This trip came out from the same book as last year’s Rogue River trip – Backpacking Oregon: From Rugged Coastline to Mountain Meadow, by Douglas Lorain. Originally I was eying the route in Hells Canyon, for the Memorial Day weekend. Rita didn’t want to take so many days off so we went to Humboldt instead. Then it turned out that I get 2 days off around Independence Day. As a result I decided to take a week off around it and explore the North-East corner of Oregon.
The choice of the route was quite difficult. Hells Canyon was out of question because it would have been to hot (well, in retrospect it may not have been entirely correct). Wallowa mountains had many different routes to choose from. They looked a bit like Sierras, just lower and perhaps wetter. Maybe also less crowded. And I was also looking into Blue Mountains in South-East Washington. But they perhaps were not as spectacular.
So I looked at the route, the number of days, and what else can be seen in the area with optimal driving. That area is not that well developed, or perhaps cursed with highways, so going around Wallowa mountains can take a day or so and require a car with good clearance. In the end I decided to do a 5 day route in Wallowas and 2 days in Hells canyon (just going down and up). This will also leave a day or so to drive around and see some sights (and visit wineries and microbreweries). I just didn’t account for the snow and the weather. North-East Oregon was getting cold and rainy just about a week before this trip, which resulted in extra snow at high altitudes. Then, suddenly it became really hot melting all that snow. That created some problems down the road, especially with river crossings.
Saturday, June 29, 2013
Get to Portland, OR early in the morning. It was good that everyone on the group was on the same flight. Rent a spiffy red SUV and started driving to Baker City, OR. The drive was going through one of the most beautiful places in the world, in my opinion – Columbia River Gorge. When I was planning this trip, I thought there won’t be enough time to visit the Gorge on the way to Baker City. The people from the RV place I booked scared me to come by 7PM, which turned out not to be the case.
It was hard to pass by the beauty of the Gorge. We stopped at the Vista House, a couple of waterfalls, and, of course, the Multnomah Falls were I’ve gotten a warning citation. We were a bit late so that tiny parking lot was completely full. People were also trying to see the beauty of the falls, understandably. However, that place was sandwiched between mountains and the railroad and there was just no more spaced to park, within even a very long walking distance. So I parked at a rather iffy place and the local volunteer gave me a warning.
After that we visited the Bonneville Dam and fish hatchery, which was open this time around. There were fish ladders there for the pure salmon to go over it and do its reproduction busyness. I was actually looking forward to see salmon going up river. But it was only lots of lamprey trying to chew through the glass. We didn’t go down to the machine room to see the generators spinning. After some rather horrible lunch at a horrible place called Charburger, Cascade Locks. I mean, I understand that there a tons of hungry tourists coming from hiking the Columbia River Gorge. But that is no excuse to provide bad service.
We made it to to Baker City, OR by 7PM exactly. I’ve called Oregon Trails West RV Park on the way and they just – whatever, come when you can, there is a space reserved for you. OK, less headache for me. The RV park was simple and deserted. Really – there were all that RVs and no people. I mean – no people for the number of RVs. Perhaps they just store those huge RVs there. Our tiny camping spot was in the corner by the lush green wheat field. It was just some grassy spot separated from a couple more grassy spots with a wooden fence. We set the tents and went downtown to find some white gas.
That presented a bit of a problem. This country was mostly car camping place. So the couple of tiny stores that were open only had that huge propane tanks. People didn’t even know what we were asking. Only one place had those large Coleman canisters. Too much for our needs, but there wasn’t much choice. Had a nice dinner at the local brewery called Barley Brown’s. It was quite a happening place with lots of people and a line for tables. Especially considering that the rest of the town was rather deserted.
Sunday, June 30, 2013
First real trip day. I didn’t really sleep that well – the park was too close to the highway which was noisy, then there was this stupid flood light shining. Or maybe I was just worried about the route. We had breakfast at some diner and went off to see the Oregon Trail interpretive center. The center was vast, with good interesting exhibits, and no people. Perhaps it was just too out of the way. Then it was just driving the backcountry roads to get to the trailhead.
