A SHORT VISIT TO THE NW #5 – Hells Canyon (and area)
A SHORT VISIT TO THE NW #5 – Hells Canyon (and area)
This edition covers the Hells Canyon area in Northeast Oregon and includes the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
Our Travels in The Hells Canyon Area
OVERVIEW OF THE AREA
The Hells Canyon area is in the northeast corner of Oregon and the adjoining area of eastern Idaho. The Snake River forms the border between Oregon and Idaho along this stretch and is the force that carved the canyon. Most of the area is a designated National Wilderness which was established in 1975 making it a bit over 40 years old. After an expansion or two it is now a tad under 218 thousand acres. It is jointly managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service. Being a Wilderness Area rather than a National Park or National Forest means that it does not have the accessibility (i.e. roads and services) one is used to in National Parks, nor does it have the commercial presence such as logging and mining one finds in National Forests and as such also does not have the network of roads (either paved or dirt) needed to support those purposes. So, from an Eco stand point all that is a good thing. However from a sightseeing standpoint it’s somewhat limiting unless you can do some serious hiking.
This Wilderness is said to contain some of the most spectacular sections of the Snake River as it winds its way through Hells Canyon, North America's deepest river gorge – Take that Grand Canyon - and one of the deepest gorges on Earth. Well, maybe. Hells canyon is 7993 ft deep and the Grand Canyon is around 6000 ft. However, Hells Canyon’s depth is measured from Mountain He Devil which is over 5 miles away and can’t even be seen from the river, where as the Grand Canyon is measured from the rim of the gorge which can be seen from time to time from the river. So, you decide. But either way it’s pretty deep.
Pretty much the only way to really see the best parts is by backpacking or river rafting. Neither of which are all that enticing from a senior citizen sight seeing perspective. But, nonetheless we decided to spend a day in the area to see what we could see.
If you’ve been paying attention to these travel log’s, you will know that the last entry had us in the Palouse area of SE Washington so we came into the Hells Canyon area from the north. The first place we stopped was the Joseph Canyon Overlook. This overlook is not so much a grand view but is more dedicated to the Nez Perce Indians. I know ‘Native Americans’ is the preferred term but it’s too long to type over and over.
The Nez Perce called this area home for centuries till guess who showed up. This tribe hunted, fished, gathered plants and followed the seasons to higher ground in the warmer summers and lower elevations in the colder winters. This particular location was once the winter home of Chief Joseph. As the signs explain, when white settlers came along, the Nez Perce couldn’t figure out why they didn’t move to lower ground in the harsh winters and chalked them up to being a bit dumb. On the other side though, the settlers figured the Indians were nomads with no real place to call home. What they didn’t realize is that much like New Yorkers today who have a 2nd home in warmer Florida, the Nez Perce also had multiple homes. One for the winter and one for the summer. Their winter homes were permanent somewhat large communal log buildings whereas their summer homes were more like camping.
But, in keeping typical US tradition at that time all was not peaceful once the white folks invaded the area. At this location is a cave where the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce stored large quantities of food to sustain them through the cold winters. In June of 1877 the U.S. Army decided that it was a good idea to burn this cache of food, hoping to starve out the Indians. But, as it turned out, being June, the Wallowa’s had already left for the summer taking what they would need and not really caring about the left over’s in the cave. Way to go Army in not bothering to learn anything about the people you’re trying to subdue. However, the burning of the food cache was a message that the army would not allow them to return to the area in the fall. What followed is SOP for US vs. Indians throughout the west. In 1863 they were forcibly relocated to a small reservation that did not have the natural resources needed to survive and most of them died off – but we’ll hear more later when I talk about Chief Joseph.
WALLOWA LAKE STATE PARK
After checking into our motel in Enterprise OR and grabbing lunch, we headed over to the Lake Wallowa State Park area. At lunch the placemat was one of those “Things to see and do in.....” type produced by the local chamber of commerce and that you see regularly in such areas. Anyway, after nosing around on the map we set our sights on a tram that went from lake Wallowa to the top of a nearby mountain. Our waitress said it was a good thing so off we went.
