Golden Days in the Blue Mountains

Late July – September

Romp through an alpine wonderland while exploring gold-rich granitic mountains and the diverse human histories of those that live among them.

Though the Blue Mountain range began existence as an island arc, most of what we see today are known as batholiths, or groups of granitic intrusions that were created by magma forced up from below ground when the former islands met with the continent. These batholiths, primarily the Wallowa batholith and the Bald Mountain batholith, make up most of the Wallowas and the nearby Elkhorn Mountains. You can explore their heights in midsummer, after the snowmelt, while learning more about the history and culture of this beautiful area.

Travel to the charming town of Joseph or stay at nearby Wallowa Lake Village for the start of this trip, to hike* near the Wallowas’ highest point, Sacajawea Peak. Sacagawea may well have gazed upon these mountains: Clark mentioned some that were probably the Wallowas during his return journey with the Corps of Discovery, as he looked out from a viewpoint in the rather distant Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho. The Corps had been the guests of the Nimíipuu for a month’s time in the spring of 1806 at Kamiah (located now within the Nez Perce Reservation), while they waited for the snow to clear in the Lolo mountain pass. Sacagawea wisely spent the time preparing cow parsnip roots for storage to sustain the party in the barren mountains. She may have been uncomfortable about this forced camp among the Nimíipuu, who were traditional enemies of her own Lemhi Shoshone people. Her baby also became very ill during this stay, adding to her troubles. You can learn more about her life and journey by reading Sacagawea Speaks, by Joyce Badgley Hunsaker, and choose from many titles about her for little ones that may accompany you upon this journey.


(Sacajawea Peak, the highest peak of the Wallowas, towers over Hurricane Creek Trail.)

The hike near Sacajawea Peak along Hurricane Creek Trail will take you through scenery created by avalanches of snow, rather than tropical weather. Hurricane Creek was given its name because many of the trees beside it were broken, as if by strong winds — but the main cause of their demise were the heavy snows that slid down the steep slopes of the ancient uplifted seafloor that towers above the creek. Ellen Morris Bishop gives directions to the trailhead from Joseph in Hiking Oregon’s Geology, and both she and William Sullivan in his 100 Hikes/Travel Guide Eastern Oregon, describe the journey to Slick Rock Creek and beyond. Both recommend making a quick side jaunt to the right at the beginning of the trail to see Falls Creek Falls, a sixty-foot waterfall that cascades down from the highest lake in Oregon, Lake Legore, which lies out of sight at the top of the ridge.


(Falls Creek Falls descends from Oregon’s highest lake, Lake Legore, high above at the top of  the Hurricane Creek Divide.)

You might want waterproof boots for this hike, as you’ll be fording across the creeks that run down the ridge to join the Hurricane, though they will probably be passable on rocks and logs without wetting your feet. Late July is the earliest time that fording becomes reasonably safe, after the heavy water from the snowmelt dissipates.

As you continue along Hurricane Creek, you’ll begin to see the impressive Sacajawea Peak before you, which obscures the somewhat lower Matterhorn that stands behind it. After a mile and a half, you’ll emerge from the woodland into the “goat meadows” at the crossing of Deadman Creek. You may even spot moving white specks on the mountaintops — Oregon Rocky Mountain goats, Oreamnos americanus. Once extirpated in Oregon, their population had grown to 200 by 2001 in the Wallowas, after a slow start from reintroduction efforts beginning in 1950.[1]

You may prefer to picnic by the Hurricane near here before turning back around for an easy day hike, but many people like to continue on for another mile and a half to the crossing of Slick Rock Creek for a day’s round trip, while very fit backpacking campers may want to continue on to Echo Lake or the Lakes Basin, as suggested by Sullivan and Morris Bishop, respectively.


(Hurricane Creek forms a gorge near its confluence with Slick Rock Creek.)

For those who want to experience a high alpine atmosphere without backpacking and camping, the next day you can take the Wallowa Lake Tramway up to Mt. Howard and do a short loop hike, as outlined by Sullivan.

Sometimes called the “Alps of Oregon”, the Wallowas bear more than a passing resemblance to their cousins in Europe. Though The Matterhorn, the second highest peak, on the north side of the Wallowas, is a newer formation, Summit Point, on its southern side, is a former coral reef turned to limestone of the same age as others in the Austrian and German Alps. The corals that became both a part of the European Alps and the “Alps of Oregon” once lived in the same ancient Tethys sea.