After Baker City the roads pretty much become two lane. Then they turn into forest gravel roads though in a fairly good state. We passed through some private properties on the way to the East Eagle trailhead. There was even a place indicating that a movie called “Paint Your Wagon” was filmed there. Not sure why they had to go so far.
We started hiking at around 1PM. It was hot and humid. The East Eagle creek valley was nice, the forest was good. It actually smelled like a forest. In the Sierras everything is so dry that there isn’t much smell. Lively, it was just too damn hot. Well, the fact that the trail was going up all the time, not too steep though, didn’t help either.
It was a nice valley, once we went high enough above the tree line. Lush green with rushing streams. Some forest growing. Lots of flowers. However, we couldn’t get to the designated camping spot for that day – Hidden Lake. The main reason was the East Eagle creek itself. With all that heat the snow was melting fast. Thus the lovely creek turned into a roaring river of cold water. It was a bit late in a day, the trail on the other side was not apparent, which could only mean that the going will be slow, and there was no flat spot to camp on this side of the creek. We decided to perhaps find something on the other side. The river looked crossable to me, seriously. We crossed larger rivers while practicing for the two Alaska expeditions. But there was no such training for this trip. Oh well, we’ll have to learn. Damon found a reasonable spot and we crossed, though I had to hold Kim’s hand, who, it turned out, doesn’t know how to swim. The water was quite refreshing. On the other side was a good flattish grassy spot that can be called a Stonehenge for all the boulders around.
Monday, July 1, 2013
Today, we had to cross the first pass – Horton Pass. Should be simple – just go up and then down. The mileage wasn’t that much so I thought the day wouldn’t be that hard. The fun started right away with the crossing of the same cold East Eagle creek. Apparently, the water level didn’t subside that much over night, or we just started a bit late. The water was as cold as before, but the team was a bit more experienced at river crossings. Though Kim almost went down and I had to help her.
After that it was just going up and up to the pass. The trial was there, it was still a bit cooler than yesterday. I was hopeful in the success of this trip. That hope, however, was fading the higher we went. At some point the trail disappeared somewhere, mostly under the snow fields. To me it was ‘yeah, whatever‘. In my boots I could just march along up those snow fields, but not everyone had this advantage. Having crampons would really improve the progress.
With much effort we crossed Horton Pass, had lunch and started down. Going down wasn’t much easier. There was a lot more snow on the other side. There was some possibility to glissade, but one needs to mind not to slide into a lake of cold water. It was also way too much snow on this side of the mountains. So in the end it took about the same time to go down as go up. The group got very tired at the end of this day. And all we did just a handful of miles. In the end we found a nice flat camping spot right next to the lakes.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
The original path from the book called for turning right to a trail going between two small lakes and proceeding through two more passes. The problem with all that snow and melting the lakes flooded. Thus the path was under a couple of feet of water. Crossing standing freezing cold water could be done. But then we were looking at more snowy passes to cross.
So I decided to go around the problem – take a trail that was going around the mountains then up to Hawkins pass. This got a very long way down with a difficult crossing of the river. Then uphill. Finally gave up to do the route when the last river wasn’t crossable.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Just walk around a bit further to see what is there.
Came back and returned to the civilization.
Found a walk-in camping spot at the Wallowa Lake SP. Apparently the Oregonian state parks allocate a small set of sites for walk in or bike in guests. That was actually nice of them. On the other hand, all these people need is just a flat patch of grass.
So the group wanted to go eat some good food after just 4 (!) days in the wilderness. The restaurant that was still open late in the day was Glacier Grill & General Store. I could just see those insane portions they had there – enough to feed a platoon (or one Damon). So I thought I’d be smart and order an appetizer – cheaper and not too much food. So I ordered chicken gizzards thinking they would taste just like my grandmother used to cook. Right, sure, why would I expect that? They basically took raw meat and deep-fried it in some salty bread thing. It was horrible, salty, crunchy, and not tasty at all. I drank two Shandy beers (that the guys said were girly drinks). In addition to that I also ordered fries, which were also way salty. As a result, I was drinking all night.
