The Hells Canyon All-American Road

July 10, 2001 12:00 am
The depths of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (above) and the heights of the Wallowa Mountains are just two of the many views afforded travelers on the Hells Canyon All-American Road. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
The depths of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (above) and the heights of the Wallowa Mountains are just two of the many views afforded travelers on the Hells Canyon All-American Road. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Americas roads teem with diversity, but a very few take you within sight of a cactus and a glacier on the same afternoon.

One of those very few roads is in Northeastern Oregon.

Its called the Hells Canyon National Scenic Byway, but thats kind of a misleading name, suggesting the routes only scenic attribute is that deepest river-carved gorge in North America.

Actually, the Hells Canyon Byway in its 218-mile length also passes the tallest peaks in Eastern Oregon, cleaves three of the regions most beautiful mountain valleys, and takes travelers to an array of small towns, campgrounds, hiking trails, fishing holes and viewpoints.

The Hells Canyon route will be formally dedicated July 14 as one of Oregons three All-American roads the others are the Historic Columbia River Highway and the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway at Crater Lake.

The Hells Canyon byway begins in Baker City, whose population of 10,000 makes it by a large margin the biggest city until routes end in slightly more populous La Grande.

From Baker City drive east on Ore. Highway 86.

Just out of town the highway climbs Flagstaff Hill, the same bump in the sagebrush plains that thousands of emigrants descended as they traveled the Oregon Trail. The Bureau of Land Managements Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, just off the highway, tells those travelers story.

About 18 miles east of Baker City the highway crosses the Powder River. It follows the river 24 miles more to Richland, population 175, where the Powder empties into an arm of Brownlee Reservoir on the Snake River.

Beyond Richland the highway crosses a 3,650-foot-high pass, then winds down to Pine Valley and Halfway, where all is dwarfed by the massive granite peaks of the Wallowa Mountains.

Ten miles east of Halfway the byway leaves Highway 86, branching onto the paved, two-lane Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, No. 39 on U.S. Forest Service maps.

From the junction, Hells Canyon itself, where the prickly pear cactus thrives in the 100-degree days of summer, is about five miles east on Highway 86.

The byway, though, veers north, following North Pine Creek for several miles, then climbing the divide that extends from the eastern shoulder of the high Wallowas to the western rim of Hells Canyon, 5,000 and more feet above the wild Snake.

Theres a junction with the paved road leading to the Hells Canyon Overlook, one of the areas most far-reaching vistas.

As the byway continues north, views open to the west to the tops of the Wallowas, where more than a dozen summits exceed 9,000 feet, and snowfields (glaciers to most everyone but finicky geologists) survive the summer.

North of the divide the byway descends into the Wallowa Valley, the ancestral home of the Nez Perce tribe.

Like Pine Valley, the Wallowa Valley extends right to the granitic bases of towering mountains.

The byway turns south onto Ore. Highway 82 at Joseph, a town famous for its history, its bronze foundries and, above all, for its Swiss village-like setting on the shores of glacier-carved Wallowa Lake.

From Joseph the route remains on Highway 82 all the way to La Grande, passing several towns (Enterprise, Lostine, Wallowa, Elgin and Imbler among them) and tracing the rushing Wallowa River for many miles.

Highways 86 and 82 are above year-round. The Wallowa Mountain Loop Road, though, is not plowed during the winter. It usually closes in early November and reopens in late May.

For road conditions, call the U.S. Forest Service at 541/523-6391 or 541/426-5546.