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Hiking the Grouse Mountain Trail: The early bird catches the best blooms

By Melissa Queen

Spring in the Walla Walla Valley is a celebration of early emergence. Before the dog-days of summer, in spring we raise a toast to the beauty that emerges early in these warmer months. Take for example Spring Release Weekend, when we raise a toast to the whites and rosés that emerge from the cellars ahead of their red counterparts. But white wine isn’t the only thing that shines in the soft warmth of spring in the Walla Walla region.

The Grouse Mountain Trail in the Blue Mountains above Walla Walla offers an earlier season hiking experience that also celebrates the beauty of early emergence. As soon as the winter’s snow is melted away, this trail rewards those early season hikers with blankets of wildflowers and the woodsy aroma of pine. While there is still snow covering the trails through most of the Cascades, this trail opens up and is in its prime by late May and into June when the wildflowers are at their peak.

Views of the Blue Mountains from the Grouse Mountain Trail

And it’s hard to find a day hike with more variety. This 5.2 mile out and back trail moves from shady forests, opening up to mountain meadows, before stretching out across the Grouse Mountain ridge, where hikers can break for a picnic lunch and take in the expansive views of the Blue Mountains with the Umatilla River carving its way through the valley floor below. 

While the trail is well-marked and easy to follow, it does get quite steep in parts. This trail is considered a moderately challenging hike.

The Grouse Mountain trail begins along the Lick Creek trail, both starting out from the Zig Zag Springs trailhead until the Lick Creek and Grouse Mountains trails split just under a mile. While the Lick Creek trail continues down the hill to the left, the Grouse Mountain trail heads to the right towards the ridge. 

Outdoor enthusiasts who ascribe to that old adage about being early to rise will experience the Grouse Mountain Trail at its best – the trail is most enjoyable early in the hiking season and with an early start to the day. Wait too long in the season or too late in the day to start out on this trail and you’ll find yourself punished by the hot sun beating down on the more exposed sections of the trail traversing the ridge. 

Things to know before you go:

  • Grouse Mountain, the Lick Creek Trail, and the surrounding forest are located on land that holds an important place in the traditions of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla tribes. Learn more about how the Blue Mountains, including this area, are used by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla to support their culture and way of life.
  • Access to the Zig Zag Trailhead is free. There are no fees or passes required to park at the trailhead.
  • If you pack it in, pack it out. If you aren’t already, get familiar with these basic seven principles of Leave No Trace for protecting and preserving natural landscapes.  
  • Because wildflowers are one of the best features of this trail, take some time to learn to identify some of the wildflowers that are native to this region and that you’re likely to encounter along the trail.

Getting there:

From Walla Walla, drive southwest on WA-125. At the Washington-Oregon state line, the highway becomes OR-11. Continue heading south through Milton Freewater and on towards Weston, Oregon. From Weston, go east on OR-204 for about 17 miles. Then turn right onto McDougal Rd, which connects with Forest Service Road #3715. Stay on this gravel road for about three miles until it ends at the Zig Zag Springs Trailhead. 

Hikers sitting atop Grouse Mountain Trail

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