The Wallowa Mtns. & Hells Canyon

Saturday, September 5, 2009
La Grande, OR.

Quick... what's the deepest gorge, or canyon, in North America? No, it's not the Columbia River Gorge... or Santa Elaina Canyon in Texas. And it's not even the famous Grand Canyon according to the good people in Oregon and Idaho. No Sir.

The deepest gorge is Hells Canyon at almost 8,000 feet deep. Hells Canyon was formed by the Snake River, the river that starts in Yellowstone National Park, forms part of the border between Idaho and Oregon, and eventually flows into the Columbia at Pasco, WA. We've been roughly following the Snake, as did the emigrants on the Oregon Trail, since Pocatello.

This morning, knowing it was going to be a long day of exploration, we got started a bit after 8am. Our intention was to drive the "Hells Canyon Scenic Byway", a more than 200 mile route that starts here in La Grande, follows OR-82 north and east around the base of the Wallowa Mountains through the towns of Wallowa, Enterprise, and Joseph. The road follows segments of the Grande Ronde River, the Minam River, and the Wallowa River. There's nothing like driving through winding valleys following a rapidly flowing river or stream on a nice day. There are plenty of pull-offs where you can stop, get out, and soak in the scenery, the scents, and the sounds.

We stopped in Joseph for an early lunch. The Embers Brewhouse Restaurant and Pub was the right place for us as we could sit outside on their deck in full view of the Wallowa Mountains looming high just to the southwest. Best of all, they say they have the widest selection of microbrew craft beer in all of Eastern Oregon. Hmmm, my kind of place.

With the reality of distance (to be traveled yet today) and time nudging us on, we drove east out of Joseph on the Imnaha Highway for a few miles until turning south on Wallowa Mountain Road, which becomes NF-39 as we entered the Wallowa - Whitman National Forest and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. This road is paved, barely, narrow and winding as it clings to the sides of slopes steep enough to make Dar edgy. The distance we traveled on this road was only 50 miles but because of the slow tight curves, steep up and down grades, and our easy pace it took about two hours to traverse this segment of the byway. Along here we made a 3 or 4 mile side trip to an overlook of Hells Canyon, where you can get an idea of the immensity of the Canyon. The natural beauty is simply startling. From this viewpoint it's impossible to see the river at the bottom, almost a mile below, but the view provides a sense of scale that prepares you for what can be seen later.

Eventually, after several thousand feet of downgrade, we reached OR-86 where we turned left, continued down, toward the Snake River and the towns of Oxbow and Copperfield. We crossed a bridge to the Idaho side and started north, hard along the river and just a few feet above it, deeper into the Canyon toward the Hells Canyon Dam. The sides of the Canyon are so steep here it took them two years to build this 23 mile long road to the dam site before any construction could begin in the early 1960's. This road provides access to the dam and is the furthest into the Canyon it's possible to drive at river level. The views from this road were certainly the "E" Ticket of the day. The mix of clouds and sun provided some awesome contrast as parts of the Canyon would alternately light up or darken. The photos we took should provide some idea of what it was like. This segment of the trip today, by itself, was among the most incredible spots on the earth I've ever visited. It'll blow you away.

With time waning, we hunkered down for the more than 120 miles back to camp. Most of that segment was on OR-86 which took us back to Baker City and then an easy 40 miles drive north on I-84 to La Grande and our camp. But even that drive kept us in awe as we encircled south side the Wallowa Mountains. The rolling steep foothills kept the road interesting and the low light and lengthening shadows from the waning day made the trip more enjoyable than it might otherwise have been.

The total distance traveled today was 320 miles. It was a long day but one of the most memorable of recent explorations. After a quick light dinner we both collapsed into bed shortly after arriving home.



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