The Oregon Wallowas Part III – Going To Hell (And Back)
I’d been planning it for a while, seeing as it’s quite a trip to get there, but I was still wavering about whether to go. You see my research had popped up conflicting reports. There are many ways to Hell, as you might expect, but apparently only one where you can really see it. This latter road is a hellish drive, not unexpectedly, requiring 24 grueling miles of single lane dirt, twisting and curving with 16% grades, steep drop offs and very little info. One guy told me it was a piece of cake, another told me I’d be crazy to try it. I didn’t know which side they were on. Plus getting to Hell was going to push me to the very limits of what my feeble car-sick stomach could handle.
What to do, what to do?
We rarely ever do more than 50-mile day trips, and usually even less when dirt roads are involved. Who knows if our car (or me) could even make it? But I’d been assured the rewards for reaching into the depths of Hell would be Heaven on Earth, such as it is. A view beyond all views, a beauty beyond all beauties. Damned if I was going to let that road stop me.
Am I going to ease up on my Devillish analogies? I think not. This is faar too much fun.
So early yesterday morning we packed up the car and off we went. 35 miles of deserted, paved road took us on a beautiful drive deep into the first canyon and to the tiny town on Imnaha, the last call before the start of Hell’s Road (Hat Point Road). Then the pavement ended and the uphill started. The road twisted and turned and rose sharply along the mountains edge following the golden contours of the canyon, revealing ever more heights and folds. The mountain seemed to rise above us into the sky, the canyon appeared to drop and grow beneath us. The gorge pushed ever further into the ground, the sides wrinkling and re-forming as we drove ever higher.
Around 10 miles in we started moving into the trees, dense pine, ash and others I don’t know, many tinged with memories of a burn from long ago. That’s where the windflowers came, oh my the windflowers. Not just a few, but a carpet of dense color blues, purples, reds, yellows all forming a rainbow of visual beauty. Between the trees and the flowers we drove along the ridge, curving towards the fire tower in the distance. The road was good. It was even, dare I say it, extraordinary (I learned later they’d just graded it a few weeks ago). It was certainly narrow, and twisting, and sharp, but none of the bumping and pot holes I’d been expecting and certainly nothing requiring a 4WD. I guess Hell wanted us to have an easy time getting there?
Finally, after what can only be described as one of the very prettiest drives we’ve ever done we got to the end. The perch, the overlook with the 80-foot watchtower and the prize of Hell’s Canyon in front of us.
Oh Holy Mother Earth of wildflower fantasies, I had NEVER seen anything like this!!
It was a purple dream, a panorama of flowers, an intense visual explosion of color. Purple lupines as far as the eye could see, interspersed with crimson reds, brilliant whites and neon yellows. Not a patch of ground was bare from flower giving the impression you were walking through a kaleidoscope, the patterns moving and shifting with the breeze. In the background the sharp, white peaks of the Seven Devils rose towering in defiance against the land and in the depths of the canyon (an interminable, unimaginable distance away) ran the Snake River. The sense of scale is impossible to comprehend. It’s immense and so very vast it completely blows your mind.
This was the prize we’d come to see and it was beyond all my expectations.
Hells Canyon, believe it or not is the deepest river gorge in North America. It deeper than the Grand Canyon, hellishly deep, dropping from He Devil Mountain (what else) at 9,393 feet over 1 1/2 miles to the mouth of Granite Creek 6 miles away. It was formed 150 million years ago from the violence of tectonic plate movement and lava flows. The uplift created the Seven Devils and Eagle Cap Mountains both of which are still rising today. The Snake River has carved the gorge for millennia and over 31.5 miles of it is still designated “wild” today allowing it to run as it did for all history. The name of the canyon is an odd one, appearing for the first time in 1895 in McCurdy’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. I guess it’s meant to scare folks away, or entice them depending on their nature. No roads pass through it.
Why doesn’t everyone know about this place? Why isn’t it mobbed with people?
Well as with all things in eastern Oregon it’s remote, very remote. The entire area is protected as a mix of Wilderness and National Recreation Area (625,000 acres in total) with very, very few access points. The rare overlooks that exist (including the most popular one, Hells Canyon Overlook) are miles from the mouth of the river, sometimes only offering the barest glimpse of a distant view. And the canyon is wide, so very wide (10 miles) that it’s sometimes hard to grasp it’s depth even when you’re right up against it.
Except here, except this one spot. Hat Point Overlook is the ONE place that shows it all, from the mountains to the canyon to the wild, crazy Snake River. This is where you can see the steepness of the canyon walls, where you can gasp at the size of the mountains, where you take it all in, where you can truly feel the deep impact of Hell. Assuming you survive the drive of course bwahahahaha.
We spent over an hour at the summit breathing in the view, photographing and just in general being blown away by the beauty and scale of the canyon. It….was….astounding. By the time we got back home we were in a daze from the intensity of the experience. We both agreed that this was one of the most amazing day drives we’ve ever done, and the 120-mile round trip was so scenic it blew by in what seemed like mere minutes. The road was so good that I didn’t even get car sick (imagine that), and we only saw one other person at the summit making the experience all the more magical.
If this is Hell, sign me up….
Bring doggie? YES, as long as doggie is ok with longer drives. The trails at the overlook are all dog friendly.
More Info: The drive from Joseph to Hat Point involves 35 miles of paved road, followed by 24 miles of single-lane dirt. Check with the Forest Service to get the current condition of the road before you go, especially if it’s been raining. For those of you who love long drives you can extend your experience by taking the 218-mile round trip Hells Canyon Scenic Byway which takes you completely around the Wallowa Mountains. There are also river rafting and fishing opportunities on the Snake River itself.SPONSORED LINK:
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