(The Matterhorn’s pale granitic peak peeps above layers of younger red basalt and older gray limestone.)

Taking the tram to Mt. Howard will give you a great view of The Matterhorn, with its distinctive white cap made of the exposed granitic marble that forms the core of the Wallowa batholith, beneath the dark gray sedimentary rock of the former ocean floor and the later red basalt flows that came from the Yellowstone hotspot, when it lay beneath Eastern Oregon. Hiking east to the summit of Mt. Howard will bring you close up to the Seven Devils mountains in Idaho, which were also forced up by the collision of the islands and the continent, as well as Hells Canyon and Zumwalt Prairie, sprawling at their feet.

If you can time your trip right, don’t miss a chance to meet the Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) people of the area before leaving the north side of the Wallowa range. The Tamkaliks Celebration has become an annual tradition to practice indigenous culture and to build friendships between the first people and their neighbors. Attend as a visitor with respect for this local event and an interest in getting to know the people of Wallowa, the Nez Perce and other indigenous tribes who gather here. Tamkaliks (“from where you can see the mountains”) is organized by the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center, which you can also visit in Wallowa at any time of year. A new longhouse has been erected beside the river at the powwow grounds, and you can donate to help complete the natural restoration of the site, to restore Coho salmon habitat and native plants, as well as to build a more permanent home for Wallowa Nez Perce culture. See the center’s website for more information.


(The Color Guard heads the procession at the beginning of the dance competitions during Tamkaliks. )


(Dancers of all ages and various tribes show off their skills, styles, and regalia as they dance.)


(Drum circles provide the music for dancers and try to trip them up with tricky rhythms.)

Other indigenous people closely related to the Nimíipuu, the Imatalamthláma (Umatilla), Pelúutspuu (Palouse), Walúulapam (Walla Walla), Wánapam (River People), and the Weyíiletpuu (Cayuse) have lived in the foothills of the Blue Mountains and on the low lands around them for at least 10,000 years or so. Together with the Nimíipuu, they are known as the ‘Ichishkíin speaking people, bound together by language, marriage, and territory. You can learn more about them by reading As Days Go By: Our History, Our Land, and Our People; The Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla, published by the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Then you can visit the institute in Pendleton before making your way down through the Grande Ronde Valley to Baker City. In addition to a museum and a café opened year round (except Sundays), the Living Culture Village is also open during the summer months at Tamástslikt, located on the grounds of the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

For your night’s rest, Baker City offers many options for lodging: from the historic Geiser Grand Hotel, the Blue Door Inn, and the Wisdom House and Palmer House vacation rentals to low to mid-range priced motels. For the next day or two, you may want to move up to the Cornucopia Lodge in the mountains to explore the oldest part of the Wallowas.

A few hours’ drive from either location will bring you to the trailhead for Summit Point Lookout, a short hike that will take you past the old coral reef where you may be able to spot some fossils of corals, crinoids, or brachiopods. The plant life in the area is a strange mixture of desert sagebrush and subalpine firs and wildflowers, and the elevation provides a commanding view of the desert badlands below you to the south and east, and the Elkhorn Range of the other Blue Mountain batholith to the west.


(A blue butterfly rests on purple asters along Summit Point Trail.)

A longer hike straight up from the trailhead will take you to the base of the Cornucopia Stock, a magnificent formation of rare white rock called cordierite trondjehmite. This mountain ridge was created by a fault that transformed the rocks of the old island arc into the pale stone embedded with gold, which was mostly mined out by 1938. The beauty of the landscape still remains, however. In late July, the meadows will be full of blooming lupine and other flowers, where you may even see Rocky Mountain Goat kids playing (so keep dogs leashed.) Ambitious backpackers can follow Morris Bishop’s directions across the ridge to Crater Lake or Sullivan’s guide to Pine Lakes Pass or the lakes themselves. I recommend, however, stopping at the fence that crosses the trail at a high point, and taking a rest in the shade of a stand of trees above the meadows of flowers with their flitting butterflies, below the great white Cornucopia ridge, and enjoying the environment that might be out of a Western version of Heidi, before returning back towards dinner and bed.


(The Cornucopia Stock is made of a rare white rock called cordierite trondhjemite, granitic rock transformed by the pressure of the Eagle fault. Red basalt later poured through cracks in the rock, forming dikes.)

