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 riverís 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 Americaís 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 aheadóyouíll 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 landís 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 Oregonís 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 Oregonís 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. Itís 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.
Winterís 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 areaís 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. Contact the county destination marketing organizations listed on the back panel for dates and details.