Thursday, July 4, 2013
We had to organize the shuttle to our rental car which was sitting on the other side of the mountains. This actually worried me quite a bit. Not sure if that, or those over salted chicken gizzards caused the lack of sleep this night. It was nonetheless a beautiful morning. Clear, quiet, not-hot. Our spot of green grass was just next to the park’s machine shop. In the morning, there was this bull deer just sitting there in the sun.
So, after the team was up, we went over for some help to the rangers. A friendly park ranger Tod was helping us. There was a bus going from Wallowa to the next two towns – Joseph and Enterprise. One option would be to hire a taxi and get one person to our car. However, there wasn’t much of that around that corner of Oregon. In fact, the yellow pages book was rather thin. Another option was to hitchhike to Baker City and then get a taxi from there. Eventually Tod found this found this rafting company called Minam Raft Rentals that could shuttle us. They do rafting trips in the area and also shuttle people. The difficulty was to find them. Somehow Tod knew about them. Anyway, which that arranged we could have some breakfast.
The highest attraction around Wallowa lake is the Mt Howard. There is a tramway that goes there. They offered $3.99 breakfast, which didn’t include $27 tram ticket. But it was worth it. The view from the tram was impressive. The Wallowa mountains were sort of sticking out from the surrounding planes like a volcano (think Mt Shasta). So what you see is not mountains getting smaller and smaller like in the Sierras. But rather abrupt fall. The large Wallowa lake was formed by some ancient glacier which deposited moraines around it. Those moraines, now covered with forest, formed the levies that essentially contained the lake.
The top summit grill was a bit deserted. There was a ranger led talk, but we missed it by a bit. Plus I was worried to miss the rafting people because we didn’t know when they were coming.
The summit was rodents galore – squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and probably some others I didn’t know. I guess with the restaurant and lots of tourists with kids the park service just gave up trying to enforce no wildlife feeding rules.
They were actually selling squirrel food there, which consisted mostly of different seeds and corn. We walked around a bit on the summit, took a group photo and listened for the very knowledgeable ranger describing the convoluted history of these mountains. It was actually possible to see the Eagle Cap and Horton Pass that we crossed. Interestingly, Wallowa mountains used to be an island in the ocean between North American and Pacific plates. Eventually the plates collided and pushed these mountains higher up.
I was a bit worried that the raft people would come and we weren’t there, so I commanded the team to go back. Little did I know that they would only show up closer to 5PM, river time, which is who knows when. That gave us time to walk around more, read, come back to the Summit and watch the gorgeous views.
Eventually people from Minam Raft Rentals came. It was the lady proprietor. She came in some very old beat up truck pulling some rafts. People around were preparing to see the fireworks, it was July 4th after all. The fireworks were organized on the barge in the middle of the lake. Probably for the fire safety mostly. She let us camp at the lawn by the Minam motel. There was a state park of sorts across the river with a toilet. Hm, sort of like the places we stayed in Alaska – just a flat area is enough to camp at. The talk, originally, was that we would stay in Minam, OR. I just didn’t think that entire town of Minam was just that motel that belonged to Minam Raft Rentals. Interesting. Once the payment for the shuttle was arranged and time set (5AM!) we set our tents, had dinner and went off. The rafting people were out even earlier. We were the only sort of guests at their place.
Friday, July 5, 2013
The river people get up very early, apparently. Not that I had good sleep anyway. Around 5AM there was already some activity around downtown Minam – people came, cars started moving. I drugged myself out of damp sleeping bag to do all the packing. We got it together and met our driver – a retiree named Hank. I’m not sure if he actually drove his own vehicle, but what he did drive was some old Ford truck very carefully. From talking to him it seemed that this was just a side gig for his retirement. And perhaps he was careful not to mess it up (that was the reason for high care for the clients).