It took us a bit to find it, even with our GPS, as we were looking for, well, a tram with towers, cables and gondolas going up and down. Eventually we decided to ask in the lobby of a resort motel where the GPS said the tram should be. And, yes that was the right place – just the wrong time. They stopped running it for the year two weeks earlier and had put it to sleep for the winter. Oh well.
As long as we were next to Wallowa Lake State Park we decided to see what was there. This park is at the end of lake Wallowa and is a very lovely park. Very well done campground, a boat launch area and a beach. But, again, being October, the dock was in the process of being dragged out of the lake, and other than restrooms all the other facilities were closed. But, it was still a lovely park and we strolled around the beach area and watched some dogs chasing sticks their owners threw into the lake.
Lake Wallowa Area
Lakefront at State Park. Water is Lower than normal due to west coast drought
As there was still some afternoon left we scoped out our map and not wanting to drive the same road we’d be taking the next day on our way out of the area, we decided to go down the only other highway on our map that looked like it went in the direction of the Gorge, hoping to get a glimpse of it along the way. The road is OR-350 that goes essentially from the town of Joseph to a town called Imnaha.
Leaving Joseph, we were up on a plateau with farms and ranches. The area was full of golden fields and open range grazing. I suspect that ranching was predominant and that the farm fields were to grow hay for the cattle to use in the winter. These ranches seemed to be doing very well as most had well maintained barns and fences with fancy houses interspersed among the sweeping golden fields full of cattle.
Triple Creek Ranch
Very shortly after leaving Joseph the road started descending the Imnaha River valley. This valley has several picnic areas and a few campgrounds as the road weaves it’s way down to the town of Imnaha. Imnaha is an unincorporated community at the confluence of Big Sheep Creek and the Imnaha River and appears to be made up of working class folks as well as others who just want out of the rat race. The name Imnaha means "land ruled over by Imna". Imna was a local Native American subchief. The post office opened in 1885 but the town site was not established until 1901.
Imnaha is the easternmost settlement in the state of Oregon but that is about its only claim to fame – other than the place where the road literally ends. As far as we could tell the town is made up of a tavern, a country store, a post office, and a dead motel that’s for sale (and looks like it’s been for sale for several decades).
So, now what. Well as it turns out, even though the paved road (OR-350) ends in Imnaha, An unimproved (read “dirt) road to Hat Point starts there. And, according to our literature, one can see the gorge from Hat Point. So, as it was only 4:00 pm we headed off toward Hat Point, 23 miles away.
This dirt road is mostly wide enough for two way traffic, but is dirt and pretty rough in places. In dry conditions pretty much any car except for low slung sports cars should have no trouble with it. But, if it’s wet or icy, I’d think twice before trying it without 4 wheel drive. From Imnaha the road snakes up the side of the hill which forms one side of the Imnaha valley and up onto a ridge that it mostly follows all the way out to hat point. Google Maps indicates that the drive time would be 58 minutes. This is slow going, especially knowing that the sun goes down early in October and we’d have to come back down the same way. But on we went.
View from ridge along Hat Point Road
View from ridge along Hat Point Road
Unbeknownst to us, the day we made this drive up to Hat Point also happened to be the first day of deer hunting season. It seems that everybody in the western hemisphere who owned a pickup truck, camouflage clothing and a rifle was up in these mountains with their buddies. In one sense this was a bit unnerving being around so many people with rifles shooting at anything that moved but on the other hand it was comforting knowing that someone would drive by every 10 to 15 minutes in case of emergency. Realistically though, I’m sure they had a good handle on where the road was vs the forest and could very well tell the difference between a white Volvo SUV and a 10 point buck – and in fact I don’t think we even heard one shot. In one case we passed a pickup with 4 of these hunters in it going the other way, creeping along at 5mph, looking for deer in the forest. Then less than a mile further up the road we drove right by 5 deer just standing by the side of the road snacking on the weeds. I guess success in hunting has a lot to do with luck.
