We’re hiking the trail up the mountain from Catherine Creek State Park through sky-busting ponderosa pines when Wonder suddenly whirls around in the trail, raises her arms in the air and snarls.
“Do you think this will scare off the cougars?” she asks.
I’m pretty sure it will scare off the bears, too, as well as wolves and wolverines.
The state park about 10 miles east of Union, Ore., is a long drive from Walla Walla, but worth the effort, my wife says. She visited here years before with her parents, longtime fixtures in Dayton, and our visit now brings a nostalgia wave.
Catherine Creek splashes its way through the basalt-studded canyon, and a soft wind plays pine music. The park is off the beaten track, far from the Interstate 84 buzz, and never seems crowded. I like to swing my elbows and not hit every Tom, Dick and Harold also in a desperate search for serenity.
The price is right, too. You don’t need a permit to get in, a permit to picnic, a permit to hike or even one to kick pine cones, if you’ve had a tough week.
I’d stay a while and fish for rainbow trout, but piscatorial pleasures will have to wait for another day. Besides, the fish seem to know I’m in the neighborhood and have put out warnings to their friends up and downstream. But then, I’m fishing challenged. Other people can catch their limit in the time it takes me to bait a hook. And no, even with the crystal clear waters, I can’t see the fish as they swim underwater, seemingly laughing at my ineptitude. Instead, I sit and listen to the rapids, although the subliminal message, if I listen close enough, seems to be you might want to visit a grocery store on the way home and buy some trout there.
The park, all told, offers 3 miles of trails and plenty of campsites. Even in the heat of summer, it seems cool, quiet, peaceful.
But there’s much more to this trip than the park. There’s also plenty to see coming and going. Some people may want to stop at Hot Lake Resort, about halfway between Union and La Grande, and check out the elaborate Native American museum and art by sculptor David Manuel. The ancient tribes were known to set aside differences here during summers and harvest camas, with large meadows turning blue, and also hunt, fish and soak in the hot springs. That gave the Grande Ronde Valley its nickname, the “Valley of Peace.”
Some might enjoy a stop at the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area, although depending on the season much of the terrain is off limits to protect the wildlife. March through June is the best time to see wildlife here, including such beauties as cinnamon teal and wood ducks.
Some might enjoy a round of golf at Buffalo Peak Golf Course on the southeast edge of Union. The links-style course offers eye-popping views of the Grande Ronde Valley, especially from the fourth tee box. You’ll see why the valley’s name means “great circle.” Well, not a perfect circle. More oblong. It’s 35 miles north to south and 15 miles east to west and is surrounded by the Blue Mountains.
Wonder and I choose the less-traveled path. We come home the long way with a side trip to High Valley Falls. We take Oregon 203 a little over 6 miles west from the park and then turn right on Kofford Road. In about a ½ mile, we turn right again on High Valley Road and climb back into the mountains. This provides a scenic back way between Union and Cove, and is gravel for those who care.
Farther on, we check out the hamlet of Cove, my former home for 20 years. Cove is far away from main roads and enjoys spectacular views over the Grande Ronde Valley and up the front range of the Wallowa Mountains. Here, there are no new chain stores. Sprawling subdivisions. Bustling malls. Traffic is light, and you might even see a horse and rider stopped to order a hamburger at the drive-in. The rider anyway. The horse, we imagine, prefers grass.
We also see a few of the many deer that make the town home and love to eat geraniums.
On the drive to Catherine Creek State Park, we take Interstate 84 over the Blue Mountains to La Grande and then Highway 203 on to Union and the park. On the way back, to make a nice loop, we connect with Highway 82 to Elgin and then take the Tollgate highway over to Weston and back home.
Catherine Creek makes a great day trip. Just start early. There’s only so much daylight, even around the summer solstice, and you want to squeeze the most out of every minute.