You can also hike from just north of the Cornucopia Lodge the next day, whether you are staying there or not. Along the trail, you can see the handiwork of both nature and humans: from reddish brown slashes of basalt cutting through the pale granitic rocks that mark the fissures caused by the Yellowstone hotspot; to the rocky valley through which Pine Creek runs that has been mined for over a hundred years, changing the face of the landscape; as well as a mine shaft dug into the side of the Cornucopia stock.


(White Cornucopia Peak stands beside Red Mountain, which is made of sandstone and shale baked red by the heat of the granitic intrusion that formed the Cornucopia and the gold therein.)

You’ll also get views of Red Mountain, beside the white Cornucopia, composed of sandstone and shale from the old ocean bed, turned red by the heat when the newer granitic rock intruded. It is contact zones like these that produce precious metals — hence the gold rich stones and the long history of mining. Hiking to Chute Falls and back makes a good day hike, while packers on foot or on the hoof can follow Morris Bishop and Sullivan’s guides to Pine Lakes, and even do a loop that will lead back to the lodge, which also offers day rides, pack rides, and packing and supplying for backpackers in the summer, and accommodates those who bring their own horses.

The lodge and its pack station lie above the ghost town of Cornucopia, which lived and died with the mining of gold. Though it experienced various economic rises and falls from the beginning of its establishment, the end came when gold mining was shut down in America to focus on the mining of metals needed for World War II. The buildings of the hastily built town didn’t change much over the years, and many of them still stand, some renovated and still occasionally inhabited as cabins.

When you drive back to Baker City, which once had a Chinatown, you can also visit the Chinese Cemetery, where former Chinese American residents are memorialized. The work of Chinese American laborers can also still be seen in the area in long rock walls and ditches made during placer mining.[2] Learn more about the miners of Chinese heritage in Eastern Oregon by reading In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchants in the American West, by Sue Fawn Chung.


(The Chinese Cemetery on the outskirts of Baker City preserves some of the history of Chinese Americans during the gold rush in Oregon.)

Finally, to get a taste of the Bald Mountains, drive an hour or so northwest from Baker City to Anthony Lake. A popular ski resort in the winter, this area offers an easy place to hike and camp in the summer, though still at a high altitude, making it a good place for young children or the less mobile to experience some alpine beauty.


(Gunsight Butte, with its notch characteristic of the Elkhorns, glows in the setting sunlight over Anthony Lake.)

Morris Bishop explains that the notches that are obvious in the bald peaks of the Elkhorn Mountains, most noticeably in the predominate Gunsight Mountain, are characteristic of granitic batholiths, which are full of cracks (known as joints) both large and small. Perhaps these notches reminded someone of the points on an elk’s antlers and led to the Elkhorns’ name.

I recommend pitching a tent at Anthony Lake and doing a loop hike to Hoffer Lakes and back on your first day there. On a following day, more ambitious hikers can follow Sullivan’s directions to Lost Lake or Summit Lake along the Elkhorn Crest Trail, or go all the way to Marble Canyon (or Pass) as both he and Morris Bishop direct, to be picked up or to reach a shuttle car that has been arranged.

Either way, ending your journey near the area known as Little Alps is a great way to say goodbye to the Alps of Oregon and its distinctly American natural and human history — diverse parts jumbled together and torn apart by movement and change, but bonded together as one by time.

*When planning hikes, make sure to check driving and hiking times and sundown time. [See the Google map I created for this trip: one-way standard drive times are noted in the directions on the sidebar. Click on the hiking icons to see estimated hiking times (not including breaks).] Always bring water, food, first aid supplies and a trail map, and prepare for weather conditions when hiking.

[1]“Status Of Oregon Rocky Mountain Goats”, Victor L. Coggins and Patrick E. Matthews, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

[2] “In the Footsteps of Chinese Miners,” by Lisa Britton of the Baker City Herald, July 13, 2005

Klamaths Travelogue

Travel Oregon published our firsthand account of our visit through the Klamath Mountain Region. Luckily the places that we visited in the Brookings area were untouched by the Chetco Bar fire. You can read about our experiences here and plan your own trip for next summer!



*Shortly before this article was published, a week after our visit, the Chetco Bar wildfire was reported, having been sparked by lightning. It eventually spread all the way to the edge of Brookings. Though we have not been back to the area yet, the Statesman Journal reported that Vulcan Lake, Loeb State Park, and the Redwood Nature Loop were untouched.

