If this long, snowy winter has you feeling cooped up and your favorite trails are still covered by piles of snow, you could do worse than stretching those hibernating hiking muscles in Devil’s Gulch.
Though relatively unremarkable, the trail is centrally located between Joseph and Imnaha and offers an interesting collision of alpine and desert landscapes, as well as the opportunity to see lots of wildlife in the winter and spring. But perhaps the best part: It’s warm and dry and has been snow-free for weeks.
Accessing the property couldn’t be easier, as the trailhead is located right off the Imnaha Highway. If traveling from Joseph, look on your right for a large pullout and a small footbridge crossing Little Sheep Creek. If you come to the Bear Gulch Road you’ve gone too far.
The lightly used trail, located on the 3,500-acre Clear Lake Ridge Preserve, begins there. The Nature Conservancy land is open to the public, but comes with rules such as no motorized vehicles, no camping, no bear or bird hunting, and deer and elk hunting during rifle season only. There have been recent upgrades to the trailhead but not so much to the trail itself.
That trail begins by following and occasionally crossing the mostly-dry creek bed, which has a decent volume of water in some places and then goes completely dry in others as the stream disappears underground. The trail pushes up the gulch through some undergrowth and quickly comes to an old, abandoned bunkhouse located next to a mossy spring. Bear claw marks scrape across the old shack, and bear scat was scattered up and down the trail on a recent visit. So, too, were elk and deer droppings, and a fellow trail walker said he spotted 30 head of elk on a recent walk through the area.
The incongruities of the land are the most interesting part of the hike, with a few ponderosa pines trying to grow in the hard ground, and there’s even a grove or two of aspen trees — bear claw marks show clearly all the way up a few of the trunks. There are lots of volcanic rock outcroppings up Devil’s Ridge and there’s even some volcanic ash along the trail, in addition to lots of classic wind-swept grasses and sagebrush. An unidentifiable hawklet cried out for a meal from one of the rocky overhangs, and mom later visited with one.
The trail is accessible for hikers of all skill levels, though a few easy rock hops are necessary to keep your feet dry. Breathable long sleeves and long pants are recommended as defense against a few thorny thickets. That aside, hikers can walk for miles and notice the country changing slowly from the hot desert where you left your car into the cool foothills where you sadly decide to turn around.
In between there are numerous side gulches and ridges for exploring.
In general, Devil’s Gulch isn’t the most interesting trail in the world, but it gets more interesting with each and every step. And it offers a place to work up a sweat outdoors in February and March in Wallowa County. That by itself makes it worth a try.
Tim Trainor is interim editor of the Chieftain.