Road Trip: Northeast Oregon
If I had taken three airplanes, transferred overland two days in a bouncy vehicle driven by someone who speaks no English, then ridden my mountain bike for two days, to find this scenery (1) that would describe the first few days of most of my vacations, and (2) I would have considered the effort well spent.
Instead, if took only one long day of driving in a rented Mercedes Sprinter van to get from Seattle to northeast Oregon. The idea was to see how well we liked RV life, and a quadrant of Oregon in a week seemed about right.
Only somewhat aware of the area's attractions, we were blown away by vista after vista of jaw-dropping, cue-the-Bonanza-theme-song scenery. We saw three mountain ranges that reach 9000 feet--the Wallowas, the Strawberry Range and the Seven Devils. The Snake River cuts a mile-plus gash between Oregon and Idaho. There are dramatic geological formations studded with fossils, two Wild and Scenic Rivers (the John Day and the Deschutes), and a hard dirt dual-track path through the desert made by wagon wheels and pioneers more than 150 years ago. All of this is see-able in a week but two would not be too long.
And how did we like the "RV lifestyle?" Honestly, not much, but it is admittedly a great way to northeast Oregon. (Continued below.)
Above: Idaho's Seven Devils range from the Snake River Canyon overlook.
Left: Lower Deschutes River near where it flows into the Columbia.
To be fair, for all its wild and uninhabited beauty, this place is real and gritty. It is Make America Great Again country, where about half the population lives in manufactured housing of some kind, and three quarters of it drive enormous pickup trucks. Towns, many of which are barely hanging on, are a long way apart, and most of them have a quilting supply shop and at least one storefront decorated in antlers.
There's not much in the way of accommodation, and outside of Baker City and La Grande it's hard even to find a well-stocked, open-for-business grocery store. It is common to see spent ammunition cartridges on the ground here and there. The people are friendly, or not, just like people everywhere, but think hard about the cost/benefit of ignoring a "no trespassing" sign.
Go. That's my advice. If you do:
This is a place best taken with solitude, so think shoulder season, such as the last two weeks of May or September. Be aware, however, that many services are not available until mid-May or later and start closing up shortly after Labor Day.
Do not miss Hell's Canyon overlook. The only way to get there is via forest services roads. The drive on NF-490 from Joseph is stunning. The road goes up to about 7000 feet, and is not maintained until mid-June so be prepared for snow or a fallen tree around any bend. The drive up the other side, from the Snake River valley, is a twisty mountain road as well, but more likely to be passable. Personally, I would not tow a camping trailer or drive a large RV up either side.
Oregon state parks are a treasure--clean, well-equipped and in beautiful settings. They fill up fast so get there early or better yet, make a reservation. is user-friendly.
Check out the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, near the John Day fossil beds, and the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, near Baker City and the Oregon Trail wheel ruts. The photo to the left shows the wheel ruts.
The Deschutes River trail is a graveled railroad corridor that extends 17 miles upriver from where the Deschutes empties into the Columbia. Beautiful!
Don't miss Joseph, an outdoorsy town at the end of the road, with an art community and a few restaurants. Then check out Lake Wallowa. Most people go to the state park at the far end of the lake via highway 351, but there is great scenery on the other side of the lake too. Unfortunately you quickly run out of road on that side, but it is worth the short trip to see the ranch land snuggled up against the Wallowa mountains. There is no road around the lake, but a determined hiker or off-road cyclist willing to ignore a no-tresspassing sign or two could circumnavigate.