July – August

Explore a wide variety of landscapes, from seaside to mountaintop, created by former islands along the southwest coast of Oregon and northern California.

There may be some rivalry between Oregonians and Californians, but, as neighbors, the two states share land that is all of one piece geologically and ecologically, though divided by an imaginary line. The Klamath Mountain region in southwestern Oregon offers a climate and forestland usually associated with northern California, with its balmy ocean air and towering redwood trees.

Like the Blue Mountains, the foundations of the Klamath range were once volcanic islands, before they were swept onto the edge of North America between 160 and 120 million years ago. The highest peaks of the range are in California, but Oregon’s share of the Klamaths includes some dramatic and interesting geological features — from a red mountain ridge formed by the Earth’s mantle as it was thrust above ground by the collision of the islands and the continent, to a cave system made of marble that was formed by the awesome pressure of the colliding land, crystallizing the limestone of Triassic coral reefs. Later, in the Jurassic period, the butting of the land masses forced molten rock up through the shale of the ocean bed to form the granitic pluton of Mt. Ashland.


(A portion of the Oregon Caves known as “Paradise Lost”; the formations are made of calcite, which originates from the shells or skeletons of sea life that slowly accreted into the limestone of the ocean floor around the Klamath island chain.)

Though winters are mild at lower elevations, routes will be blocked by snow at the heights of this journey until the summer months. I recommend making this trip during July or August, in order to catch the wildflower shows on Mt. Ashland at their best and to hopefully avoid rain on the coast.

To explore this second oldest part of Oregon, begin by making your base of operations in Brookings, a coastal fishing town. There are lots of motels, a few B&Bs, and many vacation rentals available in the area, mostly in the middle price range. You can easily stroll down to the ocean after dinner in town, but a ten-minute drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway will take you to the more remote Samuel H. Boardman State Park for a nice seaside hike.* I recommend taking William L. Sullivan’s Oregon Coast & Coast Range 100 Hikes/Travel Guide to help you navigate your adventures in this area. He outlines many options for stops and jaunts along the shore, but I suggest rambling around on Cape Ferrelo in the evening and down to the little “pocket” beach just north of it to catch the sunset over the ocean waves.


(The beach on the north side of Cape Ferrelo)

For an easy morning hike, drive up the north bank of the Chetco River from Brookings to the Redwood Nature Trailhead in an outlying patch of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. This trail will take you for an easy loop through the northern-most grove of Sequoia sempervirens, or coast redwood. Earth’s tallest trees, the redwoods have evolved since the Jurassic period, and they once covered most of the coast of California and this corner of Oregon, before commercial logging began in the 19th century. According to the Save The Redwoods League, only 5% of the coast redwoods have not been logged, and only 23% are now protected. The National Forest Service claims that some of the redwoods here in Oregon may be up to 800 years old. To learn more about the redwoods before you visit them in person, pick up a copy of Coast Redwood: A Natural and Cultural History.


(A coast redwood, or Sequoia sempervirens, that has cloned itself)

Just south of the Redwood Nature Trail, you can see another tree that is unique to California and the Klamath region of Oregon – the Oregon myrtle or California bay laurel (depending on where you are or who you ask.) Alfred A. Loeb State Park began as land preserved by a group called Save the Myrtlewoods in 1948, and its Riverview Trail starts across the road from the Redwood Nature Trail and leads down to a beach on the Chetco River. The myrtle’s fragrant leaves are similar to the Mediterranean bay laurel and were used as medicine by the area’s indigenous people. Its wood is also prized, and was used as legal tender during the Great Depression in North Bend, Oregon, just up the coast. Clearly, its value necessitates the tree’s protection, like so many of the others that make up the great forests of the Pacific Northwest.

For a full day’s outing, have yourself a picnic lunch, then continue to drive up North Bank Chetco River Road, which becomes NF-1376 as you enter the National Forest proper. Turn right and head east on Red Mountain Road, or NF-1909, following signs for the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and Vulcan Lake. Keep on this gravel road for many twists and turns, and be prepared for very rough spots and deep washed-out ruts. After it becomes NF-260, a short right fork, marked by a well scratched post on the left and an old whitewashed outhouse on the right, will bring you to the Vulcan Peak and Chetco Lake Trailheads, before the road becomes even more narrow and treacherous as it winds around the mountain ridge itself to Vulcan Lake. The drive is best done in a high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle, and I don’t recommend trying to drive to Vulcan Lake until the road is improved.


