COVE — Less than half a tank of gas will get you from Pendleton to a little-used trail network in the corner of the sprawling Eagle Cap Wilderness where black bears and fast-falling creeks abound.
Just eight miles above the city of Cove, east of La Grande, Moss Springs Campground provides the starting point to a trail complex that runs along, above and around the Little Minam River.
The routes are ideal for traveling with stock, and many do make the trek on horseback. But backpackers and day hikers have plenty of reason to check out this remarkable country, too.
The options begin right at the campground, with the Lower Minam, Upper Minam and Lodgepole trails all heading off in different directions.
Go north to follow the Little Minam as it rushes downstream, gathering volume from creeks and springs along the way, to its confluence with the Minam River. Small pockets hold small fish before hikers and fishermen reach the better-known Minam, which is home to good-sized trout and even steelhead during selective seasons. (The Minam is closed during spawning).
On a recent scorching weekend, however, I took a 3-weight fly rod in the opposite direction, to the far upper reaches of the Little Minam and the striking ridgelines above it.
That Upper Little Minam route heads downhill for about two miles from the campground (elev. 5,800) to the riverbed. On the way, it runs through lush vegetation and often the big omnivores that feed on it: black bear. Bruin sightings are quite common here and precautions, such as bells and spray, should be taken.
Once you reach the river you must ford Little Minam, an ankle- to shin-deep trek depending on the time of year. A few nice campsites and select fishing holes are available along the water if the day calls for a short out-and-back. But travelers willing to throw a tent on their back and continue on out of the valley are richly rewarded.
All along there are offshoot trails that gain elevation, heading off in a roughly southerly direction. Art Garrett (F.S. trail 1913), Crib Point (1909) and Cartwheel Ridge (1907) all intersect, allowing packers to create their own lollypop or loop trails that avoid covering the same ground twice.
I chose to walk the entire 6.7-mile length of the Upper Little Minam and then venture off. After about three miles the trail begins to curl away from the river, through stands of dizzyingly dense lodgepole pine, before climbing into open hillsides burned through by forest fire. Snowmelt creeks come crashing down from above and intersect the trail regularly. The hillsides provide excellent habitat for mule deer and elk and their sign and scent is thick in the occasional flora. Come fall, hunters will stalk this route regularly.
But in the summer season, the trail is rarely used. It climbs more than 2,000 feet in elevation in less than five miles, so moderate hiking fitness is required, as are some route-finding skills. Once you reach the top of the ridge, Upper Little Minam trail 1942 intersects with the Jim White Trail, which heads north, Cartwheel Ridge, which heads southwest, and Lackeys Lake, which continues east. Although the trails are unmarked, it is relatively easy to pick out which is which and continue your journey.
For a good overnight trip take Cartwheel Ridge, which provides beautiful views of the Little Minam Valley, as well as the valley to the east. Despite the 100-plus temperatures during my recent hike, there were still sections of waist-deep snow along the uppermost reaches. The only tracks across the snow were wide elk hooves, which meant that I was the first hiker to tackle this route this year. Innumerable wildflowers peppered the south- and west-facing slopes and grouse and other birdlife were common as well.
There is general eerieness to the quiet of the ridgeline after a day of hiking through the dense forest below, which is always within earshot of the loud, rushing creek. A mule deer bounded unseen through the forest ahead of me (or was it something else?) and trees struck but not quite killed by lightning contorted and spread wider than they did high.
After another two miles I encountered Deadhorse Flat, a striking grassy and flowered meadow kept green by a nearby spring. There are a few campsites in the area — all empty, of course — with a primitive fire pit and a place to throw a tent. As the sun went down the meadow came alive with the croaks of frogs and toads and the chirp of crickets. Mosquitos and moths filled the open sky and bats swooped through and gorged on them.
In the heat of an Eastern Oregon summer, a tent with no need for a rainfly at 7,000 feet is a cool place to catch up on the sleep you sweated through in town all week — surrounded by those heat-trapping walls and roofs.
An early morning and a breakfast of boiled oats flavored with apples and whiskey is plenty of fuel to make the 3.6-mile trek down the deadfall-riddled Crib Point (1909) trail, which connects back to the Upper Minam. It's faster, however, to continue on Cartwheel to the Lodgepole trail that connects back to the Moss Springs.
But faster isn't what hiking is about. The winding and intersecting trails leaving from Moss Springs won't wow you, but they slow you down enough to recall the joys of backwoods travel: soaking your blistered feet in icy streams, the sense of accomplishment when you reach the top of the ridge, the joy and terror when you see that black blur flash through the forest.