The 218-mile Hells Canyon Scenic Byway in northeast Oregon is an outdoors treasure chest filled with scenic views, camping, hiking and more.
The scenic byway circles Oregons famed Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness and offers a lot of side trips to explore the backcountry.
Jim and Diane Drotzman, ATV riders from Boise, have explored the area for the past 10 years, and they keep coming back.
Its the rugged pristine beauty of the area and the solitude that comes from being this far out, said Jim Drotzman.
I met the Drotzmans while traveling the eastern portion of the scenic byway between Baker City and Joseph in July.
I wanted to do the Wallowa Mountain Loop, which is Forest Road No. 39.
This 45-mile paved road takes you through the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, including access to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Along the road, which starts 10 miles east of the town of Halfway, Ore., off Oregon 86, youll find easily accessible stream-side campgrounds and trailheads.
When I got to the Lake Fork Campground the first night, I met two bicyclists from Portland. The Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is well-known as a challenging but picturesque ride. It also is easy to combine additional bike-ride loops by connecting dirt roads and the paved highway.
The next morning I headed for the Hells Canyon Overlook, a 3-mile side trip that takes you to beautiful views of the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho. Watch out along the way youll have to coax free-range cows off the road.
Continuing my trip, north through the national forest along the Wallowa Mountain Loop, I stopped at the Lick Creek Campground and mountain biked one of the several Forest Service roads in the area.
This is where I met the Drotzmans on their ATVs.
After mountain biking, I continued my drive. At the junction of the Wallowa Mountain Loop with Oregon Highway 350, I headed west on the Grande Ronde Valley to Wallowa Valley segment of the byway to the town of Joseph.
Here youll immediately be taken in by the views of the glacier-carved mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, which looms across the valley.
Its a good place to stop because of the restaurants and shops in Joseph, and also the nearby trailhead to the wilderness.
Youll find a lot to do in the area. Wallowa Lake is near Joseph and offers boating and fishing. Theres a public county park at the north end.
The Wallowa Lake Tramway and a state park are at the south end. Visitors ride in gondolas to the Mt. Howard summit at 8,150 feet in elevation. Its an easy way to get to panoramic views of the valley and the granite peaks in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
From Joseph, you can complete the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway by driving about 2 hours to La Grande, and then taking Interstate 84 to Baker City. However, I opted to explore some side roads on the eastern side of the Wallowas.
Heading east on the Imnaha Country Byway on Oregon 350, I drove the road that passes through rangeland and basalt canyons on the way to Imnaha.
This small town has a general store and the access road to Hat Point Overlook via a steep 23-mile dirt road. It takes almost all day for the round trip.
The reward? Views of the Seven Devils Mountains and a look into Hells Canyon.
If you continue south on the Imnaha Road, which is dirt, youll have a choice of fishing spots along the way, seeing a scenic river canyon and visiting a salmon hatchery. The 26-mile road eventually leads back to the paved Wallowa Mountain Loop.
After the intersection with the Wallowa Mountain Loop, the paved Forest Service Road No. 3960 goes beside the South Fork of the Imnaha River, passing developed campgrounds and primitive campsites along the way.
At the end of the road is the Indian Crossing campground, located at the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
If youre a hiker, theres a trailhead with a variety of hikes.
I hiked two miles of the South Fork of the Imnaha Trail No. 1816 to a spot dubbed Blue Hole. The trail passes through the wilderness area and leads to cliffs where you can look down into a small river canyon.
The next morning, I went up Trail No. 1875 to Duck Lake. I started out on my mountain bike because bikes are allowed on this trail, which is not in the wilderness.
Its a steep trail in places and I actually had to push my bike uphill.
It was worth it because I found some pretty good energy snacks there were huckleberries all over the place.
I finally reached Duck Lake. It was time to turn around, head for the campground, and think about heading back to the Treasure Valley.
One thing about it. Ive got a whole bunch of vivid memories of the beautiful views of mountain peaks, the sounds of gurgling creeks and the fresh smell of the evergreen trees.
Those are the rewards of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway.
Natalie Bartley authored the Boises Best Outdoor Adventures mobile app for Apple and Android products, and two trail guidebooks. Email: email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Take Interstate 84 west to Exit 302 in Baker City, Ore. Its about 2 hours. Head east on Oregon 86, the start of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. Return the same way or via Idaho 71 to Cambridge, then U.S. 95 south and Interstate 84 east back to the Treasure Valley.
Plan on at least two days for taking in as many outdoor adventures as possible. Depending on snowpack each season, the Wallowa Mountain Loop road generally opens in June then closes in October.
Information: Go to fs.usda.gov/wallowa-whitman or call (541) 523-6391.
8First reported at IdahoStatesman.com