(The trail to Vulcan Peak over a mountain ridge of peridotite, formed from the Earth’s mantle)

Sullivan includes the hike up to the peak along with the one to Vulcan Lake, of which you will get a view when you climb the 1.3 miles and 900 feet in elevation to the top of the rocky ridge. You will also be able to see the ocean, the Kalmiopsis wilderness to the north and the Siskiyou Mountains in California from this vantage point, but what really makes this area significant are the striking red rocks of the landscape, exposed when a fire destroyed the forest that once covered these steep slopes. In Hiking Oregon’s Geology, Ellen Morris Bishop explains that these rocks, called peridotite, were formed from the Earth’s crumpled mantle when North America ran into the Klamath microcontinent. When broken, they reveal a dark green color, but their oxidized outer rust-red surface must have reminded the person who named Vulcan Peak of the Roman god’s fiery hot forge.


(Peridotite — actually green, but high in iron, so it oxidizes to rust red where exposed to air– and the wildflower, Castilleja, or paintbrush)

The next day, pack your bags and dip down into California on your drive to the Oregon Caves National Monument, just east of Cave Junction. Try to arrive early, because this is a popular destination in the summer. There’s no need for a guidebook here — admittance to the cave is only by a 90-minute guided tour, the last one of the day ending at 6pm. (You can make a reservation online here.) An additional, more rugged tour that you must reserve in advance is also available, as well as a Candlelight Tour. The marble that the seeping rainwater has carved and sculpted in the caves began its existence as the shells and bones of living sea creatures about 220 million years ago, provided refuge for a bear from Elijah Davidson’s dog in 1874, leading to its “discovery” — and it still shelters bats and other animals.


(A ranger guides visitors through the Oregon Caves on the Discovery Cave Tour.)

You can also hike above the caves to Big Tree, the largest known Douglas fir in Oregon, through groves of Port Orford cedar, another tree unique to southwest Oregon and northwest California; or if you’re feeling very energetic, climb Mt. Elijah, the granitic pluton that was forced up by the collision of North America and the old islands, increasing the geological pressure that crystalized the reefs into marble.


(Big Tree, the largest known Douglas fir in Oregon, estimated to be an amazing 1,200 years old)

You can climb the mountain from the caves, or drive to a closer trailhead in a high clearance vehicle. Both of these trails are covered by Sullivan in his Southern Oregon 100 Hikes/Travel Guide and maps are available from the monument. Mt. Elijah is in the Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest, so dispersed camping is allowed, but be cognizant of the fire danger. The Cave Monument also hosts an historic lodge (with a café and restaurant) known as The Chateau — a beautiful example of Park Service architecture, furnished with restored Mason Monterey furniture.


(The Chateau, the historic lodge at the Oregon Caves National Monument)


(Historic Mason Monterey furnishings at The Chateau)

The next day, you can move on to Ashland, one of Oregon’s most popular towns, renowned for its Shakespeare festival. Better-than-run-of-the-mill accommodations abound, from a mid-range, restored, modern vintage hotel in the hills, to a swanky historic 1920s luxury hotel downtown. The number of B&Bs and vacation rentals is almost overwhelming, as is the number of excellent restaurants.

Before you catch a show at the theatre in the evening, drive south of town to see a different kind of show, up on Mt. Ashland. As you wend your way along Mt. Ashland Ski Road (NF-20), Morris Bishop points out that you can see in the road cuts the lighter colored granite that intruded, about 150 million years ago, from the Earth’s molten mantle into the darker colored sedimentary shale of the ocean bed, creating an almost cross-hatched pattern.


(The newer, white granite that ballooned up from below the former ocean bed, creating Mt. Ashland, can be seen intruding through the cracks of the older gray shale alongside Mt. Ashland Ski Road.)

Stop at the first crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail over NF-20, just after the junction with NF- 2080, or Tolman Creek Road, to follow Sullivan’s recommended hike through Mt. Ashland Meadows. At the beginning of the trail, you’ll see the regionally unique Shasta red fir, a natural hybrid of the Noble fir and California red fir. Once you enter the meadows, you should be awash in native wildflowers. Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest by Eugene N. Kozloff has always been my trusty guide for identifying native plants on the trail in Oregon, but you can also download  a free app to your phone called Oregon Wildflower Search, which works even without cell service.


(Purple lupine, orange columbine, and white cow parsnip blooming in Mt. Ashland Meadows.)

