Hells Canyon Scenic Byway
While this loop route is not for the timid or out-of-shape, it offers an impressive diversity of scenery, plus a series of friendly and historic small towns for lodging and food. Only experienced bike tourists should take this trip on, and do plenty of planning, because you’ll be riding through some isolated stretches.
Start this trip in Baker City, a thriving small city with a lovingly restored downtown core. A stay at the Geiser Grand Hotel (or at least a meal) is definitely in order. This 1889 landmark was named by Sunset magazine as “the finest lodging between Salt Lake City and San Francisco.” The ride east out of Baker City passes the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and nearby you can still see the actual ruts from pioneer wagons. After long stretches of agricultural land, you’ll drop down into the Powder River Canyon, winding alongside the rider between cliff walls. Look for the Hole in the Wall landslide site. After a stop in Richland for lunch and/or ice cream, take on a challenging climb up and over into the town of Halfway (named as such because it was halfway between two early post offices that no longer exist). In Halfway, enjoy a comfortable stay at the rustic Pine Valley Lodge and good food at Mimi’s restaurant. Mileage: 53.
For day two, take a plunge down into Hells Canyon. From Halfway, drop down to the Snake River and cross into Idaho, where you can follow a sinuous road next to the river as the canyon grows deeper. The road ends at the Hells Canyon Dam, where you turn around and retrace your route back to Halfway. There’s a lovely park at the river crossing at Copperfield. Mileage: 80.
Day three is where you test your fitness. This is a day you should plan well for: start early, allow lots of time and make sure you’re stocked with food and drink or have someone meeting you along the way. After a 10-mile descent toward the Snake River, you’ll turn left toward the sky. The first climb is 18 miles, but only the last eight are strenuous, but they’re quite strenuous. The first 10 miles are blissful, gently following Pine Creek through a pristine forest. After rising through canyons to the top, enjoy a thrilling downhill, but be ready to take a side trip partway down to visit the Hells Canyon Overlook. It’s three more miles of climbing, but there’s no doubt the view is worth it. After a stop at Ollokot Campground for lunch, start climb number two: 10 miles, and arguably harder than the first one for long stretches. Then it’s a couple miles of descent and one final push of five miles up to Salt Creek Summit at over 6,000 feet. After that accomplishment, you can glide down into a valley for 10 miles. A short climb from the bottom will deposit you into the almost unbelievable beauty of the Wallowa Valley, with the Alp-like Wallowa Mountains to the south. Stay in Joseph, a sophisticated and art-centered town, or ride to the south end of the lake for great camping. Consider a side trip up the Mt. Howard tram, which rises thousands of feet to above 8,000, with unparalleled views. Mileage: to Joseph; 83 to Wallowa Lake campground.
On the fourth day, things start out so much easier than the day before. After leaving Joseph, you’ll coast down through the valley past picturesque barns framed by snow-capped peaks. After the town of Enterprise, you’ll join up with the Wallowa River and follow it for roughly 30 miles, including through a narrow, rocky canyon. After a brief climb up the Minam Grade, you’ll ride rollers into the friendly farming town of Elgin. Be sure to check out their renowned opera house; maybe you can even catch a show there. Mileage: 52 from Joseph; 58 from Wallowa Lake campground.
Your last day features long mileage, wide-open spaces and a sense of the natural bounty this rich area offers for both livestock and agriculture. From Elgin, pass through the Grande Ronde Valley, skirt around LaGrande and head into Union, where you should stop at the historic Union Hotel for lunch or just a walk-around. From Union, follow the Powder River south along Highway 237 through breathtaking Pyles Canyon, cross I-5 and take Highway 30 through Haines and into Baker City. Mileage: 70.
Getting There: Baker City sits next to Interstate 84 in eastern Oregon.