Hells Canyon Scenic Byway
- DesignationAll-American Road (2000)
- Intrinsic QualitiesNatural, Scenic
- Length213 miles
America’s deepest river gorge, Hells Canyon, and “Little Switzerland,” the Wallowa Mountains, star on this 208-mile/335-kilometer horseshoe route through the state’s northeast corner, the rich ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce tribe.
Story of the Byway
Talk about a local’s secret: It seems much of the world has yet to discover this incomparable region, where the lofty Wallowa Mountains dominate the horizon, and wide ranching valleys give the picture-perfect perspective from which to appreciate the view. More than 19 of the Wallowas’ peaks rise above 9,000 feet/2,743 meters, many of them forming the backpack-and-horseback paradise of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Beyond, the land cracks into the great cleft of Hells Canyon and the wild waters of the Snake River.
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; or Baker City from I-84.
Points of Interest
A farming and ranching town, hosts the Elgin Stampede, a stop on the professional rodeo circuit, each July. Downtown Elgin’s restored 1912 brick opera house hosts performances and houses a history museum.
Eagle Cap Excursion Train
Departing from Elgin and chugging through the deep canyons of the Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers.
Here the byway climbs and bends south along the Wallowa River. It’s a particularly scenic stretch of road, with the Minam and Wallowa rivers flowing through creased canyons, and the oft-snowcapped Wallowas rising ahead. The Minam State Recreation Area has riverside camping, popular with anglers and rafters.
Wallowa County and the Wallowa Valley,
Known to Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce as the “beautiful valley of winding waters.” The Nez Perce, admired for their superb horse skills, coexisted peacefully for decades with the settlers moving into their ancestral homelands. But eventually the cultures clashed. Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce triumphed in several battles against the U.S. military in 1877 but ultimately were forced to surrender and move to reservations.
Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center
Celebrates Nez Perce culture. It hosts exhibits and, each July, holds its Tamkaliks celebration of traditional dance, food, song and dress.
Eagle Cap Wilderness
At the head of Wallowa Lake, you’ll find some of the easiest access to Oregon’s largest wilderness area at the 360,000-acre
Wild and Scenic Imnaha River
important spawning grounds for chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
Hells Canyon Overlook
Perched at the rim, you’re peering down into the deepest canyon in North America. Spoiler alert: You can’t see the Snake River from this viewpoint, but the gorge is stunning — more than a mile deep and carved by eons of Snake River erosion. From some areas on the east rim, Hells Canyon plummets more than 8,000 feet/2,438 meters, dwarfing even the Grand Canyon.
National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
Offers exhibits and living-history presentations on the great migration that forever changed the American West.
Grande Ronde to Wallowa
Start your day in La Grande, a popular rest stop along the Historic Oregon Trail and today a popular recreation base for cyclists, hikers, hunters, fishermen, skiers, and snowmobile and ATV enthusiasts. Head over to the Mount Emily Recreation Area at the city’s north end for exciting recreational opportunities or make a stop at the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area if wildlife viewing and bird watching is more your style.
Take a short drive through the small farming town of Imbler, known as the “Grass Seed Capital of the World.” As you drive through the area, discover the many farms that have been in the same families for more than 100 years.
You'll find many opportunities for exploring the wilderness in Elgin, Minam, and Wallowa. The byway climbs up through a series of valleys toward the majestic Wallowa Mountains. This area is great for year-round wildlife viewing, but it also has plenty of opportunities for water recreation, especially where the Minam and the Wallowa Rivers meet. The Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce knew the area for its great fishing - Wallowa is the name of the tripod used to support their fish nets. The band gathers here for TamKaLiks, an annual Friendship Feast and Pow Wow each July.
Drive through the small communities of Lostine, Enterprise, and Joseph to Wallowa Lake. Beautiful Wallowa Lake was shaped by glaciers which covered this region three to seven times. The 2,000 foot thick Bennett Glacier scoured the West Fork of the Wallowa River for almost 20 miles, creating Wallowa Lake and leaving nearly perfect examples of lateral and terminal moraines around the lake. There are many opportunities for fun for the whole family and lots of options for restaurants and lodging in this area. Ride the Wallowa Lake Tramway for incredible views into the Wallowa Mountains.
After visiting Joseph and Wallowa Lake, continue your byway journey via Forest Service Road 39, also known as the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road. Climb into the Wallowa Mountains and follow tumbling streams through the fragrant pine forest. You will pass several forest service campgrounds and picnic sites along the way. A 2-mile paved road off FSR 39 leads to the Hells Canyon Overlook, where jaw-dropping views and interpretive panels tell the story of the canyon and the Snake River.
FSR 39 ends at Oregon State Route 86. You have a decision to make here. Turn right to go to Halfway, Richland and Baker City – all of which have full visitor services – or left to the banks of the Snake River, where a side trip down the river on the Idaho side will take you to the Hells Canyon Dam and the very heart of the spectacular canyon. There’s also plenty of recreational activity available, from fishing, camping and boating on Brownlee Reservoir to hiking and jetboat rides below the dam.
Baker City awaits at the south end of the byway, where it connects again with Interstate 84. Explore the historic downtown, immerse yourself in Oregon Trail and mining history, and begin planning your next visit.
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