June 25 2019
HELLS CANYON - OREGON - From Joseph, the byway heads east toward Hells Canyon. It follows OR-350 to FR-39, swinging south to briefly parallel the Wild and Scenic Imnaha River, important spawning grounds for chinook salmon and steelhead trout. For your first look at Hells Canyon, turn left on FR-3965 near the Ollokot campground to the Hells Canyon Overlook. Perched at the rim, you're peering down into the deepest canyon in North America. Spoiler alert: You can't see the Snake River from this viewpoint, but the gorge is stunning — more than a mile/1.6 kilometers deep and carved by eons of Snake River erosion. From some areas on the east rim, Hells Canyon plummets more than 8,000 feet, dwarfing even the Grand Canyon.
Back on the byway, FR-39 continues south to a junction with OR-86. Detour north past Copperfield/Oxbow to the Hells Canyon Dam and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Visitor Center for a look at this mighty canyon from the river level. To really experience its grandeur, sign on for one of the area's rafting trips or jet-boat excursions, which descend through the canyon and tackle the Snake's exhilarating white-water rapids.
The byway winds west through the towns of Halfway and Richland along a route traveled by early settlers. You can explore the mountains and foothills here with Wallowa Llamas, a guide company whose sure-footed creatures pack your gear so you can enjoy the view. Near Baker City, the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center offers exhibits and living-history presentations on the great migration that forever changed the American West. The byway ends in Baker City, where it intersects the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway and the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway. Downtown Baker City is ripe for exploring with more than 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a horse-drawn tour with Colton Carriage Service or journey on foot and find a fine mix of museums and galleries as well as craft breweries, a distillery and an artisan chocolate maker.
The hike is more of a swim. Oneonta gorge is a slot canyon with an impressive waterfall at the end with dangerous sheer cliff walls. The stream spans from canyon wall to canyon wall, and while only ankle deep in most places, it does get up to your waist even in dry seasons so be prepared to get wet.
The best time of day is around noon when the sun actually slants into the gap high above you. It lies up above the canyon but there is no substitute for actually trudging your way up to the hidden pool and waterfall at the end of the canyon.
It is a great trip to the Columbia Gorge.
Last summer, the people at the Oregon Field Guide made the first claimed descent of a deep, narrow canyon in Oregon's Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. Unofficially called Valhalla, the inner canyon of the South Fork of the North Fork Breitenbush River is comprised of lush greenery, cold, swift-flowing water, and a strong sense of disappearing into a Northwest Jurassic Park. At seven and a half miles of rugged hiking, scrambling, and rapping through hypothermia-likely conditions, it's not for everyone. In fact, it's not for most.
The creators of this video, Uncage the Soul, write, "In publicly sharing details of its location and likely inspiring others to visit, Valhalla becomes vulnerable to the impact and often well meaning traces of those who are eager to explore it. Is Valhalla "our' playground? This short narrative film gives a voice to the place itself as we consider our relationship to a landscape that has existed in solitude and without human curiosity for perhaps thousands of years."
Well, okay. It's an interesting and important question, which begs another question: Why not leave it unnamed? Why create a guide with turn-by-turn directions? Why not just share your footage and leave well enough alone?
These are questions that need to be considered by all of us. Everyone with a camera and video recording device can enjoy the canyon but they need to be extremely careful. There have been three deaths already this year. The crew that created this fought with their problem.
Photo 1: While not the hells canyon, this photo gives you an idea of the dangers lurking in strange places.