Kelly Creek


Forest Service Trail #567

Why? Wildlife, fall color and scenery.

Season: May through October

Ease: Easy to moderate depending on how far you walk.

The Kelly Creek area is special for many reasons, and luckily the trail that follows it upriver is easy to hike for at least a dozen miles. It’s special because of its wildlife, because of its beauty, and, for those that fish, because of the fish that can be caught and released there.

For me, it’s the wildlife, though I admit that my first hike along the creek was notable for the color rather than wildlife. It was October, and the fall colors were marvelous. They’re different than those in the Northeast, where I lived for many years. In the Northeast, it’s the big deciduous trees that show color in the fall. Here, it’s primarily the understory, an understory that plays against the dark greens of the evergreens, the pale browns of the grasses and other low, herbaceous plants and the local rocks, often white but sometimes grey or black.

The trail up Kelly Creek really is level after the initial uphill approach, gaining just 400 feet in the six miles from the trailhead to Bear Creek and another 200 feet or so between there and Hansen Meadows. It’s also soft and easy on the feet, mostly dirt and sand to walk on with few rocks or roots.

The creek’s valley is open for the first 3 ½ miles to Cayuse Creek, making it a good place to note how different the vegetation is on north and south-facing slopes. After Cayuse joins Kelly, the trail wanders in and out of a few trees, then eventually stays in the woods until Bear Creek and beyond.

I did see wildlife when I hiked just a few miles up Kelly. There were the usual osprey, varied thrushes looking like robins dressed for a night out, squirrel, grouse, flicker, and deer. One time a coyote ran up the trail ahead of me, leaving me two calling cards in the process. And I saw bear tracks.

Hansen Meadows is about 9 miles up Kelly and about as fine a spring or fall hiking destination as you could want. It’s a huge meadow, best viewed from above on a low saddle that defines its western end. Hansen is wide, with meanders, small streams, deadfall, and low brush

When I hiked to Hansen the first time, it was a wildlife hike beyond compare. In a four-night trip, we saw four bear. Three grazed in meadows, one we scared up while day hiking. We saw elk, though not the large herds I’d been led to expect. My favorites were the half dozen who stood in Cayuse Creek as we approached it on the hike out.

We saw moose. We saw ground squirrels. We saw birds. And we saw more ticks than I ever care to see again on one hike. But what we saw that made the hike so amazingly special was a wolf at a time when wolves were still scarce in the Clearwater. A wolf in a place where there probably always have been wolves, the extirpation of the last century notwithstanding. A wolf in a place that is not a National Park.
We also heard a pack howl.

Beyond Hansen, the trail continues on up Kelly and its various forks. We hiked up around and past Kellys Sister, crossed a fine bridge across main Kelly, and walked a few yards up the South Fork until we reached an outfitters camp.

Name Note: Kelly Creek, Kellys Finger, Kellys Thumb and Kellys Sister were named for John Kelly, an early miner in the area.

Trail Notes: Crossing Bear Creek, about 6 miles in, can be an issue in high spring runoff.
Fishing on Kelly Creek is catch and release only, with barbless hooks required and no bait allowed.
You can also get to Hansen Meadows by hiking down off the Toboggan Hill Road on trail #565.

Directions: Take Highway 12 east from Lewiston to Greer. Turn east on Highway11 at Greer and continue through Weippe almost to Pierce. Just before Pierce turn east on French Mountain Road. Soon after, you’ll see signs indicating the mileage to Kelly Creek – 49 miles. This road is paved at the start, then gravel, as is the road along the North Fork of the Clearwater which you’ll turn east on 30 miles later. The North Fork heads north at Kelly Forks, where there’s a campground. The road continues east from the Forks along Kelly Creek, and the signed trailhead is 11 miles later, just after the road passes the Kelly Creek Ranger Dwelling and crosses Moose Creek. And just before it crosses Kelly itself.

Information: North Fork Ranger Station, CWNF, (208) 476-4541.

Maps: USGS Gorman Hill and Toboggan Ridge, Idaho.