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Leave the fast pace and fenced-in views of Interstate 84 and follow the contours of the land into slower times and wilder places. Travel this 218 mile journey from river’s edge to mountaintop and down to valley floor. The byway is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace so allow 2 days to complete your trip. Have lunch overlooking a wild and scenic river; share a canyon road with a cattle drive. Pass through lush valleys, rimmed by the snow-tipped Wallowa Mountains. Savor the scent of pine on the fresh mountain air. Enjoy panoramic views of rugged basalt cliffs and grassy open ridges. Stand next to the majestic Snake River as it begins its tumbling course through North America’s deepest canyon. Place your hand in the weathered track of a wagon wheel; hear the wind rushing through the forest. You are surrounded by the music of birds and bubbling streams. Stars seem brighter, smiles friendlier. ()
The route of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is a loop that encircles the Wallowa Mountains, intersecting with Interstate 84 at La Grande and Baker City. Small towns, scattered along the drive, offer visitor services. The entire route is on a paved highway. Plan ahead—you’ll find stretches of more than eighty miles without gas and with few services. A segment of the Byway between Joseph and Halfway closes with snow in winter, but allows access to winter recreation areas, offering a whole other kind of Northeast Oregon Adventure.
There are five ports of entry into the Byway: La Grande from I-84, Elgin via OR Hwy. 204, Enterprise via OR Hwy. 3, Oxbow via Idaho Hwy. 71, and Baker City from I-84. To encompass the entire route, this itinerary follows the Byway traveling from La Grande to Baker City, but driving the route in reverse is just as appealing.
Byway Travel Savvy
- You can drive the Byway in about four hours, but to really enjoy it, you will need a few days. We recommend you reserve lodging accommodations prior to your trip.
- Before starting out, take notice of the travel times as well as mileage between stops and keep your fuel tank as full as possible.
- If you plan to hike, ski, snowmobile or otherwise explore off the main Byway routes, pick up detailed maps and additional information from the offices listed on the back panel.
- Be prepared for temperatures that vary as much as fifty degrees as the day wears on.
- Remember to take along your camera, extra film, binoculars, a picnic or snack foods, plant and wildlife guides, first aid kit, drinking water, blanket and jackets.
Extremes in the land have dictated the course of the area’s natural and cultural history. Relatively mild winters and abundant wildlife drew people to the area over 7,000 years ago. Archeological evidence can be easily found in the Snake River corridor ranging from rock art to winter pithouse villages. Pictographs and petroglyphs are scattered along the river where Native Americans spent their winters. Please use care when viewing them; these national treasures have stood the test of time and will be enjoyed long into the future.
For many centuries, the Grande Ronde Valley was used seasonally by Native Americans. Covered largely by wetlands, the beautiful valley was lush with grass and filled with game. Herds of elk summered in the surrounding high country and wintered in the milder valley. Mule deer, pronghorn antelope and big-horn sheep browsed the hills and meadows. This bountiful scene was a neutral meeting place for members of the Umatilla, Yakima, Shoshone, Cayuse and Bannock Nations, who came to enjoy the hot springs, hunt, graze their horses, and gather plants for food. Every fall, when leaving the valley to winter in the milder climate along the Columbia plateau, they lit huge fires in the valleys, burning off old grass and allowing for healthy regrowth in the spring.
The picturesque Wallowa Valley was the beloved home of the Nez Perce Indians. By winter of 1877, settlement conflicts drove Young Chief Joseph to make a harrowing attempt to reach Canada with a group of 250 men, women, and children. They struggled to within 24 miles of safety before being captured at Montana and sent to reservations. This area remains a significant religious and cultural center for the Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Cayuse Indians.
People of European descent first entered the Byway country in late December 1811, when the Wilson Price-Hunt Expedition paused to rest and celebrate the new year at the hot springs now known as Hot Lake, near La Grande. Other explorers, trappers, and missionaries soon followed. The Powder River and Grande Ronde Valleys were important emigrant stops on the Historic Oregon Trail. Beginning in 1843 and continuing for several decades, the lure of abundant, rich farm land, clear water and seemingly endless forests brought over 350,000 Americans westward to the famed Oregon Country. Usually leaving Missouri in the spring, they walked or road horseback over 2,000 miles of wilderness, carrying their possessions in covered wagons. Rests in the lush Grande Ronde and Powder River valleys were welcome after several months of hot, dusty travel.