As you hike, also look for granite with pink or white feldspar crystals, characteristic of Mt. Ashland’s pluton — most notable in large outcroppings in the forest. Before you reach gravel road 40S15, which, if you follow it north, will take you to nearby Mt. Ashland campground, you will get a good view of the much younger volcanic peak of Mt. Shasta, the second highest mountain in the Cascade Range.

Mt.-Shasta (1)

(Waka-nunee-Tuki-wiki, “to walk around and around, but never on top,” the center of the Shasta world.)

Many different indigenous people lived in the Oregon Klamaths before Europeans and their descendants arrived here – from the Chetco of the Brookings area to the Takelma around the Oregon Caves, to the Shasta people of the Ashland area, to name a few.  Mt. Shasta is called Waka-nunee-Tuki-wiki in the Shasta language, which means, “to walk around and around, but never on top”, and the name-phrase would be repeated twice whenever a Shasta came in view of the mountain. Waka, for short, is also the name of the Shasta world-creator, who is said to have stopped on the mountain peak after making the world; the top of the mountain, above the tree line, was reserved for the supernatural. Shasta people went to the mountain to fast in search of medicine, or would walk once around the circumference of the mountain below the tree line to purify themselves, and if they were at the end of life, they would ascend above the tree line to die. Waka was to the Shasta people both the physical and spiritual center of the world.[1]

In Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, Ella E. Clark relates a tale from the Shasta about the animals of the world escaping a Biblical-type flood by waiting it out on the high peak of the mountain, the only thing that remained above water. This folktale has a chilling parallel in the oral history of the Shasta. It is claimed that in 1851, 175 Shasta men fled to the mountains to escape a genocide that was perpetrated against their people by the U.S. government and vigilantes. While this allegation has yet to be proved, other atrocities committed against the Shasta are well documented. Learn more about the First People of this area from Shasta Nation (Images of America) by Betty Lou Hall and Monica Jae Hall, members of the nation, and at the nation’s website.

Unfortunately, the Shastas’ language is no longer spoken fluently, as a result of the violence committed against them in the 19th century and the dispossession of their land and autonomy in the last century, though efforts are being made to restore their tongue and gain federal recognition for the tribe. For now, perhaps, the beauty of the Klamath mountains and the worth of exploring them may best be expressed by the region’s greatest English poet – John Muir.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

*When planning hikes, make sure to check driving and hiking times and sundown time. [See the Google map I created for this trip: one-way standard drive times are noted in the directions on the sidebar. Click on the hiking icons to see estimated hiking times (not including breaks).] Always bring water, food, first aid supplies and a trail map, and prepare for weather conditions when hiking.

[1] Native American Interview by Dorothea J. Theodoratus and Nancy H. Evans.

Text copyrighted by Emily Wahl. Photos copyrighted by Eric Macey.

Hells Canyon Travelogue

Eureka Viewpoint

Travel Oregon has published an account of our experiences on the first leg of the Grand Tour!

Read it here.

The Beginning of Oregon

September – October

Journey to the northeastern corner of the state, where Hells Canyon reveals some of Oregon’s earliest terrain and is marked by remnants of a dark history.

Hells Canyon is one of Oregon’s natural wonders, and its breathtakingly dramatic beauty is obvious to any observer. But our continent’s deepest canyon holds a secret that makes it even more tantalizing to explore – Hells Canyon is actually a time machine.


(Part of Hells Canyon: Cow Creek and the Imnaha River Canyon in the middle ground, as seen from Spain Saddle. The Seven Devils Peaks in Idaho on the horizon)

The waters of the Imnaha River, which created a large part of the canyon, have relentlessly carved away at the Columbia River basalt that covers the old volcanic islands of the Blue Mountains. These islands became cemented to North America on the edge of what is now called Idaho 160 to 120 million years ago, becoming some of Oregon’s first land.

Armed with a book or two, a sturdy vehicle, and some good hiking boots, you can rediscover this ancient part of Oregon. As you explore the floor of a vanished ocean, the foundations of former islands, and massive floods of lava that originated underneath Yellowstone, you’ll come across the ghostly remains of a mining town that went boom and bust under suspicious and disastrous circumstances; trace the steps of the Nimíipuu (True People) and their admired leader, Young Chief Joseph, as they fled from the US Army; and witness the spot where over thirty Chinese miners were murdered by cowboys for their gold.