Anyway after about an hour we arrived at a small campground that had a very eagerly awaited pit toilet. I think this is where the game wardens live during hunting season as each of the two tents were quite large canvas affairs with wood burning stoves inside, stove pipe vents and about a quarter cord of split wood by each tent. Another mile or so and we arrived at Hat Point.
Hat point itself is at 6,982 ft on a ridgeline overlooking the central section of Hells Canyon and the Snake River 5,502 feet below. The portion of the river you can see includes Rush Creek Rapids. Hat Point’s main purpose for being a named location is that there is a fire lookout tower here where forest service folks track lightning strikes and look for smoke columns. The tower is 82 feet tall with an observation platform at the 60 foot level.
In addition to the fire lookout there are picnic shelters with million dollar views and some interpretive signs. On our visit in the first week of October, we arrived at Hat Point in the late afternoon, with the sun very low on the horizon making for very dramatic shadows but very difficult photography. To make life even more interesting, the wind was quite stiff. As you can surmise, if a fire lookout is to be of much use it needs to have a commanding view of many dozens of miles, in all directions. To get this, they need to be on the tops of the mountains where there is nothing to block the view – or to block the wind. Let me tell you, that wind was cold and forceful. To keep the tower itself from blowing over it has several steel cable that looked to be an inch thick angling down from near the top and anchored to massive concrete foundation blocks buried in the ground. As these cables vibrated in the wind they gave off a musical tone like a medium pitch humming. I didn’t recognize the tune.
View from Hat Point
Picnic shelter at Hat Point
Hells Canyon and Snake river from Hat Point
Snake river in Hells Canyon from Hat Point
We didn’t stay here very long as I wanted to be back on a paved road before pitch dark and the nearest one was over an hour away, in Imnaha, back the way we came. So, we headed back down the mountain. As we headed back along the ridge, we were going almost due north so the setting sun was quite visible out the drivers side window and we were treated to a spectacular sunset which I had to stop to photograph. Eventually we made it back to Imnaha (and pavement) shortly after dark.
Sunset from Hat Point road (actually Forest Road 2640)
Sunset from Hat Point road (actually Forest Road 2640)
After leaving Enterprise the next morning we once again drove through the charming town of Joseph. Enterprise - where we stayed - is a middle class working folks town whereas Joseph is a tourist town with all that entails. Cutesy boutique shops, restaurants, Tavens and bars, etc. Not as bad as Carmel but it’s easy to tell who they’re catering to.
So, let’s talk a bit about Chief Joseph, the towns namesake. He was of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe and lived from 1840 to 1904. This was a rough time for his people during which they were forcibly removed from the Wallowa Valley by the US government and forced to move northeast onto a significantly reduced reservation in Idaho Territory. Of course the Nez Perce didn’t care for this all that much and put up a fair amount of resistance including a band led by Joseph who joined forces with the Palouse tribe. They eventually hooked into the resistance being mounted by the Lakota and led by Sitting Bull seeking refuge in Canada.
However, they were pursued by the U.S. Army in a campaign led by General Oliver O. Howard. This 1,170-mile (1,900 km) fighting retreat by the Nez Perce in 1877 became known as the Nez Perce War. The skill with which the Nez Perce fought and the manner in which they conducted themselves in the face of incredible adversity led to widespread admiration among their military adversaries and the American public.
Coverage of the war in US newspapers led to widespread recognition of Joseph and the Nez Perce. For his principled resistance to the removal, he became renowned as a humanitarian and peacemaker. However, modern scholars, like Robert McCoy and Thomas Guthrie, argue that this coverage, as well as Joseph's speeches and writings, distorted the true nature of Joseph's thoughts and gave rise to a "mythical" Chief Joseph as a "red Napoleon" that served the interests of the Anglo-American narrative of manifest destiny.