Gold was discovered in eastern Oregon by 1860. Miners flocked to the southern side of the Wallowa range, (now the Halfway/Oxbow area) and in the Elkhorn Ridge of the Blue Mountains. The valleys along the Byway were later settled by farmers, ranchers and merchants who provided food to the burgeoning mining communities. Agriculture and forestry are still important industries throughout northeast Oregon. Much of the beautiful scenery is related to expansive farms and ranches that retain the wide open spaces, lush vegetation and prevalent wildlife. Settlement was not without environmental cost. Draining the wetlands to make way for crops was a common practice. Canals were dug, rivers re-channeled, and native grasslands turned under a plow, forming some of the richest farmlands in Oregon. In the process, the swamps and wetlands were nearly obliterated, resulting in fewer migratory birds and game animals, and a lessening of the land’s ability to retain moisture through the dry season.
Today, farmers use conservation farming tactics, such as planting wind breaks, more efficient irrigation methods, crop rotation, and fencing waterways and wetlands to mitigate damage from earlier actions and practices. The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife has restored nearly 5,000 acres of wetlands and elk habitat south of La Grande at the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area.
For A Closer Look
Learn more about northeast Oregon’s history by visiting these nearby attractions. (Miles from the Byway)
NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY: Tamastslikt Cultural Institute of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla at Wildhorse Resort & Casino near Pendleton. (45)
RANCHING AND COWBOY HISTORY: Cowboys Then & Now Exhibit at the Union County Museum in Union. (15)
SETTLEMENT & EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY HISTORY: Eastern Oregon Museum in Haines. (9)
MINING: The Sumpter Dredge State Historic Monument and Sumpter Valley Railroad at Sumpter (20)
The Forces Of Nature
Millions of years ago, the Wallowa Mountains formed the coast of what would eventually be called Oregon. Uplifted layers of limestone on the peaks harbor fossilized shells that once sat at the bottom of the ocean. Eons of volcanic action and faulting pushed the masses of rock upward and to the east while new land formed to the west. The Coast Range, Cascade Mountains and upland desert of Central Oregon now seperate the Wallowas from the ocean by hundreds of miles. Flows of plateau basalt, batholiths of granite, and layers of shale were buckled and folded to further shape the mountain range. Raging rivers and gigantic glaciers carved the peaks and canyons. It took nature a long time to sculpt the dramatic beauty you see along the Byway. To learn more, carry a copy of Oregon’s Roadside Geology with you while you travel.
Recreational opportunities along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway are seemingly endless and range from tranquil to thrilling. Four distinct seasons alter the scenery and determine the activities.
In Spring, warm sunshine carpets the hills with green grass and colorful wildflowers. The landscape becomes a patchwork quilt with fields of freshly plowed soil, sprouting crops and blossoming fruit trees. Watch the meadows for frisky new calves and wobbly foals. Along the streams, willows, dogwood and mock orange create a changing palette of yellows, pinks and vibrant greens. Fish on the Grande Ronde, Minam, Wallowa and Imnaha Rivers. Take a thrilling raft or jet boat ride through Class III and IV rapids on the Snake or float the waters of the Grande Ronde and Minam Rivers.
Summer bursts with energy. Warm, dry weather and lots of sunshine make the outdoors impossible to resist. Micro-climates at different elevations and aspects mean you can always find a cooler or hotter spot within miles. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, counties, and state parks department operate numerous campgrounds, trail systems, viewpoints, and picnic facilities along or near the route. Cast a fishing line on several of the rivers and streams and at Wallowa Lake. Hire a private outfitter to experience horseback riding and pack trips, rafting, para-sailing, and jet boat adventures. Cycle the back roads or mountain trails for the amazing views. Watch hang gliders and hot-air balloonists catch the breeze high above the Wallowa and Grande Ronde Valleys.