Luckily for today’s travelers, the town of Joseph (named after the Nimíipuu leader’s father in 1880, while his son was living in exile from his homeland) now offers a charming spot to serve as a base for explorations of the canyon. Accommodations around town range from tents, yurts, and RV sites to large cabin rentals, with nice motels, B&Bs (and Airbnbs) and an historic 1920s lodge occupying the middle of the spectrum. Almost everywhere in the vicinity of Joseph has beautiful views of the Wallowa Mountains, and there are many options for camping and lodging around large Wallowa Lake.


(Main Street, Joseph, OR)


(Statue of Chief Joseph the Younger, or Hinmuuttu-yalatlat, “Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain”)

Be prepared for extreme changes in climate as you descend down into the canyon, which seems to be aptly named, as it will get hotter the farther down that you go. Because of the heat at the bottom, this journey is not recommended in the summer months. In September, the weather becomes more ideal; by October, rates for lodging may decrease; but by November, expect chilly temperatures and possibly snow above the canyon. Spring is generally wet, so early fall is the best time to plan your visit.

I recommend two guidebooks to lead you on your adventure through the history of Hells Canyon: Hiking Oregon’s Geology by Ellen Morris Bishop and William L. Sullivan’s 100 Hikes/Travel Guide of Eastern Oregon. The former has a great introduction that gives you an overview of the state’s geology, and Morris Bishop has listed three hikes through the canyon that outline what to look for and how to interpret the geological features that you will see. Sullivan’s book covers the same territory with helpful maps, detailed directions and information about the flora, fauna, and human history of the area.

To get a stunning overview of the canyon before you venture into its depths, Buckhorn Overlook/Lookout is the place to begin. A fire lookout from the 1930s perches on the edge of the canyon over the Imnaha’s valley, and on the horizon the high Seven Devils peaks of Idaho pierce the sky. Another book I recommend to bring history to life here is the classic Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella Elizabeth Clark, an early ethnographer. In the pages of her book she has printed an origin myth about the Seven Devils Mountains, corroborated by a Nimíipuu, (or Nez Perce) man named Caleb Whitman in 1950. The story features Coyote as hero/creator and illuminates the mountains’ striking name. It will add a dimension to the land and its wildlife by allowing you to view it through the lens of the historical indigenous culture — and the story itself is great fun to read aloud to any fellow travelers.

If you would like a moderate hike,* you can follow Sullivan’s suggestion to Eureka Viewpoint and get an even better view of the canyon. If you’re up for a more strenuous adventure the following day, and you’re willing to backpack and camp in the canyon overnight, you can follow Morris Bishop’s hike to Coon Hollow near the Cache Creek Ranch (a shepherding outfit until the 1930s, now an occupied Forest Service building) on the Snake River. Here you’ll get a close up view of the sedimentary rocks left by the sea that once separated “Oregon” from “Idaho” and perhaps find some fossils of gingkos, palms, conifers, and ferns left in those ocean sands.

Eureka Viewpoint

(Eureka Viewpoint)

Red Barn

(A barn by the road through Zumwalt Prairie)

On your return from the Buckhorn Overlook area or Coon Hollow hike, or on another day, you might want to take a jaunt through the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve. Here the Nature Conservancy has protected the grassland with the largest private preserve in Oregon. The natural environment supports a wide range of wildlife, and birds of prey especially thrive in it. You will most likely see hawks soaring across the road and deer and elk grazing nearby as you drive through the area, but the chance to walk through the prairie itself should not be missed, if time and energy permit — and the view from Harsin Butte is spectacular.

Harsen Butte Info

(Information at the old barn and corral on the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve with Harsin Butte in background)


(The Wallowas from Harsin Butte)


(The Seven Devils and Hells Canyon from Harsin Butte)

For another day’s journey, you can lift stakes and drive to the town of Imnaha from Joseph (with a full tank of gas), then head north, driving along the Imnaha River itself. There’s a lonely and pleasant-looking B&B, for a more comfortable alternative to camping, just before the road crosses the river to the west. Once the Lower Imnaha Road becomes NF-4260, be prepared for a long and bumpy ride to the Imnaha River Trailhead. When you reach it, you can then hike through the valley that you viewed from Buckhorn Overlook on a previous day.

