Were I on this trail a month from now, my antenna would be up for rattlesnakes. But this is early March, and those slithery devils are likely still coiled in their dens, awaiting warmer temperatures.
I’m in Leslie Gulch in southeast Oregon, about two hours from the Treasure Valley. The area is famous for its hoodoos – towering columns of compressed volcanic ash. About 15 million years ago, two explosions blasted this material, along with fragments of solid rock, over a wide area. Those fragments, if large enough, protected the ash beneath them from rain and streams that eroded away the surrounding material, leaving spires and ribs of compacted ash and their capstones. Eventually, water will erode those too.
But that’s a long time off.
Today I’m on a well-trod but unmarked trail for a spring hike. I’ve hiked this trail before. It rises at a moderate incline, dead-ends at the base of a magnificent semicircle of jagged cliffs and can be completed in a little more than an hour.
Within yards of parking the car, I’m in a dry wash that curves to the right. I am already a tiny presence in this landscape. High eroded cliffs to my left catch the sun. The trail meanders, rising out of the streambed to skirt some boulders, then dropping back down onto the small gravel. It’s easy to lose the trail in spots, but it follows the streambed the whole way so you’ll always come back to it.
The foliage here is high desert: sparse, green in the spring but brittle and brown by summer. A few juniper trees have found enough moisture to thrive. Sage and bitterbrush is more prolific. Wildflowers, mostly in the form of groundcover such as Blue-eyed Mary, are just beginning to bloom.
After about 20 minutes of walking, the trail turns left, up and into a side canyon. The hike is steeper here and requires a bit of scrambling. You may need to put your hands down a few times to maintain your balance.
Look straight ahead: that curved wall is your destination. The trail now is more difficult to follow, but you’re still in a dry wash. Maybe 30-50 yards in, a distinct path on the right side of the wash makes the final push to the base of the cliffs.
Upon arrival — I’ve been hiking for about 30 minutes — I am utterly transported. The air is still. All sounds of the road disappear as they make their way up through the canyon. The cliffs — massive, dirty orange, some of them eroded, others sheer rock faces — tower overhead on three sides.
This is a good spot for a food break. Those cliffs, with their crags and notches, pull at me for further exploring. But today I’ll just have a long sit and head back down the trail.
Oh, about those snakes. They are out here. This area of southeast Oregon is hot and dry for much of the year, perfect rattlesnake climate. I returned in early April and Charlie Justus, regional conservation officer at Idaho Fish and Game, said he’s had reports of snake sightings at lower elevations. But the western rattlesnake, he says, is a generally docile creature — way more wary of you than you are of it. Still, they don’t like to feel threatened, so it’s best to take precautions. Just go slowly, watch where you step and put your hands, and you’ll be fine.
Getting there: From the intersection of U.S. 95 and Idaho 55 (just west of Marsing), turn south onto 95 and drive about 23 miles to the Leslie Gulch sign at the bottom of the hill. Turn right and stay on that road for about 10.5 miles; you’ll make a couple of turns — just follow the Leslie Gulch signs. At 10.5 miles, turn left onto Leslie Gulch road, and travel about 11.5 miles to the small turnout on your right, directly below those pinnacles. (Log onto IdahoStatesman.com/outdoors for a photo of the parking site.) Cross the dry streambed and head up the canyon.
Stats: The hike covers about 1.5 miles in and out, with an elevation gain of about 400 feet. It took about 1.5 hours. There are other marked and unmarked hikes in Leslie Gulch, some of which are much longer. Scott Marchant’s “The Hiker’s Guide: Greater Boise” has details. Leslie Gulch has 12 no-reservation campsites and a few bathrooms along the road. There is no water. The road dead-ends at a popular boat-launch spot at the Owhyee Reservoir.