In autumn, cooler temperatures and shorter days turn tamarack (western larch) needles to gold and leaves to jewel tones of yellow, orange and red. Canada geese are on the move, filling the air with melancholy calls. Hunt for deer, elk, bear, cougar, bighorn sheep or photo opportunities. It’s the time for cattle drives, harvest and for blue-sky days crisp with the smell of winter. Catch the small town spirit by watching a high school football game in splendid, scenic surroundings. Visitors are welcome.
Winter’s dry, powdery snow opens the ski resorts and turns back-country side trips and hiking trails into a giant playground for adventurers on skis, snowmobiles, and snowshoes. Enjoy winter raptor viewing in Minam and Hells Canyons, a horse-drawn sleigh ride in Joseph or ice fishing on Wallowa Lake. By day, surround yourself with spectacular scenery topped with fresh white snow. By night, relax before a crackling fire in cozy lodgings.
Cultural events and attractions honor the history and heritage of the area’s residents and can be enjoyed in communities all along the Byway. Rodeos, powwows, music festivals, craft shows, plays, concerts and a wide variety of community celebrations can be found throughout the year. Visit the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway website for links to more information.
1. Grande Ronde Valley to Wallowa Valley
Eighty-four miles via OR Highway 82 and county road 350; allow two hours for travel and another one to two hours for stops. Road may be snowy and icy in winter.
Beginning in the patchwork farm lands and hillside orchards of the broad Grande Ronde Valley, the first leg of the Byway follows numerous rivers through ever-higher valleys to the glacier-carved Wallowa Mountains. Each small town along the way offers a different character, a different combination of services.
2. La Grande and Island City
EST. 1865; POP. 12,420 & 920; ELEV. 2,788′
Lodging, RV parks, restaurants, shopping, groceries & gas
From La Grande and Island City, take OR Highway 82 east. La Grande was established at a popular rest stop along the Historic Oregon Trail. A wide variety of travel services and proximity to varied terrain make La Grande a popular recreation base for cyclists, hikers, hunters, fishermen, skiers, as well as snowmobile and ATV enthusiasts. Enjoy excellent wildlife viewing nearby, exceptional fall colors and year-round cultural events at Eastern Oregon University. Walking tours highlight the community’s historic homes, urban forest and commercial Historic District. Summer weekends are filled with annual festivals and rodeos. Signs of this region’s timber and agriculture-based economy abound. Leaving town, watch for fields of mint, alfalfa, wheat, barley, garbanzo beans, seed potatoes and world famous turf grass seed.
EST. 1922; POP. 305; ELEV. 2,732′
Cafés, groceries & gas
Pastoral Imbler’s farming heritage is deeply rooted. Known as the “Grass Seed Capital of the World,” numerous Century Farms in the area have been operated by the same families for more than 100 years. The community and Mt. Harris, to the east, were named for early settlers.
EST. 1891; POP. 1,660; ELEV. 2,670′
Lodging, RV park, restaurants, groceries & gas
The former location of Fort Baker and a trading area since the 1880s, Elgin is a gateway to outstanding outdoor recreation in the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests. Home to cattle, grain and hay producers as well as mill and timber workers, this little community hosts the roaring Elgin Stampede PRCA Rodeo each July. The beautifully restored Opera House presents movies, concerts and live theater. It houses the community’s historical museum. The Grande Ronde River flows through town, providing ample opportunity to raft, fish and enjoy the scenery. A scenic side trip to the north will take you to the Looking Glass Fish Hatchery.
Lodging, store, boat launch & state park
The Minam and Wallowa Rivers meet here and flow into the Grande Ronde River a few miles down stream. Segments of all three rivers have earned Wild and Scenic designation. The rivers offer excellent steelhead fishing, rafting and year-round wildlife viewing. In winter, watch for bald eagles and other raptors. From here, the Byway climbs through a series of valleys toward the majestic Wallowa Mountains. Notice how crops vary along the route. Use caution, you’ll be sharing the road with log trucks, horse trailers and cattle trucks.