The area around Wallowa mountains was mostly farmland. As a result, other than river rafters, the only people up that early were warm help. Our driver was kind of nudging us to go get some coffee in the morning. Not sure if he wanted it himself or what. So we sort of went along since we didn’t have any breakfast yet anyway. I thought that he may know good local places. He got us into this place called Sig’s Tavern in Elgin, OR.
That was an interesting place. At 6AM there were already people. But not much in terms of the staff – there was only the owner who also had to cook and wait the tables. And despite all that he cooked the best breakfast I had this whole trip. Nothing fancy – just eggs with some toast and bacon (if I remember right), but still. The place itself was a bit dark. It has all the ‘appropriate’ photos on the walls – photos of some scenes with cowboys and horses. But it also had rough wooden planks with brands of horses burned into them.
We had an interesting conversation about farming, life in local community, wolves ravaging local cattle. I tried to carefully steer clear of sensitive subjects. Who knows what opinions he had about environment and guns. Apparently he wasn’t fond of reintroduced wolves. Well, I could see his point – NPS could count and control them in Yellowstone, but no one had resources to do it in Wallowa. Generally the wolf population is controlled by the availability of food. But there were plenty of cattle and other large animals that weren’t protected. On the other hand farmers got spoiled to just living their cattle roam around protected only by the cattle grids. I’ve never seen this in Europe, though there the protection was most likely again thieves rather than wolves.
Then Hank drove us, as I said very carefully, all the way around the mountains. On the way he showed what was happening in the area. There was even a small factory making RVs. There was even a small hot spring place called Hot Lake. On the way he told me how to take care of cattle in the field – release the gas in their stomach or rotate their gut (this happens when a cow wants to scratch something on its back and then rolls on the ground. Perhaps the stomach can’t keep up). It may be useful? At some point I’ll have to do some animal husbandry?
Slowly we made it to the trailhead. Luckily the car was still there. For some reason I was worried that the Forest Service would tow it. That was assuming they cared about our crazy route. But apparently they didn’t.
After that we had a very long drive to the Hells Canyon. First it was a flow through, well maintained (or lightly used) gravel forest roads in the Wallowa mountains eventually ending up in a small town called Halfway. Then we took the long scenic route to see some of the Hells canyon viewpoints.
The first one was quite spectacular.
The road going there was asphalt two lane snaking through the forest. The viewpoint was wildflowers galore – there wasn’t much lush green grass (in fact the ground looked fairly unproductive), but the flowers were blooming big time. I just captured one. For such a major canyon and good weather (and holiday weekend) the viewpoint was rather deserted. Well, it wasn’t very big viewpoint anyway. A small parking lot, outhouse, and a couple of benches. None of that mobs in Grand Canyon. Still the view was spectacular. Clouds slowly rolling adding to the ambiance (they actually cleared out indicating the changing weather). We stayed there enough to eat our updated lunch and take lots of photos.
The road access to Hells Canyon went along Imnaha river. Gravel road. Imnaha river essentially is another canyon going in parallel with Snake river that chiseled Hells Canyon. Perhaps there was just more space along Imnaha to build the road. There were also tiny farms working small plots of land between the river and rising hills. There was even some sort of salmon fish hatchery, courtesy of US Forest Service.
The fun started after the town of Imnaha (town? one US post office and a couple of buildings). The road to Hat Point overlook was just one lane gravel thing cut on the side of the ever rising hill. I wonder what we would have to do if there was a car coming down. There was a nice view back to Imnaha river valley. Eventually we made it to the flat plateau that separated Imnaha and Snake rivers. For some reason I thought it would be a ridge, but it was quite a significant piece of forest with rivers and springs and several campgrounds. We found a piece of land in Saddle Creek Campground and went to see the overlook itself (Not that were was competition for the spaces)
It became sunny with no clouds and very windy. There were just a couple of people giving the whole area very eery feel. Like you don’t belong here. The forest on the plateau burned up perhaps 10 years ago. It was all charred poles and lots of new growth (mmm, come back here in Fall for mushrooms and berries). It seems that FS really prepared well for many visitors – lots of signs, large parking lot, facilities – but they didn’t come.
