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Hells Canyon Scenic Byway

Prepare for breathtaking vistas and rollicking fun when you pair rafting and road-tripping in eastern Oregon.

Hells Canyon with mountains and Snake River, image
Photo caption
The Snake River winds through Hells Canyon.

The raft shivered, then nosed down a wall of white water, kicking its haunches high in the air like a rodeo bull. The man on my right cupped both hands around his mouth and, as the tiny vessel arced up again from the roiling Snake River, began to whoop with delight.

"Yeeeee-haw!" Ken Erough cried, having waited more than 70 years for the opportunity to howl at the towering walls of Hells Canyon. "Lordy, mama! That's what I'm talkin' about!"

Then the raft lurched again, this time straight down. If you have never seen a silver-haired septuagenarian suddenly take flight against the blue skies of eastern Oregon, that alone is worth the trip to one of the Northwest's most scenic—and uncrowded—natural wonderlands.

For nearly 75 miles, the Snake River forms the seething, scoliotic spine of Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. From rim to riverbed, it's 7,900 feet down—the country's deepest natural hole in the ground and one of the West's most spectacular geological shows. It's or-chasmic.

To fully appreciate the region's splendors, pair your trip through the gates of Hells with an unhurried three-or four-day drive on the 218-mile loop called Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. The two-lane route surges through terrain so varied you can have breakfast in the high desert, a picnic lunch in grasslands dotted with cattle ranches, and dinner in the shadow of the Wallowa mountain range, whose 10,000-foot peaks are sometimes called America's Little Switzerland.

I started my loop in Baker City, a sweet relic of the late-19th-century gold-mining boom with 134 venerable buildings that form a National Historic District. The beautifully restored Geiser Grand Hotel provides reason not only to stop but also to stay awhile. At least stay long enough to ogle the 80.4-ounce gold nugget on display at the U.S. Bank on Main Street. Seven miles from the center of town is the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, where pioneer hardships are vividly re-created in dioramas that show how the West was won—and countless lives were lost along the way.

As you head east on Highway 86, you'll wish the speed limit were lower, so you could take in the views without pickup trucks queuing behind you. They're rushing to the mini metropolis of Halfway (population 335), named during the gold rush when it was the midpoint between the town of Pine and the mines of Cornucopia. Halfway never lost its taste for easy riches, and as part of an Internet promotion in 2000, the hamlet took a payoff to change its name to Then eBay bought the Web site and the town went wholeheartedly back to Halfway.

About 10 miles east, you can stay on 86 and head toward Oxbow for a date with white water, or follow the Byway loop as it bends northward on 39 and terraced rock ridges give way to the verdant forest en route to Joseph. The town is named for up a revered chief of the Nez Perce, and so is the area's most important event: the Chief Joseph Days rodeo (July 22–26 this year). Not far from town, a gondola rises 3,700 feet from Wallowa Lake to the top of Mount Howard, where your reward for coming is the view from one of the patio tables at the Summit Grill.

From there, it's on to the lovely town of La Grande (home to Eastern Oregon University) and its Victorian- era neighbor, Union. The local scenery is so stunning—see it from the hiking trails in the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area seven miles southeast of La Grande—that settlers who hurried past on the Oregon Trail later doubled back to make the area home. If you want to spot sandhill cranes, you can get guidance and gear at a La Grande shop called the Bobolink.

Regardless of where you start or end your drive on the loop, your trip's epicenter will likely be the rock-and-roll ride that begins just below Hells Canyon Dam. That's where the trips and jet boat excursions run by Hells Canyon Adventures put into the Snake River.

When I presented myself there to river guide Art Fuller, he looked me and down with an expression of wild surmise, then suggested I change into shorts. I told him I hadn't brought any. He just shook his head sadly and said, "You're gonna get wet."

But my gangly seatmate, Erough, got wetter still during what Fuller described as his "out-of-boat experience." At a spot in the river with lots of ripples but few rocks, Erough and his wife, Susie, cautiously lowered themselves off the sides of the raft. As the water began pummeling, he shrieked—so excited that he kicked uncontrollably, his feet hitting his wife's legs. She responded with a torrent of cheerful abuse about the scars she would carry from this. When the river smoothed out, her husband let out a yelp of pure liquid joy. "You've got your scars," he replied, taking the measure of Hells Canyon, "and I've got my memories."

Photography courtesy of X-Weinzar/Wikipedia

This article was first published in July 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.