EST. 1899; POP 760; ELEV. 2,923′
Lodging, cafés, groceries & gas
“Wa-Lá-wah” shares its Nez Perce name with the mountains, lake, river and valley you’re now entering. The Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce knew the area for its great fishing„Wallowa is the name of the tripod used to support their fish nets. The band gathers here for TamKaLiks, an annual Friendship Feast and Pow Wow each July. Residents depend on the land for farming, ranching, logging and milling. The Byway continues along the bubbling Wallowa and Lostine Rivers.
EST. 1903; POP 230; ELEV. 3,200′
Café & store
At this tiny turn-of-the century town, visit second hand stores or rest a while on a wooden bench in front of the combination sporting goods, grocery and dry goods store. Lostine comes alive during the town’s big 4th of July Flea Market. Numerous Forest Service roads in the vicinity provide access to year-round recreation in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. A side trip up the crystal clear Lostine River leads to rustic campgrounds, trailheads, and breathtaking scenery.
8. Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center
Enterprise near mile post #64
Atop the hill just before Enterprise, this center is a “must” stop for Byway travelers. The large relief map will help you make travel decisions. Get current information on road conditions, campgrounds and recreation facilities from travel-savvy staff. You’ll also find exhibits of interest to all ages as well as books, brochures, maps etc. Outdoor Info Kiosk. Hours vary.
Phone (541) 426-5546 during business hours;
(541) 426-5591 for 24-hour recreation recording.
EST. 1889; POP. 1,940; ELEV. 3,757′
Lodging, restaurants, shopping, groceries & gas
The largest of the Wallowa Valley communities, Enterprise offers an array of shops, accommodations and back country and river outfitters. A Hot Air Balloon Rally and local Sheep Dog Trials are among the charming town’s local events. As you leave town, watch the fields to the right, between mile posts #66 and #67, for the big black Clydesdale draft horses raised here. The Wallowa Mountains tower above rolling ranch lands.
EST. 1887; POP 1,130; ELEV. 4,191′
Lodging, restaurants, shopping, groceries & gas
Named for young Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe, this town is now a flourishing art community with a national reputation for its top quality bronze foundries and galleries. The summer is full of events from art and music festivals to the Chief Joseph Days Rodeo. Most galleries and shops are open year-round, as are museums with Indian artifacts and early history collections. Use facilities at Joseph or Wallowa Lake as a base for extended Hells Canyon or Eagle Cap Wilderness exploration. Call ahead to arrange a foundry tour and reserve accommodations. Continue on Highway 82 to Wallowa Lake or proceed on the Byway route: at the north edge of Joseph, turn east (between the gas station and grocery store) onto Highway 350.
11. Wallowa Lake
Lodging, RV park, restaurants, convenience groceries, boat launch, state park & campground. No gas. Most services are open seasonally.
Beautiful Wallowa Lake was shaped by glaciers which covered this region three to seven times. The 2,000 foot thick Bennett Glacier scoured the West Fork of the Wallowa River for almost 20 miles, creating Wallowa Lake and leaving nearly perfect examples of lateral and terminal moraines around the lake. Mule deer wander in the vicinity year round. At six miles in length, Wallowa Lake is a playground to water skiers, jet skiers, and paddle-boaters. Take a tramway to spectacular views atop the 8,300 foot summit of Mt. Howard, on the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Two miles of hiking trails at the top of the tram ride provide incredible views into three states. This area was part of the ancestral homelands of the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce. A monument to Old Chief Joseph rests at the north end of the lake. Return to Joseph and take Road 350 east. Travel on Highway 350 for 8 miles to the junction with Forest Road 39, also known as the “Wallowa Mountain Loop Road.” It’s decision time: take 39 south toward Halfway, or, stay on 350 for side trips to (1) Imnaha and (2) Hat Point, where the most spectacular views of Hells Canyon and the Seven Devils Mountains on the Idaho side can be seen. It’s over a mile straight down from the canyon rim at Hat Point to the banks of the Snake River below. Allow 3-4 hours for this side trip or camp overnight.
12. Wallowa Mountain Valley Loop
Forty-five miles of paved winding road on steep side slopes, allow 1 1/2 to 2 hours. No gas, no services; water at some campgrounds. The road is open to wheeled vehicles June – October; in winter the route is groomed for snowmobile travel and Nordic skiing.
