My love affair with Eastern Oregon began in 2000 when our family took a road trip to the Midwest from the Rogue Valley. I was amazed at the endless, barren landscape and loneliness of the high desert. The occasional antelope and wild burro were something we’d never seen before.
This year’s trip took us to the Owyhee River, the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon of the Snake River — three very different ecosystems in Eastern Oregon.
Our journey started at a three-day 4th of July bacchanal in the Sierras, near the Yuba River in Northern California, with old friends who’ve been gathering there for some 40 years. From there, it was a long drive north through Nevada until we hit the Oregon state line on US-95. We drove through about 100 miles of picturesque desert, mountains and canyons. Far west of us we could see snowcapped Steens Mountain rising up from the Alvord Desert. We then skirted into Idaho for a while before heading to the Owyhee River Canyon in Oregon.
This area is under consideration to be designated a national monument, and the accompanying "No Monument” signs were scattered throughout the area. The landscape transforms from an irrigated agricultural district to a red rock, sheer-walled canyon through which the Owyhee River flows. It was more reminiscent of areas we’d been to in Utah and Arizona than anything we’d seen in Oregon. We observed lots of caves high up the walls of the canyon and bats flying everywhere.
Before we reached our campsite at Lake Owyhee State Park, we stopped at Snively Hot Springs, a BLM site right on the river. Being the experienced "soakheads" we are, my wife, Mary, and I agree it is one of the nicest soaks we’ve enjoyed in our quest to visit every hot springs known to man. The 125-degree water flows down a stream and blends with the temperate water of the river in a large pool that has been bouldered off to make a very enjoyable soaking experience. The view of the canyon in both directions is spectacular.
We camped that night on Lake Owyhee, a 52-mile-long reservoir formed by a gigantic dam at the head of the lake. We were the only tent amongst a handful of RVs, and it was about the most peaceful 4th of July night I can remember.
After a morning soak at Snively and lunch in downtown Ontario, we drove north about 4 hours to Wallowa State Park. The "Oregon Alps" rise to nearly 10,000-foot elevation behind Wallowa Lake. We camped at the state park there, which was very family friendly, but a bit too crowded for our taste. The next morning we took the tram up to the top of Mount Howard, where we ate Mary’s birthday breakfast in 48-degree weather in the open-air restaurant. We then hiked a series of short trails, catching stupendous vistas of the surrounding area through the swirling clouds. The wildflowers and stunted trees were worth the shortness of breath.
After another short hike later that day along the Wallowa River to a stunning waterfall (and almost losing our dog in the raging river), we drove to the quaint town of Joseph at the entrance to Lake Wallowa. Unfortunately we missed viewing most of the art galleries as we got there after 5 p.m. But we enjoyed the charm of the town, as well as a great Mexican dinner.
The next day we cut our stay short in suburbia and head for Hells Canyon on the Snake River, which is the border between Oregon and Idaho in the far northwest corner of the state. I had been a bit leery of the roads to get there, but it was smooth sailing all the way to the dam. The walls of the canyon rise thousands of feet above the river and the vistas along the way were well worth the drive.
We enjoyed a much-needed swim in the Snake River reservoir between the Hells Canyon and Oxbow dams, then drove to Baker City for our first hotel stay of our trip. Upon arriving, we realized why we saw so many bikers all day long. Downtown Baker City was blocked off for the annual Hells Canyon Biker Rally — right up our alley! We reveled in the atmosphere of blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd, gray beards and black leather, dining on the sidewalk of the historic Geiser Hotel.
The drive home from Baker City, though long and tedious at times, took us through a wide variety of Oregon country we hadn’t seen before. Prairie City definitely looked worth a stay, and we drove through the area around John Day that had been burned by a wildfire last year. It was interesting to see how the fire burned right up to many homes that were saved. Along Highway 395 on the way to Burns, we picnicked in the rain very close to where the Bundy gang was stopped by the FBI last winter.
The last part of our journey was a downpour near amazing Lake Abert on the way to Lakeview and Klamath Falls. As we drove home down Dead Indian Memorial Road, it was apparent that the huge trees we saw along that route were yet another different part of Oregon compared to what we had just seen.
While Eastern Oregon and traveling roads less traveled has always intrigued us, it was great to realize that our backyard is unique as well.
— Jack Opgenorth lives in Ashland.