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Hell’s Canyon Scenic byway

By Thomas Baurley

As I’ve traveled back and forth from Denver to Seattle I’d always pass the signs for “Hell’s Canyon” off the Interstate crossing from Idaho into Oregon. I finally decided to take part in the scenic byway. I didn’t get to do the entire 218-mile route from Baker City to La Grande. I did, however, get to go from Baker City to Halfway, to the canyon’s dam, and partially towards the scenic overlook. An April trip, the roadway to the overlook, however, was not safe for public vehicles and it was a navigational maze of fallen trees, rockslides, and snow. While the whole route diverse from river’s edge and valley floor to mountaintops back down to the valley, what little I did drive was spectacular albeit rough.

The Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA) is a forested wilderness straddling both sides of the Snake River as it weaves through Oregon and Idaho. This traverses the Snake River recreation areas, Oregon, Idaho, Wallowa Valley, Oregon uplands, forests, and high desert. The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was designated in 1975 following 71 miles of the Snake River and encompassing over 652,488-acres. The area has relatively mild winters. The Byway takes a 218-mile auto journey circling the Wallowa Mountains intersecting with Interstate 84 between La Grande and Baker City, Oregon.

At 8,000 ft depth – Hell’s Canyon is known as North America’s deepest gorge with intense rock formations, deep cuts, and the Snake River’s fast-spinning rapids. The Canyon has an incredible role in the Oregon trial, gold bust, and aboriginal history of the area. Underneath the shadows of the Wallowa Mountains with jagged snowcapped peaks – the landscape reminds one of Ireland, New Zealand, and the Swiss Alps combined.

The geology of the area was formed millions of years ago when the 10,000 ft. Wallowas mountain ranges formed the coast of current-day Oregon with plateau basalt, granite batholiths, and shale buckled into the rugged terrain you see today. The southern and western Wallowas are where the Grande Ronde Vally stretches into a valley floor where the Yakima, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse, Shoshone, and Bannock tribes once hunted, gathered, and dwelled. Today it is rich agricultural farmland of hay, wheat, mints, canola, and grasses as well as the homeland for goats, sheep, horses, and cattle. It is also a popular outdoor recreation hotspot with camping, hiking, hunting, historical backtracking, fishing, downhill skiing, cross country, tubing, sledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, rafting, canoeing, and mountain biking. There are mountains, rivers, and Wallowa Lake. Deer, Elk, Bear, Bighorn Sheep, and Cougars are commonly sighted. Anglers are a common sight.

Native Americans hold numerous cultural events and attractions in the area to highlight their history and heritage including PowWows, rodeos, music festivals, craft shows, and concerts. It is here that the Nez Perce Indians claim as their ancestral homeland, and is where the history of Chief Joseph takes place.

.Begin at Baker City

From Interstate I-84 at Baker City, Oregon – take exit 304 onto Highway 86. Baker City is filled with scenic history so start exploring their National Historic District: “Queen City of the Mines” with the turn of the century Victorian architecture interspersed among modern-day residential and commercial structures. The famous Geiser Grand Hotel downtown is worth a look. Then as you head north on 86 stop-off at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.

86 is known as the Baker-Copperfield Highway which will wind through the Oregon high desert and sagebrush plateaus, farmland, and into Richland. From Richland you’ll travel the the legend known as Halfway, a former mining town, then Pine, and Copperfield. These were stop-offs during the Gold strikes in the early 1800’s as Gold rushers headed to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In the 1840’s lots of gold was found in the ara and distracted many from continuing onwards to the Oregon or California Coast. The southern side of the Wallowa Range had its own abundant ores bringing in lots of gold seekers by the 1860’s. Then turned farming, timber, agriculture, and forestry.

Snake River and Hell’s Canyon

Passing Halfway you’ll eventually hit the junction of Forest Road 39 which will take you to the overlook of Hell’s Canyon. But if you continue onwards about 6 miles down you’ll hit the Snake River at the southern-most end of Hell’s Canyon – the river, the dam, and many other recreational opportunities.


The Nez Perce tribe’s folklore states that the Coyote used a big stick to carve out Hell’s Canyon in order to protect the ancestors in Oregon’s Blue Mountains from the Seven Devil’s Mountain range that reside across the gorge in Idaho. Science tells us it was formed by normal stream erosion from the Snake River cutting through the rocks of the rising mountain range roughly 6 million years ago. Human habitation dates to over 11,000 years ago evidenced by petroglyphs, pictographs, winter pithouse villages, and other archaeological remains. In the winter of 1877 the Nez Perce faced settlement conflicts forcing Chief Joseph to head towards Canada with a group of 250 men, women, and children then being captured in Montana and sent to the reservations

The Overlook

Following Forest Road 39 is a long winding 16 mile journey to Forest Road 3965. Unfortunately I was unable to accomplish the journey in April due to winter hazards of landslides, fallen trees, and snow still covering the roadways. Apparently its really only traveled by the general public from June to October due to winter hazards and lack of road maintenance. The short drive up 3965 will give the traveler breathtaking vistas of Hell Canyon from a 5400 feet view allowing one to see Hell’s Canyon, McGraw Creek, and the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho they say. It is still on my bucket list.

The remainder of the Byway I cannot expand upon as I was unable to continue due to road hazards from winter and lack of maintenance. This enters the Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap. Taking Forest road 39 northward you enter the Wild and Scenic Imnaha River, turning west around the Wallowa Mountains. This is an area very popular with anglers, fishermen, and hunters. The Imnaha has incredible spots where steelhead trout, chinook salmon, and other fish are popular.

The road will take you through the Eagle Cap Wilderness offering plentiful camping and hiking locations. Onwards through the small town of Joseph – known for its art and recreational opportunities continue down the road to the glacial formed Wallowa Lake with a state park. You can take a tramway to the summit of Mt. Howard. Continue your journey from Joseph to Enterprise on Route 82, stop-off at the Visitor Center, and learn about the area. In Enterprise you can shop, lodge, and outfit. Follow the route through Lostine then on to Wallowa where you can stop off at the Nez Perce Interpretive Center. Then onwards through a canyon, following part of the Wallowa River, to where it joins with the Minam, then climbing up the Minam Grade. You’ll soon hit Elgin and can absorb its history. The end of your journey weaves through Grande Ronde Valley and into La Grande.

Hell’s Canyon Campgrounds:

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