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Hells Canyon Road Trip

Get off the freeway for your next road trip

There’s a certain irony that comes with living in one place for a long time: It’s easy to overlook where you are. Always searching far afield to find those adventures you hear about. Fortunately, it’s possible to shake oneself out of that mindset and see the opportunities in front of you. Recently, my dad, Tom, and I drove east from Vancouver, Washington, to camp over a long weekend at Hells Canyon along the Oregon-Idaho border. We’ve taken Interstate 84 east and west for years; long enough that we remember the old tree farms that used to spread across the land at Boardman, Oregon. However, on all those trips we’d stuck to the interstate corridor, always trying to get somewhere as quickly as possible. This time we decided to get off the freeway. 

hello road OR Hwy 82 heading east through Minam State Recreation Area
On Highway 82 heading east. By Jordan Hamann

Off the Interstate

At Pendleton, we went north along state Highway 11. The wheat fields were coming up nicely and many looked ready to harvest. This lent a classic amber-waves-of-grain look to the landscape. After a few miles we turned east into the Blue Mountains on state Highway 206. Blue skies framed a blanket of green grass and pine trees. Greenery in July is an uncommon treat in those parts. Off the interstate the mountains felt much more mountainous. As we traversed that portion of the Umatilla National Forest we discovered secret mountain lakes and ski areas that we had never heard of before despite passing nearby for so many decades. 

Our route took us down into the town of Elgin, Oregon. The quiet little place has an interesting history as a gathering place of hunters, trappers and later as a mill town. It has a historic opera house and railroad depot. The road became Highway 82 and we followed it east through the incredible Minam State Recreation Area. The rivers and canyons surprised us as this area appears as an indistinct valley on the map.  The small towns along the way added to the region’s bucolic charms. We eventually reached the artsy town of Joseph, Oregon, flanked by the ice-capped peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. There we ate at the excellent Cheyenne Cafe. The exquisite Wallowa Lake, which was carved during the last ice age, was truly a sight to behold.  

hello road The road into Hells Canyon looks like something from Middle Earth
The road into Hells Canyon. By Jordan Hamann

Into the Wild

This is where the trip began to really take on a wilder disposition. Where we were headed is one of the most isolated and remote sections of the Northwest, if not the entire country. We kept driving east along Highway 350 until we reached a signed turn-off for Wallowa Mountain Loop Road (National Forest Road 39). It is a paved but narrow road with no guardrails, which made for a harrowing, though incredibly beautiful, drive. Alpine flowers and mountain pines abounded as we carefully drove the numerous twists and turns while marveling at expansive vistas. 

After an hour of driving, we reached the Hells Canyon Scenic Overlook and got the first view of our final destination. That Hells Canyon is a national recreation area — and not a full-fledged national park — is borderline criminal. The view of that canyon was so immense as to be hard to take in entirely. Unlike the Grand Canyon, the hills were blanketed in meadows and trees, giving it an almost fuzzy appearance. The Seven Devils Mountains flank the canyon on the Idaho side, giving the canyon its distinction as the deepest river gorge in North America. Their craggy peaks extended down the canyon to an almost dizzying extent. We couldn’t spot the Snake River from our position due to the steepness of the lower reaches. 

hello road Father and Son overlook sign
Jordan Hamann and his father, Tom. By Jordan Hamann.

Exploring Hells Canyon

It was a long downhill drive to reach our campsite. The Copperfield Campground along the Snake River is owned and operated by Idaho Power. It made for a nice base camp to strike out into the heart of the canyon. The road down the canyon crossed into Idaho and was carved into the walls of the canyon. The sheer cliffs made for an unforgettable sight. The road ends at the Hells Canyon dam and Hells Canyon Creek Visitor Center parking lot. This was a popular spot for rafting and jet boat tours going along the wild and scenic stretches of the Snake River downstream of the dam.

We remained terrestrial, though, and so started along the Stud Creek trail that starts at the boat launch area and goes along the western cliffs along the river. The trail was not easy. It was far more than either of us bargained for, but we stuck it out because we wanted to get the feel of the canyon beyond the pavement. Osprey were prevalent, as were fish in the river. We perched on overlooking rocks and watched these birds hunt fish,  an amazing experience. The hike began to exceed our capabilities as we pushed through overgrown grasses and shrubs. There were swarms of flies and single-file ledges to overcome. We spotted fresh bear scat on the trail, and that did us in. We turned around, still well satisfied with our time in the canyon. 

During the whole trip, we both mentioned repeatedly how shocking it was that we had lived in the Northwest for so long and never visited these places. The natural splendor blew us away. We took the interstate back home to Vancouver. It was a route that we both knew well, but it felt different as our perspective had changed. It was almost like suddenly being in on a secret. We definitely preferred one thing about taking the interstate back home, however: We were tired. After spending so many days driving along near constant twists and turns, with steep grades and few guardrails, the gentleness of I-84 was a relief. 

— Written by Jordan Hamann

— Top photo of Snake River downstream of the Hells Canyon Dam by Jordan Hamann

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