The Wallowa Loop offers exceptional views of the Wallowa and Seven Devils Mountains. It crosses several river drainages, including the Imnaha where Snake River Chinook Salmon and Bull Trout spawn. Along the way are numerous trailheads and campgrounds as well as the Canal Fire burn, where a lightning-caused fire burned 23,000 acres in 1989. The road narrows to 1 1/2 lanes for about 11 miles along Gumboot Creek.
13. Salt Creek Summit Recreation Park
Near mile post #5. Restrooms, no drinking water
In summer this is a hiking trailhead area; in winter, it’s the end of the paved road and the entrance to a snowy playground. Ahead are Lick Creek Campground and Guard Station, listed on the National Historic Register, and Ollokot Campground, a site historically used by the Nez Perce Tribe and named after Young Chief Joseph’s brother. Side trips off this segment include (3) Hells Canyon Overlook, at mile post 29 for expansive views of canyon country.
14. Hells Canyon & The Snake River
Follow Highway 86 from the junction of the Forest Road 39 to the Snake River and on to Hells Canyon Dam. The river is wild and scenic below the dam, and affords excellent opportunities to view Hells Canyon from waters edge up! Services at Pine, Oxbow, and at rivers edge include lodging, dining, groceries, gas, and shuttle service. Recreational opportunities include rafting, jetboating, camping, fishing, and hiking in the nation’s deepest river gorge.
15. Pine Valley to Baker Valley
Seventy-nine miles on paved Highway 86; allow 1 1/2 hours for travel and 1-2 hours at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and other stops.
Pastoral views and mining history are highlights of the early part of this Byway segment. Gold strikes brought the first settlers here in the late 1800s. Mines employed large numbers of people, including many Chinese laborers. Further along the route follow the Powder River up stream through rolling sagebrush-covered plateaus. Oregon Trail routes cross your path. Virtue Flat, next to the route near Baker City, is the site of a popular off- highway vehicle trail complex.
EST. 1909; POP. 333; ELEV. 2,663′
Lodging, restaurants, groceries & gas (If traveling Baker-La Grande last gas until Joseph)
Halfway earned its name as the midway point between the town of Pine and the gold mines of Cornucopia. Gateway to wilderness and river-based recreation in summer, Halfway is a popular winter destination for snowmobilers. A vast network of groomed trails connects hundreds of miles of scenic back country. On Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend, take part in a Snow Festival. As you leave Halfway, watch near mile post #52 for the marker for the Tim Goodall Wagon Train route of 1862 and the Visitor Information Kiosk.
EST. 1917; POP. 175; ELEV. 2,213′
Lodging, cafés, groceries & gas
Named in 1897 for the rich soil settlers found here, the area still supports farmers and ranchers and now hosts the fishing and boating enthusiasts who recreate on nearby Brownlee and Oxbow reservoirs. Look for the Hole-in-the-Wall Landslide, Between mile posts #30 & #31. This turnout overlooks a 1984 landslide that covered the road and temporarily dammed the Powder River. The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center sits on Flagstaff Hill, 5 miles east of I-84 on Highway 86. Stand for a moment in history. Marvel at the courage and hardships of pioneers on their 2,000 mile trek to the promised land of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, still 300 miles away. The BLM-managed center offers extensive interactive exhibits and dioramas, seasonal living history demonstrations, and interpretive/educational programs in an indoor theater. Interpreted themes include the explorers, mining and settlement history. Open daily 9 – 4 winter, 9 – 6 summer.
18. Baker City
EST. 1874; POP. 9450; ELEV. 3,499′
Restaurants, lodging, groceries & gas
Baker City, known early on as the “Queen City of the Mines,” sits along the Powder River between the dramatic Elkhorn Ridge of the Blue Mountains and the Wallowa Mountains. Turn-of-the century Victorian architecture dominates the commercial and residential buildings of the city’s downtown, earning it distinction as a National Historic District. Many buildings have been carefully restored, including the famous Geiser Grand Hotel. The nearby Oregon Trail Regional Museum highlights the area’s history and houses a fantastic rocks and minerals collection. The Adler House Museum preserves the furnishings and ambience of an early businessman and community philanthropist.