Hells Canyon: Zumwalt Prairie

On the last day of our trip, before driving home, we visited a place that is near Hells Canyon, but is not in the Hells Canyon Recreation Area. Zumwalt Prairie is north of Joseph and is owned by the Nature Conservancy. It encompasses 33,000 acres and is part of the largest remaining intact Pacific Northwest bunchgrass prairie in North America.

From the little community of Imnaha we drove east on 350 then turned right on county road 676. This lovely stretch of road follows Trail Creek upstream.

Beautiful drive

Beautiful drive

You can’t tell from the pictures, but the road gets very rough in spots. There were a few water fords, one of which was down in a ditch. My Outback would not have made it down this road and I’m glad we had the high clearance truck.

We saw cows and calfs grazing alongside the road:


We stopped at the trailhead for the Canyon Vista Trail and set out. It follows an old road up through the trees:

Old road

Then in climbs up out of the trees and up onto the plateau where the views start opening up.


We later learned that officially the trail takes a sharp turn and sort of doubles back, angling to the northwest to a slight summit. But there were no signs and the old road we were on continued on to the southeast toward a communications tower, so that’s where we ended up hiking.

Radio tower

We saw a few cows, one of which had a bird on its back:


This is prairie smoke, a wildflower I’ve never encountered before:

Prairie smoke

More wildflowers:


Off in the distance we saw a herd of elk. Thanks for standing there in front of the Wallowas, elk! Made for a great photo!


We finally reached the communication tower:

Radio tower

We could see the top part of the Seven Devils to our east:

Seven Devils

And of course the Wallowas to the south:


Prairie all around us:

As far as the eye can see

We could see the little town of Imnaha far below us:


We hiked back to the truck and after enjoying a snack we headed over to Duckett Road. More wildflowers along the road here:



Prairie Smoke

Parked along Duckett Road:

Rough roads

We headed to the Duckett Barn Information Center, which turned out to be a covered collection of interpretive panels:


We learned:

  • This grassland remains one of the largest ecologically-intact prairies of its kind because the shallow rocky soils, high elevation, and rugged canyons made it unsuitable for crops.
  • The Zumwalt grasslands harbor many mammals, over a dozen native bunchgrasses, more than 100 native wildflower species, and 20 birds of prey.
  • The Nature Conservancy leases Zumwalt pasture to area ranchers and uses the preserve as a model and testing ground for compatible grazing. They are studying the effects of grazing to better understand how conservation and production go hand-in-hand.
  • The Nature Conservancy pays their property taxes even though they are a tax-exempt organization. They also donate elk hunting tags to local charitable organizations which use them as fundraisers.
  • The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is working to reintroduce the sharp-tailed grouse to Zumwalt Prairie.

There are other trails to explore in this vast preserve, but we still had a six-hour drive back to Portland, so we headed out. I definitely want to come back. I’d love to see the lupine blooming here. Check out this photo from Donnelly-Austin Photography. I don’t know what time of year the lupine bloom like this, but I hope I can see it someday. Wow.

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