Research the far northeastern reaches of Oregon and you can’t avoid mention of Hell’s Canyon, usually described as “Hell’s Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge at 8,000 ft.”. Photos show a deep canyon, its steep, barren, rocky walls plunging dramatically down to the Snake River. On the west side, Oregon; on the east side, Idaho. And you want to be there, to experience this wild, dramatic, record-setting gorge!
Hmmmmmph! I don’t know where they measure the depth of Hell’s Canyon, and I don’t know where they take the breathtaking photos, but I do know this: we’ve looked, and we didn’t see it.
Our search started when we visited Joseph, Oregon, at the end of June. We drove a long section of the Hell’s Canyon Scenic Byway from Joseph to the Hell’s Canyon Scenic Overlook (click here to read that post and see photos). It is an appealing (long, green) drive in early summer, and the view from the Scenic Overlook is splendid – but a letdown, too. You can’t see the river! There’s Idaho, across the gorge, but after reading all about this fabulous “deepest” scenic wonder, a view of the width rather than the depth is, well, disappointing. (Fortunately, on our visit, we had the snowcapped mountains of Idaho and the wildflowers at our feet to distract us.)
So, heading south as the weather cools, a return to Baker City to drive the remainder of the Hell’s Canyon Scenic Byway was on the agenda. This time, we’d head to the bottom, to the river, to look UP.
We first visited Baker City in September of 2007. Friendly, casual, proud of their history, downtown preservation, and the arts, surrounded by recreational opportunity, Baker City impressed us. Walking down Main Street one afternoon, we passed a gallery displaying eye-catching sculptures in the window (click here to read that post). Guess what? They weren’t sculptures; we had stumbled upon an unusual artistic medium, well suited to the ranching heritage of Baker City – salt licks! Prizes were to be awarded and the salt licks auctioned, all explained in a very funny poster hanging in the gallery.
This year, checking in to Mt. View RV Park (click here to read our review), I noticed a flyer for the 5th Annual Salt Lick Auction – to be held that very night at Crossroads Carnegie Art Center in downtown Baker City. Excellent timing!
After dinner at Barley Brown’s Brewpub, we walked over to the Crossroads Arts Center, a beautiful gallery in the original Carnegie Library building (circa 1909) next door to Baker City’s historic city hall. Outdoors, on a patio, the party was in full swing – libations flowing, plenty of free appetizers served by circulating wait staff. This year’s entries were displayed, some available for silent auction, others on display for judging and live auction later. A mama cow and her calf were honored special judges when two of the salt licks tied for first place. Click here to read the the contest’s hilarious rules (“Cows caught using steroids will be canned. Mad cows will be eligible for psychiatric treatment.”).
When he walked up, introduced himself, and shook our hands, we learned from the organizer, Whit Deschner, that the annual salt lick judging and auction is a benefit to raise money for Parkinson’s research (Whit was diagnosed with Parkinson’s several years ago), $20,000 so far. We told Whit we had been in Baker City for the first salt lick contest, and our return for the 5th annual was sheer serendipity.
I wish I could describe the event in words that would do it justice. With assistance from his neurologist – who read the tongue-twisting medical terms at a nod from the author – Whit read the first chapter in his next book (about living with Parkinson’s) while the audience cracked up. The guy is a first-class wit. Then he explained the contest, thanked the participants, and thanked everyone who was in attendance – with a special nod to us, introduced with our little story of stumbling across the event in its first year.
The joking and ribbing onstage between Whit, the auctioneer, the other volunteers and the audience was so funny, so warm – a group of good friends having fun and inviting everyone to be a part of it. We walked away even more convinced that Baker City would be a good place to spend more time.
The next day was the Big Day – off to see the 8,000 foot deep gorge! After a stop at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (DON’T MISS IT!), we set off. Now, at the end of summer, all the hillsides (miles and miles and miles of hillsides) are brown and dry. Irrigated green fields break the monotony, and a couple very small towns dot the route – but it was mostly a long drive with plenty of time to imagine the difficulties and travails of the travelers on the Oregon Trail.
Seventy miles later, we arrived at Oxbow, Oregon, on the bank of the Snake River. Idaho Power manages a beautiful little campground and day use park on the bank of the Snake on the Oregon side, Copperfield Park. Here we stopped for our picnic lunch and to take in the sights: gently rounded slopes raising above the Snake River on each side. So where the heck is the gorge???
Looking across the Snake River to Idaho from Copperfield Park.
Looking back to the Jeep from our trail.
After lunch, we drove seven (gravel and dirt) miles north along the bank of the Snake River. Where the road ended, we set out on foot, following a dirt trail along the hillside. Looking north, looking south… we saw a canyon, we saw the river. We didn’t see any 8,000 foot walls!
Most of the Hell’s Canyon Recreation Area is not accessible by road, and I’m sure there are awesome sights to be seen there – maybe even North America’s deepest gorge! My advice? Forget the apparently inaccessible gorge. The Hell’s Canyon Scenic Byway has a lot to offer: interesting towns (particularly Baker City and Joseph); the appealing Wallowa Valley; fascinating history (the Oregon Trail and the Corps of Discovery), all easily seen and enjoyed when you quit looking for the designated “attraction”.
Next stop: Boise, Idaho