Thursday, July 9, 2020

Explore the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway - A stellar 3-day trip from Halfway to Joseph

Hi all,

The Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is not that well-known, but it's a pretty cool scenic drive in my book. The whole loop around the Wallowa Mountains is 213 miles on the Oregon side of the Snake River. Take your time and soak in the scenery.

On the first couple days of Cycle Oregon three years ago, Wendy and I and 2,000 other cyclists rode the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway from Baker to Halfway, and then we all did a HUGE 95-mile day from Halfway to Wallowa Lake State Park via the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway and Forest Road #39.

After doing that ride, I wanted to come back and explore the Forest Road #39 area in particular, and just do some leisurely camping and hiking. My buddy Norm Nelson was game to go over there last week, so we did a 3-day trip, hanging out mostly around the Imnaha River campgrounds, and doing some hiking and fishing.

For my blog post this week, I'm recommending a bigger 3-day itinerary for families and friends that covers a few more popular sights along the way.

For Day 1, I'd recommend driving I-84 to Baker, Oregon (2 hours travel time), and then take the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, Oregon Highway 86 to Halfway, Oregon (1 hour+ driving time), the gateway to the southern end of the Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness. After a half day's drive, take a break, and enjoy the clean mountain air and impressive views of the Wallowas.

In Halfway, perhaps stay at a local Bed and Breakfast like the Inn at Clear Creek Farm, the Pine Valley Lodge, or the Halfway Motel and RV Park.

For Day 2, go east on the scenic byway toward Oxbow Dam in Hells Canyon. About 10 miles east of Halfway, turn left on Forest Road #39 (curvy paved road) and drive 20+ miles over the first big summit and visit the Hells Canyon Overlook. There's a rest room there, parking, and a paved accessible trail to a stupendous view of Hells Canyon.  

Last week, the overlook area was smothered with wildflowers of all kinds. The tell-tale peaks of the Seven Devils poked up on the Idaho horizon. Looking below, I could follow ridgelines plunging over 5,000 feet down to the Snake River (can't see the actual river). It kind of takes your breath away. I've been down in the bottom many times staring up from the river at the forested peaks looming above. 

After visiting the overlook, drop down to the Imnaha River campgrounds. There are a number of campgrounds that you could choose from along the main road, or up a separate road to the Imnaha River trailhead to the Eagle Cap Wilderness. We stayed at Indian Crossing Campground and had plenty of elbow room. We went hiking upriver to try out the fishing (water was very high and fast), and the Blue Hole advertised on the map and signs seemed pretty quiet.

It was still fun to climb down to the river, stand on a nicely-positioned casting rock, and cast some dry flies in the stillwater pool to see if anything might rise to the surface.

The Imnaha River hiking trail was very easy walking ... totally buffed and well-maintained in the lower 3-4 miles.

Other campgrounds in the immediate area include: Coverdale, Hidden, Ollokot, Blackhorse and Lick Creek (top of 2nd summit). There are a number of primitive self-support pull-out spots as well.

For Day 3, I'd recommend taking Forest Road #39 over Lick Creek summit and Salt Creek Summit and head for Joseph and Wallowa Lake State Park. The drive will take a couple of hours. Joseph is a charming little town with cool brew pubs, sidewalk cafes, art galleries and museums.

Book a room in Joseph or camp at Wallowa Lake State Park and you can't go wrong. The views from Wallowa Lake State Park are drop-dead gorgeous of the lake and the north end of the Wallowa Mountains/Eagle Cap Wilderness. There's hiking readily accessible up the West Fork or East Fork of Wallowa Creek. And there's the Wallowa Lake Tramway, which provides a quick trip to the rooftop of the Eagle Caps. There's food and drink available at the top.

According to the Wallowa Tramway web site, in 15 minutes, you ride from the bottom terminal (elevation 4,450 feet) up to the stop of Mt. Howard at 8,150 feet. The mountain is named for Major General Oliver O. Howard, who led U.S. troops in the Nez Perce War of 1877 and drove Chief Joseph and his people out of their ancestral homeland.

On Day 4, return to SW Idaho (or wherever your home might be) on Highway 82 back to La Grande, hop on I-84 and it's 2.5 hours back to Boise.

There you have it!
- SS

No comments: