This road trip loop takes you through little-visited northeast Oregon by way of the 208-mile Hells Canyon Scenic Byway — a combination of state highways and paved forest service roads. Besides Hells Canyon (which is more than 1,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon), the highlights include the Oregon Trail and Wallowa Mountains. Along the way, make stops at artsy and authentic small towns and learn about the region’s original inhabitants, the Nez Perce. Snow closes a portion of this byway from late October through early June, so it’s best to drive it between mid-June and mid-October.
You’ll start and end in Baker City, which is about a two-hour drive from Boise, Idaho.
Day 1: Baker City, Oregon, to Halfway, Oregon (55 miles)
Start your day in this former gold mining town (population: about 9,700) with biscuits and gravy at Sweet Wife Bakery’s on Main Street. Then walk off the calories wandering through downtown, where more than 100 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Three not to miss: the Gothic St. Francis de Sales Cathedral (finished in 1908 and built using volcanic tuff quarried locally), the Italianate-style Adler House Museum (open for tours between Memorial Day and Labor Day), and the Baker Municipal Natatorium (built in 1920), home to the Baker Heritage Museum (the ballroom still has its original hardwood floors).
Before leaving town, grab lunch at the Cheese Fairy, where owner Cody Cook serves up cheese plates showcasing artisan cheeses from around the world. Cap off your meal next door in the tasting room for Copper Belt Winery, owned by Cody’s brother, Travis. You’ll be sampling wine made from grapes grown on land homesteaded by the siblings’ great grandfather, who was born in the area in 1895 to Oregon Trail pioneers.
Head east out of the city on the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway (this section, Oregon Highway 86). Eleven miles from downtown, the byway intersects the Oregon Trail, which is still visible today because of the deep ruts worn into the sere sagebrush landscape by the hundreds of thousands of wagons that traveled the trail in the 1800s. Here, the National Historical Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is temporarily closed for renovations, but the 500-acre site’s 4 miles of walking trails (more than half paved) remain open.
From the Oregon Trail ruts, it’s all downhill, literally, with the byway descending about 2,000 feet to Halfway. The landscape is initially barren with dry wash, but gradually becomes verdant fields of mint, turf grass and barley, among others.
Where to stay: Check in for two nights at Halfway’s Pine Valley Lodge, which has four separate lodging options, all as intimate as they are rustic and eclectic: the log Main Lodge, with three guest rooms and a wraparound porch; the clapboard Blue Dog Cottage and Yellow House, each with four guest rooms; and Main Place, with 11 rooms including a two-bedroom/two-bath suite with a kitchen.
Day 2: Halfway to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and back (80 miles round trip)
From Halfway, drive 17 miles east on OR-86 to Oxbow, a sleepy community on the Snake River with a couple dozen inhabitants. There, a side trip takes you off the byway on National Forest Service Road No. 454, a 22-mile-long road that hangs above the Snake River’s eastern banks. Contouring with the canyon’s crumbling cliffs, the road is called the “Devil’s Tail” because it runs along the base of the Seven Devils Mountains. It crosses the river at Oxbow Dam and ends hundreds of twists and turns later at the Hells Canyon Creek Visitor’s Center (temporarily closed), just outside Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
The deepest gorge in the U.S. (7,913 feet at its deepest), Hells Canyon is a 125-mile section of the Snake on the Idaho/Oregon border that churns with Class II through IV rapids. It’s so rugged there are no roads in it; today’s drive is as close as a car can get to it. The visitor center and dam sit at the top of the canyon, and a boat ramp below the center is the starting point for commercial whitewater jet boat and rafting tours that take you into the canyon proper. Tours range from three hours to a full day.
If you’re not up for a whitewater adventure, just take your time on the Devil’s Tail.
En route from Halfway to the road’s start in Oxbow, stop at the Hells Canyon Inn and pick up sandwiches-to-go; on your return to Halfway later in the day, stop for an afternoon picnic at the 15-acre, riverfront Hells Canyon Park, about 6 miles up the Devil’s Tail from Oxbow.
Where to stay: Spend the second night at Pine Valley Lodge, dining at the cafe in the Main Place, which serves free-range beef from cattle that graze in the eponymous valley.
Day 3: Halfway to Joseph (72 miles)
More stunningly beautiful scenery awaits you today as you make your way along twisty mountain roads, with trailheads for hiking every several miles. The drive doesn’t pass stores where you can pick up food or gas stations, so fill up your tank before leaving town and stock up on edibles at the Main Place.
Gassed up, leave Halfway on OR-86. Ten miles from town, turn left onto Forest Service Road 39 and into the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. The climbing begins almost immediately on a paved, two-lane road that runs parallel to North Pine Creek. Stop at pull-outs to get a closer look at the creek, where you can hook some trout if you fly-fish. The twists and turns start at a serious hairpin turn 14 miles up the canyon and take you into the Wallowa Mountains, an area known as “Little Switzerland,” in part because one of its 19 mountains is named the Matterhorn (it’s 6,000 feet shorter than its Swiss namesake but has a similar twisted summit). The road climbs about 1,500 feet in the 5 miles before it intersects with Forest Service Road 490. It’s worth driving 2 miles up FS-490 to the Hells Canyon Overlook, offering impressive views of McGraw Creek and the Seven Devil Mountains on the canyon’s east side. The small network of paved trails here are wheelchair-accessible.
Back on FS-39, the climbing doesn’t stop until you reach 6,125-foot-tall Salt Creek Summit, 24 mountain-driving miles from the turnoff to the overlook. Before you reach the summit, the road rejoins water — first running alongside Dry Creek, then the Imnaha River (a Wild and Scenic River), and, finally, Gumboot Creek. The 10-mile descent from the summit into the Wallowa Valley and to FS-39’s intersection with Oregon Route 350 winds alongside Little Sheep Creek.
Turning left onto OR-350, it’s an easy 8 miles through rolling agricultural country to Joseph (population about 1,000).
Where to stay: Get close to nature at the Wallowa Lake Lodge, a 10-minute drive from downtown Joseph, on the northern shore of glacial-carved Wallowa Lake. Opt to stay in one of the 22 rustic rooms in the main lodge, which was built in 1923, or in one of the eight stand-alone, cozy but not fancy log cabins.
Day 4: Joseph to Baker City (114 miles)
Start your day with scones and biscotti at Arrowhead Chocolates on Joseph’s Main Street. If available, usually in summer and fall, buy some Douglas fir truffles for snacking later. After breakfast, head over to the Valley Bronze Gallery to browse sculptures produced by renowned artists, then tour its nearby foundry, considered one of the country’s best.
Time your departure from Joseph so that you can grab lunch at Terminal Gravity, an award-winning brewpub in Enterprise, about 6 miles north on Oregon Route 82. Order a beef or bison burger and pair it with one of the beers on tap, then dine in the large outdoor dining area.
From Enterprise, OR-82 passes through quiet towns like Elgin and Wallowa and fertile farmlands planted with mint, turf grass and barley, among other crops. Every July, Elgin (population about 1,500) hosts the Elgin Stampede, a stop on the professional rodeo circuit. At the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center in Wallowa (population about 800), view exhibits developed and approved by the Wallowa Band Nez Perce, who lived in the Wallowa Valley until the band’s 1877 attempt to escape to Canada (rather than being forcefully relocated to a reservation). Sixty-four miles from Enterprise, the byway ends in La Grande.
Now, jump onto Interstate 84 and head the 44 miles south back to Baker City for more time there, or maybe to even check out the other two scenic byways that pass through the town, the Elkhorn Scenic and Journey Through Time byways.
Where to stay: The 30 rooms at the Geiser Grand Hotel in Baker City come with Victorian crystal chandeliers, marble-topped tables, silk draperies and 10-foot-tall windows with mountain views.
Based in Jackson, Wyoming, freelance writer Dina Mishev contributes to Outside.com, Sunset and the Washington Post.