Imnaha River Bridge

(The Imnaha River)

This trail travels along the river through an old magma chamber of the Blue Mountain island arc, where greenish white diorite that was formed 260 million years ago, before the land became a part of North America, is on display. About 4 miles down, a campsite awaits backpackers at Eureka Bar, where the Imnaha meets the Snake River. Nearby is an old mining tunnel, where miners once claimed to have found copper and then gold in the ancient rock, but now Townsends big-eared bats have taken up residence there. A short walk away, the ruins of a gold stamp mill and other buildings are all that remain of the town called Eureka that sprang up at the turn of the 20th century. The apparently unsubstantiated claims of gold gave birth to a rush of investment from financiers back East – only to go belly up when the Imnaha paddlewheel steamer that carried machinery for the mill crashed and sank on the Snake River, and the questionable and disastrous gold rush met its end.


(Diorite, some of the oldest land in Oregon, along the Imnaha River Trail)


(Holding a bit of Oregon’s geological origins in my hand)

One last hike in the nearby vicinity will take you through the more recent geological strata of Oregon and bring you close to the experience of one of the most venerated figures of the state, as well as a less remembered, but significant, part of Oregon’s history.

On the other side of the Imnaha River is the Nez Perce or Nee-Mee-Poo National Historic Trail, which actually stretches from the town of Minam, (northwest of Joseph, marking the western boundary of the Nimíipuu’s ancestral land) to the Bear Paw Battlefield in northern Montana, where Hinmuuttu-yalatlat (Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain, or Chief Joseph the Younger) was forced to surrender with 700 of his remaining people. They were captured just 40 miles from the safety of Canada, where they were fleeing in hopes of joining Sitting Bull and the Lakota. To see a map of the Nimíipuu’s arduous and deadly flight go here.

Hiking (or even rough driving) the four or so miles from the Cow Creek bridge to Dug Bar, where the Nimíipuu crossed the Snake River, will only give you a fractional taste of the 1,170 miles that the Wallowa band endured in a bid for freedom before their surrender in 1877. Read up on the history before you go, even if it’s just a cursory look at Wikipedia; or pick up one of the many books that have been written on the subject (for all ages) and bring it with you. (A more recent publication for adults is The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, by Elliott West.)

Cheif Jo and Joseph

(Only a tiny part of the land that the Nimíipuu trekked across in their flight)

Successive layers of Columbia River basalts will be visible from Cow Creek to Dug Bar. The Columbia River, northern boundary of most of Oregon, does, indeed, run through these lava flows, but they originated from great rifts in the land of northeastern and southeastern Oregon, caused by the Yellowstone hotspot. The Snake River, which forms most of Oregon’s eastern boundary before it flows into the Columbia, also has its headwaters in Yellowstone Park.


(The Nimíipuu crossing of the Snake River at Dug Bar, below Columbia River basalt flows)

If you’re up for more tramping and willing to get your feet wet, you can continue from Dug Bar along the Snake River Trail into the Hells Canyon Wilderness, splash across Dug Creek a few times, and camp or even swim along this part of the Snake River. A little bit farther upstream, where Deep Creek meets the Snake, Chinese Massacre Cove testifies to the crime that gave its name to this rocky beach. In 1886, thirty-two Chinese men were shot dead here by seven cowboys from Idaho, and their bodies were dumped into the river. The gold mined by the Chinese men was then buried at the cove by the murderers, and one Chinese vial of gold dust was discovered here in 1902.

There may be more bloody buried treasure to be found, but in my opinion, it would best be left in the ground. The human history in this wonderful natural area is scarred by the violence and destruction that greed for gold brought – from the sinking of the Imnaha to the murdered miners. The gold rush was even responsible for the plight of the Nimíipuu, as gold-mad settlers pushed the US government to demand more territory from the peaceful native people. The real worth in the stones of Hells Canyon is in the stories they have to tell – reminding us of our insignificantly brief existence in comparison to the Earth’s, and of the good, bad, and ugly qualities of human nature.

*When planning hikes, make sure to check driving and hiking times and sundown time. [See the Google map I created for this trip: one-way standard drive times are noted in the directions on the sidebar. Click on the hiking icons to see estimated hiking times (not including breaks).]  Always bring water, food, first aid supplies, and a trail map, and prepare for weather conditions when hiking. In this part of Oregon, rattlesnakes are common — I recommend packing a snake bite kit. The drive into the canyon, especially to Dug Bar, is best done in a high clearance vehicle with 4-wheel-drive, and camping overnight is advisable to avoid driving the road after dark.

Text copyrighted by Emily Wahl. Photos copyrighted by Eric Macey.