate about cougars is that you can’t hear them.  I used to let cougars worry me every once in a while, but had let bears and rattle snakes take their place since I see and encounter them often.  I suppose now I will worry about the ghosts of the forest as well.

Sunday I made my way back downstream eating another apple off the homesteader’s fruit tree.  It surprised me to find some more horse drawn equipment and another old cabin that I had missed the day before.  Both were nearly covered with brush and it is easy to miss something with so much to look at down there.  I walked back down to the big basalt dikes and the caves and looked again for something I might have missed the day before.  Not seeing anything I began exploring further downstream.

Bottom of large basalt dike on Joseph Creek

Bottom of large basalt dike on Joseph Creek


I came to a spot that felt special.  The draw was especially full of big hoodoos that could look like whatever you wanted to imagine.  There was a large rock overhang also.  Walking up to it there was  a partial rock wall built on top.  50 yards away from this was another basalt dike with two crevices that might have been caves.  Below them were rocks stacked in a semi-circle.  I do not know if these rocks were stacked a long time ago or not, I suspect the smaller half circle is newer, but I do not know about the partial rock wall.  I tried to reach the two caves up higher but it was steep and I would have to climb a pretty steep rock face.  I got close enough to the first one to see the inside was steep and did not look habitable.  Across the creek and downstream just a little ways was another smaller basalt dike with a cave right underneath the dike.

This trip just left me wanting to know more.  What families of the Wallowa Band used this canyon the most?  How much time did they spend here in the winter?  What foods did they eat and gather?  I grew up in Nez Perce country and two of my cousins are half Nez Perce.  So I grew up familiar with the tales of their stories like the Ant and Yellowjacket and passed this rock formation often.  My cousins were of a similar age and we would sometimes go to Nez Perce gatherings where they would wear traditional clothes and dance.

If Joseph Canyon was important for travel and winter villages, the more unique rock formations would surely have names at minimum and probably have stories behind them as well.  I fear their story may have been lost though.  After Joseph and the Wallowa Band surrendered, many died of disease and sickness from the places they were forced to live.  When they were finally allowed to return to the Northwest many were sent to the Colville Reservation.  It seems doubtful to me that there is anyone left who had the oral history passed down.  If anyone has any information please contact me at

More photos from the weekend here

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