No, it’s probably not as jaw-dropping as the Grand Canyon (still haven’t seen that one in person), but Hells Canyon is pretty grand in its own right. It just happens to be in the middle of nowhere, and that makes finding a good view difficult.
The deepest gorge in North America, Hells Canyon straddles the Oregon-Idaho border, with the Snake River continuing to carve a path through the large mounds of rock at the bottom. The rim consistently sits a mile above the Snake River on the Oregon side, and is even higher on the east side. After 35 years, it was time to finally see it.
Before getting to the canyon, however, there was Imnaha. We were taking the long and dusty scenic route to Hells Canyon in order to see some old homesteads outside the tiny community, which itself is 30 miles from the town of Joseph. As much as anything, Imnaha is known as the place where the pavement ends. There are only a handful of buildings and a dozen people in the town proper, with less than 200 folks in the surrounding area. It’s a popular (for Imnaha) retreat for hunters and fishermen. From the bridge over the Imnaha River, there are three paths, all of which quickly turn to gravel or dirt. But all eventually lead to Hells Canyon.
After a stop at the post office to send some postcards and gather information from the friendly employee there, we headed south along Imnaha River Road, which follows the river for 30 miles and passes a number of homesteads before reconnecting with pavement and the Hells Canyon Overlook. The gravel was good enough to safely drive 30 mph, except when a group of cows decided that the road was theirs. That was OK, though. The slower you go, the longer you have to take in the views of the rocky plateaus that rise on either side of the river like a mini-Hells Canyon. It’s hard to believe that anybody makes a living out there, but every couple of miles we spotted a house or ranch. A couple of buildings are so close to the banks that the river must be a threat after heavy rains, but those same properties featured massive, impressive gardens that clearly could sustain a family through the summer. Winter must be a different story.
Consider that drive one of luxury. The “road” that heads north out of Imnaha to Dug Bar supposedly requires two hours of bumps and steep turns to navigate 25 miles. It follows the path that Chief Joseph took when his tribe was forced out of its homeland, and the road is the only way to drive to the Snake River shore on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon. Next time, it might be worth the effort.
That’s because the Hells Canyon Overlook, less than 10 paved miles east of where Imnaha River Road ends, offers the most-accessible but probably least-spectacular place to view the canyon. Sure, the vast array of rippled mountains and twisted valleys seemingly go on forever, but even so close, the canyon feels distant. (You can’t see the Snake River from this overlook.) You’re not supposed to walk out past the paved trail to the brink, and trees somewhat block the nearest drop. There’s a toilet, picnic tables, interpretive signs and a look at the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho, but that’s about it. The overlook is essentially a parking lot with nothing to do and no places to explore, like it’s trying to constrain your appreciation.
If the Hells Canyon Overlook is your only chance to see the canyon, of course it’s worth the postcard view. But that’s a long way to go for 15 minutes of fresh air.
Sparks Lake is one of the most photographed locations in Oregon. Rightfully so. Access is easy, there’s neat little “island” of grasses and trees, and South Sister and Broken Top reflect beautifully in the water. Heck, the pathway to the lake is named after Ray Atkeson, one of Oregon’s most famous photographers. I’ve spent too many hours standing next to a tripod there.
Five years ago today, I witnessed and luckily captured this incredible sunset. At that time, I usually worked on Saturday nights but had taken the day off. In the afternoon, I had been near Sparks Lake to meet with a friend who was running a race. The day before, I had driven to the lake and taken pictures along the same trail. I wasn’t keen on a third trip up to the mountains in 24 hours. But a stormy forecast and the guilt of not normally having nights off pushed me back into my car. It’s still the finest sunset I’ve ever seen.
It’s no wonder that the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce tribe fought so hard to hold on to its cherished ancestral homeland. Take a glance at the Wallowa Valley in eastern Oregon, and you’ll understand why. It’s a stunning alpine oasis in a region generally (but wrongly) depicted as a flat expanse of nothing but dirt and sand.
Ultimately, the Nez Perce were forced to leave during the famous conflict of 1877, ending with Young Chief Joseph’s statement that “I will fight no more forever.” Joseph was never allowed to return, first banished to Kansas, then Oklahoma and finally Washington, where he died in 1904.
But the heritage of the tribe and its famous chief remain integral elements of this area today, with the town of Joseph and nearby Wallowa Lake serving as the primary draws for visitors.
Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism arm, recently designated the area one of Oregon’s Seven Wonders as part of a marketing campaign, but the ads likely drove as much awareness for Oregonians as out-of-staters. I’d guess that a majority of Oregonians (particularly those west of the Cascades) don’t know that the Wallowa region even exists, with far fewer having visited. Luckily for me, my parents took us there many summers as I was growing up. At the time, I was more interested in the $1 miniature golf than the beauty or history of the area. The trips have been fewer as years have passed, but returns are always inspiring, though the golf now starts at $3.