Town of Joseph
Farm near Joseph
HELLS CANYON OVERLOOK
Continuing along our journey, our next stop was the Hells Canyon Overlook on National Forest Rd NF-490. Unlike most NF roads this one is a well paved 2 lane highway. This overlook was a bit tricky to find as our GPS had it at a completely different spot on the road about 10 miles north of it’s actual location. It seems that many other people also have the same map in their GPS as the spot (just a hairpin turn in the road) was well worn from cars pulling off the road and turning around. But, eventually we found it. This is a modern “overlook” with a restroom, interpretive signs, and a picnic area. What it doesn’t have that I could detect is a view of Hells Canyon.
There’s no question that the view from here was grand. In fact one could see for many miles but the valley it overlooks is not Hells Canyon, or the Snake River, both of which were on the other side of the next ridge making it impossible to actually see. The best one could do was see the air over Hells Canyon. Apparently the valley it overlooks contains McGraw Creek so I would assume it’s called McGraw Creek Valley.
Small forest Fire off in the distance
This is the valley you can see from the overlook (McGraw Creek Valley?)
We were there
OREGON TRAIL INTERPRETIVE CENTER
Our last stop of this road trip before heading home was at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside of Baker City, OR and run by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management). This museum is on the top of a hill overlooking a fertile valley of farms as well as a section of the original Oregon trail. In addition to the indoor museum (which I’ll get to in a moment) the site also has several outdoor exhibits and 4 miles of hiking trails (mostly paved with asphalt).
From the museum you can see about 13 miles of the original Oregon trail – about a days worth of travel at the time - and if you hike over to them you can still see the wagon ruts etched into the rock. Very close to the museum (still at the top of the hill where you park) is a wagon encampment with 6 wagon reproductions.
On the other side and a bit down the hill is a mine and stamp mill site with a reconstructed stamp mill. When the gold rush in California petered out around 1860, the miners wandered about looking for gold in other areas of the west and the found some near Baker City Oregon on the Oregon Trail. This spawned a mini gold rush in the area and this visitor center on Flagstaff Hill is very near the Flagstaff Gold mine which ran from 1898 to the 1920’s.
Down near the bottom of the hill are the historic wagon ruts. During the migration emigrants sent a wagon and team ahead to break down the sagebrush on Virtue Flat. This clear zone where the sagebrush had been cleared was much easier to traverse so became like a highway in the larger valley. Over time the dusty earth on the flat was compacted by the thousands of wagon wheels that had gone before and allowed the wagons to roll much easier than dragging them though sand and loose dust. As wagon after wagon followed the same “track” the route gained the distinct imprint of several sets of parallel ruts—the traces of thousands of wagon wheels and animal hooves heading west. Oregon Trail ruts resemble a swale of slightly packed earth, rather than the more familiar set of parallel tracks typically made by automobiles.
The museum itself is very well done with realistic looking dioramas of life on the trail complete with audio recordings depicting what it was like along the trail. If you’re in the area it’s well worth a stop.
Box on side of wagon
Wagon ruts ad edge of valley
Diorama in museum
Well, that’s it for this trip. Our next adventure will be a winter visit to Bryce Canyon in Utah in mid February. Till then, Happy Travels.
Dan & Ellen
- You can see images of this area on my website at
- My websie home page
- You may also enjoy the very popular Trip Advisor review I published about the Mt. St. Helen's Visitor Centers (including Johnston Ridge Observatory)
Thanks for reading -- Dan
Keywords: Autumn, Covered Wagon, DanTravelBlog, DanTravelBlogPalouse, Hat Point, Hells Canyon Overlook, Joseph Canyon, Joseph, OR, Nez Perce, Oregon Trail, Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Snake River, Sunset, Travel Blog, Travel Log, Wallowa Lake State Park, Wwallowa Lake
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