For years I ignored the lonely Blue Mountains in favor of forever heading north for hiking and backpacking fun. Fortunately, I recently came to my senses: the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness in the Blues is no farther than many of my favorite trails to the north, and since some of the trails are at lower elevation, they are accessible even as the Selkirks and Kettle Range are covered in snow. If you’re ready for a spring backpack trip or day hike, the Wenaha is the way to go.

My favorite early-season trail to the south is the Wenaha River Trail. Getting there involves winding along highways while crossing three state lines, yet the trailhead is only a little over 3 hours away. Once there, the spring flowers have a month or so jump on anything around Spokane, and the trail is ready for snow-free travel as early as March most years. The trail is also a wildlife magnet as the hill sides green up while the higher elevations are still covered in snow. It’s common to see both mule deer and whitetail, along with bighorn sheep and even elk grazing the verdant slopes just above water’s edge.

Those who have visited the Wenaha River Trail in the past are likely to be surprised by changes brought about in the wake of the 2015 wildfire season. The Grizzly Bear Complex fire shut the entire Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area down a portion of last summer, and the fire burned hot along the Wenaha River Trail all the way to the town of Troy, less than a mile from the trailhead, where backfires were lit to save the town. As the trail meanders along the Wenaha River, it crosses some areas that burned lightly and other areas that experienced nearly a 100 percent kill-rate for even the largest, most fire-resistant trees. Still, there are already signs of nature’s renewal process, and the 2016 wildflowers should be spectacular.

The biggest fire-related consequence to hikers, backpackers and backcountry horsemen is the loss of the sturdy footbridge at Crooked Creek, approximately 6.5 miles from the trailhead and about a half mile inside the wilderness boundary. By late spring to early summer, it may be possible to safely ford the river. Don’t count on an easy crossing until the higher elevation snow has melted. If you’re looking for a longer hike, head up the Crooked Creek Trail, where several more snow-free miles can be found. This side trip allows visitors to walk back into Washington, with a sign marking the state line approximately 2.5 miles above the old bridge site. Otherwise, the former bridge is a good turnaround point. Round trip distance is about 13 miles.

Getting there: Take Highway 195 south to Lewiston, then 129 south through Asotin and Anatone. Continue into Oregon, turning west on the Grand Ronde River Road just before crossing the river. Follow the river upstream as you continue to the small community of Troy. Turn right at the stop sign at Bartlett Road on the edge of Troy. Continue approximately a half mile uphill to the small trailhead and parking area for the Wenaha River Trail. //