A splash in Wallowa Lake doesn’t come without setting aside time. From La Grande, plan for nearly two hours of postcard views while driving through the communities of Imbler, Elgin, Wallowa, Lostine and Enterprise (there’s a Safeway!) before reaching Joseph and its deep-blue neighbor.
The most comparable Oregon town to Joseph is Sisters — down to the single-road drag of restaurants and tourist traps for about 10 blocks in the shadow of in impressive mountain range. They each have a small creek that crosses main street, an annual rodeo, an annual quilt show and a local brewery. What sets Joseph apart is that it’s at the end, not the middle, of a major highway, so it doesn’t squeeze traffic to a grinding halt every summer weekend.
Joseph, however, is best experienced on foot, primarily because downtown itself is an art gallery, with bronze sculptures dotting many intersections along Main Street, fueled by a handful of bronze foundries in the region. Humans and animals and represented — cowboys and cougars, gardeners and eagles. An 11-foot-tall sculpture of Chief Joseph commands one central street corner, with Chief Joseph Mountain looming behind it. Parking spaces are abundant, so just park anywhere and make a loop.
Unfortunately, we missed the re-enactment of the 1896 Joseph bank robbery, which was reprised this year for the first time since 2000 and is one of my vivid memories from childhood trips to the Wallowas. Joseph hosts many other festivals, including Chief Joseph Days (featuring a rodeo), the Bronze, Blues & Brews Festival (an outdoor music event), Hells Canyon Mule Days (yes, there’s a mule show) and Oregon’s Alpenfest (the area fancies itself to be “Oregon’s Little Switzerland,” and a shop owner’s thick accent lent credence to the nickname). This town of 1,000 keeps busy, at least for four months out of the year. Winter is a different story.
Driving past Joseph, there are three state park sites and a national park site in four miles, which might be the only cluster of that size in Oregon aside from along the coast. The short stretch of road between the town and Wallowa Lake hosts two small attractions: the grave of Old Chief Joseph and Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site. Both are worth a stop to absorb some historical context about this land. A large state park campground lies at the other end of the lake, with the Little Alps picnic area a mile farther.
Before getting there, though, take a moment (or many moments) to appreciate Wallowa Lake, a three-mile-long blue gem carved by glacial retreat around 17,000 years ago. Along the east shore, a incredibly preserved moraine shows the path of the glacier clear as day. A more forested moraine lines the west shore, with Chief Joseph Mountain rising thousands of feet above. Fishing, swimming and water skiing are the most popular activities. In the summer, you can rent row boats, motor boats, paddle boats and kayaks from the marina, and decks are anchored throughout the lake if you want to linger on the water.
There’s a tourist-centric outpost at the south end of Wallowa Lake. It’s the type of pandering I typically despise, with trinket shops, go-karts and overpriced cabins, but I make an exception for Wallowa Lake. I mean, the food costs more because it’s the middle of nowhere, right? The $1 miniature golf course I played dozens of times as a kid does not hold up well, likely because of the shiny new $6 course across the street, complete with water feature and furry bear statues. Just don’t get stuck behind a group of six that’s more interested in taking family portraits than sinking putts. The old course also sells mountain berry milkshakes, though, so it has that going for it. There are even two more miniature golf courses if you really want to test your game.
Like the golf courses, the rental cabins are a mix of old and new, so it’s worth doing some research if you’re not going to camp.
If short on time, the Wallowa Lake tramway makes for a memorable day. The gondola rises 3,700 feet (one of the steepest vertical lifts in North America) to the top of Mount Howard, named after the general who chased the Nez Perce from this land. At the top, you can look over the glacier-carved valley where Joseph sits (from a ledge where hang-gliders set sail), take in sweeping views of the peaks (almost 20 are taller than 9,000 feet) in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, hike a saddle to East Peak or simply have a snack at the Summit Grill. It’s probably the easiest and fastest route to the top of a 8,100-foot mountain. They let you ride down, too.
At the end of the road is the beginning of adventure, with access to the network of stunning trails that crisscross through the lakes, rivers and mountains of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Most of the destinations require a taxing climb, but even kids can enjoy a 2-mile trek (each way) to BC Falls. The waterfall isn’t particularly impressive (though don’t go in the water and risk a fatal plunge down a second drop), but the walk to it offers impressive views of the west fork of the Wallowa River, including at a bridge crossing, as it squeezes toward Wallowa Lake.
Even with some tacky tourist additions, it’s easy to see why the Nez Perce considered this land so special.