Zumwalt Prairie

Zumwalt Prairie

  • Easy (Wild Rye Trail)
  • 2.4 miles round trip
  • 40 feet elevation gain
  • Open all year

  • Moderate (Harsin Butte scramble)
  • 1.6 miles round trip
  • 690 feet elevation gain

Raptors soar above this rolling grassland, between the snowy Wallowa Mountains and the ragged cliffs of Hells Canyon. Zumwalt Prairie has one of the highest concentrations of breeding hawks and eagles in the world—largely because the native bunchgrass prairie here teems with their favorite prey, ground squirrels.

Oregon State University researcher Marcy Houle celebrated the area’s rich ecosystem in her 1995 book, The Prairie Keepers, and marveled that a century of careful cattle grazing may actually have improved raptor habitat. This intrigued The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit group that bought 51 square miles here, making this the state’s largest private nature preserve.

Most of the preserve is off limits, but you’re allowed to stroll to a pond on the Wildrye Trail or scramble up Harsin Butte for a look around. For the best wildflowers, visit between late April and June. Avoid the freezing winds of winter and the heat of August. Pets, horses, fires, vehicles, and camping are banned.

Start by driving Highway …

The big horizon is empty, save for the humps of Harsin and Findley Buttes. The real view is at your feet, where you’ll see six kinds of native grasses, including 5-foot clumps of basin wildrye. Look for the blooms of yellow bells in April, pink Nootka roses and yellow lupine in May, and pink Clarkia and white mariposa lilies in June. The Nature Conservancy burns this area periodically to boost native plants, including the threatened Spaldings catchfly, an inobtrusive white-petaled flower that can catch flies with its sticky leaves.

The road/trail …

This chapter taken from the book 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Eastern Oregon.