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Catherine Creek beckons birders, hikers, campers

Catherine Creek winds through the state park in late winter. (Photos/Ethan Schowalter-Hay).
Catherine Creek winds through the state park in late winter. (Photos/Ethan Schowalter-Hay).

- Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Observer correspondent

UNION — One of the more humbling strolls readily accessible in the Grande Ronde Valley is the short hike connecting the campground at Catherine Creek State Park with its day-use area to the east.

Humbling because of the enormous, barrel-trunked ponderosa pines with their fiery scarred bark; humbling because of the basalt crags across the river; and humbling because — at least for this reporter — the steep and dark forest through which the trail winds never fails to evoke visions of mountain lions.

(Those readers familiar with the trail may now be recalling a particular jumble of black boulders, uphill.)

Highway 203 brings you southeast from Union, past bemused cows and photogenic horses, to the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains. Keep an eye out for mule deer grazing on the rocky slopes on the northern side of the route.

Much of the exposed rock in Catherine Creek State Park originated from the Powder River Volcanic Field, according to Mark Ferns of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, which was part of a widespread series of lava emissions that helped build today's Columbia Plateau.

Basalt flows often rest unsteadily atop bedrock, and this instability has had a dramatic effect on the park's landscape.

"The basic story line is that landslides often form when the bases of lava flows are exposed by faulting," Ferns reported by e-mail. "Catherine Creek follows a series of faults that have uplifted the (bedrock)-volcanic contact. Landslides result."

The jumbled terrain of much of the park reflects this volatile lurch and collapse of rock.

The local landscape attracts an impressive variety of avifauna, according to Trent Bray, owner of The Bobolink, a bird- and beer-themed store in La Grande.

"If there's ever a birding guide to Northeast Oregon, Catherine Creek will be in there for sure," he projects. "You get a nice range of habitat."

Although the park is fairly small, its boundaries encompass a spectrum from riparian bramble to mountainside timber. And it's not just the variety of habitat — the area's broader biogeography heightens diversity.

"Our part of the state is essentially Rocky Mountain biome," Bray says.

The Wallowa and Blue Mountains are ecologically more allied with the Rockies than Oregon ranges farther west, and therefore species seen nowhere else in the state may be encountered in the Catherine Creek area.

One of the "grand slams" of Oregon birding, Bray reports, is the veery, a thrush more common in woodlands from the Rockies eastward.

"I've had people from all over the state come here to find it, and I tell them to check out Catherine Creek," Bray says. "Look for veeries anywhere between the day use area and the campground."

The northern goshawk, a striking woodland raptor, may be glimpsed along the park's hiking trail, through that somber forest. But this powerful hunter, which generally targets rabbits and grouse, is elusive.

"Usually I only see a flash through the trees," Bray says. "It's rare to catch one just sitting on a branch."

The massive, old-growth ponderosa pines attract the white-headed woodpecker, while the American dipper, a uniquely adapted species that dives underwater to forage, patrols the riffles of Catherine Creek.

Bray advises to look — and listen — for birds mainly during dawn and dusk hours.

For more specific birding inquiries, track down Bray at The Bobolink, 963-2888, or by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Catherine Creek itself is one of the Grande Ronde River's major tributaries, tumbling out of the rocky and wind-tossed high country of the Wallowa Mountains and meandering across the eastern Grande Ronde Valley. Along its lower length, the creek occupies a portion of the historic channel of the Grande Ronde, abandoned after the construction in 1869 of the State Ditch.

The streamside zone so crucial to birds like the dipper is a critical resource for many other species. Riparian habitat is highly productive and ecologically diverse — and, for a time, it was threatened in the state park.

The creek's route and character have been altered considerably by human activities, says local historian Jerry Gildemeister, who wrote an environmental history of the Grande Ronde River watershed.

Logging roads in the upper reaches exacerbated erosion, while downstream in the valley, irrigation and flood control associated with agricultural development modified Catherine Creek's flow.

Gildemeister remembers relatively healthy fish stocks in the late 1950s. "Catherine Creek still had good salmon runs," he recalls. "It looked like you could walk across their backs."

American Indians from as far away as the Umatilla Plateau came to take advantage of Catherine Creek's salmon. A popular site for these temporary fishing camps was along the bottomlands several miles upstream from Union.

In his watershed history, Gildemeister, referencing a 1974 Corps of Engineers report, wrote: "Each spring, (Indians) returned to Catherine Creek to catch salmon by ‘herding' them into shallow water areas where they were either trapped or caught by hand."

Channeling, brush removal, and dam building plummeted salmon and steelhead numbers throughout the latter half of the 20th century, but the ancient spawning grounds have been revitalized to some extent in the past few decades by new management regimes.

Cindy Hutton of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department says the riparian restoration project in the state park was a major achievement.

Under older campground protocol, she says, "We used to mow right up to the stream edge, so people could pull up their trailers." But by the late 1980s, park managers began appreciating the importance of streamside vegetation buffers and adapted their approach accordingly.

Standard maintenance involves mowing, raking and the repair of facilities. As Hutton puts it, "People flush the weirdest things down the toilet."

Catherine Creek sees a lot of human traffic in the summer recreation season. In addition to hiking and fishing opportunities, the stream and its timbered canyon provide welcome respite from afternoon heat.

"It's a great picnic area," Hutton says. "And we see a lot of family reunions and weddings, especially on the bridge."

Off-season usage is, as one might expect, lighter, but hardy souls can take advantage of a quieter campground and uncrowded trails. Some campground hosts, Hutton notes, particularly enjoy the mellower atmosphere of autumn and early spring.

The park has 20 campsites, none reservable. Camping rates are $8 from May through September and $5 during the off-season.

The state owns acreage across the road on the adjoining mountainside and will soon initiate a long-discussed expansion of the trail system to take advantage of this additional property.

Nearby Forest Service Road 7785 affords access to the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the high Wallowas, following the North Fork Catherine Creek.


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