Sunday, October 2, 2011


mapResearch 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.

Geiser Hotel in Baker CityWe 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!

Tie BreakerAfter 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.

Driving through eastern ORThe 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.

Snake River Crossing, OR to ID Looking back to Jules

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


  1. The gorge itself is in the middle of a roadless wilderness area. So, other than a very long backpacking hike, the best way to see it is by water, a jet boat ride up river or a whitewater rafting trip down river. The overall "depth" which they use to detirmine its the deepest, is measured from the mountain top (on the Id side) down to the river, but that mtn top is 6 miles away from the river, so there is no 8,000 ft rock wall.

  2. More than once we've found other local attractions to be better than the big one advertised. I guess we just don't see things the same way the marketing people do. But to advertise the Canyon using measurements from a mountain six miles away feels to me like fraud.

  3. Wonderful post! I am so looking forward to returning to Baker City and spending some more time in that area. Loved the older post on the "sculptures" and your description of this year's event. You have certainly whetted my appetite for more. Oh, and thanks for the heads up on the gorge - saved us renting a Jeep and trying to stay in one piece on the bumpy road haha!

  4. Hells Canyon is wilderness. Yup, no roads. I saw it from a helicopter and hiking the steep slopes when mapping the soils there and it is breathtaking. When you drop from the top of a ridge to the Snake River in a helicopter, it feels like every bit of that 8,000 feet. Not false advertising, really, just information available to anyone who can manage to get there. Not me any longer, that is for sure!

    On another note, Laurie, all that brown grass and stuff is why we have sunny skies on the east side of the Cascades. It's a trade-off!!

  5. Neat! Sounds like an area we'll have to put on our list. There must be a hiking trail to the gorge.

  6. WOW...thank so much for telling us about Hell’s Canyon. We had it on our list to see next year.
    Sounds like you two had a wonderful time Baker City. Salt licks...very interesting! Enjoy the ride.

  7. Good informative post. I'm learning more about this country than I ever expected to without leaving my easy chair!

    Blog aventure abound.

  8. You do stumble on the most interesting things. I'll take your advice and forget the canyon but check out the two towns.

    From Jim's info it sounds like a bit of misrepresentationn about those 8000 foot walls.

  9. Love the salt lick auction. Guess you didn't buy one to carry around in the RV.

    Ron and I took a Hells Canyon boat trip from Lewiston, ID and I didn't see any cliffs either. But we sure did get wet!

  10. Was there just this past summer and completely enjoyed the experience.

  11. Wow! What an awesome little spot! One more to add to the list!

  12. Hello Odel and Laurie, this is Kevin writing from Idaho Power. Thanks so much for the nice things you said about our Copperfield Park. We’re really glad you stopped and enjoyed an afternoon there. We have a ton of great facilities around Hells Canyon and throughout southern Idaho. We just posted a video tour of some of them on our Facebook wall! It sure looks like the two of you are enjoying your travels. I hope you have many, many more wonderful times. Thanks again –Idaho Power/Kevin

  13. The next time you visit the Hells Canyon area, you should check out Woodhead Park, also owned and operated by Idaho Power and to my mind much nicer. It is on the Idaho side between Copperfield Park, several miles up the road from that park as you head toward Cambridge.

    We've stayed there four times (at least) and enjoyed it each time. We may have a Christmas visit there in our near future.

  14. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, 2.3 million acres of varied landscape, extends from the Blue Mountains and rugged Wallowa Mountains down to the spectacular canyon country of the Snake River on the Idaho border.

    The forest ranges in elevation from 875 feet in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area to 9,845 feet in the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area.

    It is east of Joseph on HWY 39. My family and I went there and it was amazing!

  15. Your post made me smile:o)) In 2000, Bill and I went looking for the same gorge and never found it either. At least, we are in good company;o))

    We did enjoy Joseph and the Oregon Trail Intrepretive Center and recommend anyone visiting that area take time to stop!!

  16. thanks for the kind words about the auction. it would never have been so successful without people like you attending. thanks again, whit