The wind was blowing incessantly. It was sad, because otherwise we could have made a good campfire. So we had our meager backpacking dinner trying to hide behind the thin trees and then just sat in the car warming up. Some (Kim) even were checking their e-mails. Once sun went down the wind died out as well.
Saturday, July 6, 2013
The night was quite pleasant. The wind died down after dusk and it became warm. I had to go for some busyness at 4AM and the East was getting light already. Ahh, Northern Summer.
Originally I was planning to go all the way down the canyon and camp there. But for that we should have arrived the day before, which didn’t happen. So I just picked a trail from the fire lookout trailhead and some spot that could be done in a day. The water was a bit of a problem. My map showed many springs in the area. We tried to find one, but there was basically thick forest so the result was negative. The map could be old too and many things could have changed since the time it was made. Besides, how I was always wondering how they found that there is a spring in the first place. At least we found some water paddles at Sacajawea Camp, enough to filter.
The trail was so much fun! Aside from ticks. It was overgrown, not crowded, sometimes disappearing into the bushes, like an obstacle course, green with lots of wild flowers and bushes that have grown back after the fire, fallen logs to climb over. There was even a spring at some point. If you don’t think about the trip back up it was very enjoyable. At some point we even saw a bunch of mountain goats enjoying all that greenery. Rodents too (checkout this ground squirrel eating a flower).
We went up to a plateau for some pictures. Then a bit further down. I was hoping to reach some junction, but it didn’t seem like it had good views. It was further North, after all, and the junction was in some pine forest. After lunch we started back up.
The thing about walking out of a canyon, or climbing any mountain for that matter, is to get into consistent rhythm. Then it is just keep walking forward. Same could be applied to the Hells Canyon. In reality, it wasn’t as hard as I was afraid. It wasn’t as hot, there were lots of shade (lots of places for ticks to ambush from). We even saw two couples going down the canyon. Nice place. It would be really nice to visit it again.
Then there was just a long winding drive to Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area. We did stop at Wallowa lake for a swim though. As expected the water was cold in it. I was hoping to go out to eat this night, but there was pretty much nothing around the campground, and we got there a bit late. So we had to make due with little food left. The campground was fine (and rather large). The only problem that it was noisy due to the highway. I managed to hassle the camp host to sell me half of a pile of wood for the campfire (seriously, his pile was large enough to last a week). As usual there were many RVs in this campground. It was a bit more lively campground than some others. One family setup a projector to show their kids a moved on the side of an RV.
Sunday, July 7, 2013
The last day in Oregon. All we had to do is to get to the airport on time. Sadly, this nice campground – Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area – was right next to I84 which was, let’s just say, busy all the time, which didn’t really make sleeping good. I got up early as usual and had the final hot shower of the trip. Not that I really needed it, but the people on the airplane may get unhappy.
We had some simple breakfast, I gave the can of our white gas to the very happy park ranger, and we started our drive to Portland. The nature initially was all brown grass covered hills or farmland. There were some windmills on the way. The more we got West the greener it became. I found some wineries from a ton of the brochures about Oregon we had. Most of the wineries were around Mt Hood region. Mostly on OR-35 going south from Hood River, OR. The map showed a lot of places. However, the only one I could find was Fox Tail Cider. Not that I was looking very hard. We have gotten their cider sampler. It was refreshing, if a bit too sour. For some reason I wasn’t expecting cider to be that sour.
After that we drove South and around Mt Hood eventually circling back to I84. I was planning to go for lunch to a microbrewery in Portland, but there wasn’t enough time (there was heavy traffic on the road). So, as a replacement I found this place called McMenamin’s Edgefield Power Station Theater & Pub. It was a fairly large establishment with a hotel, spa, eating places, and some other stuff. I was afraid that we won’t have time because the place was fairly crowded, but we got lucky. Their food was surprisingly good. I’ve gotten some sort of sauerkraut pastrami sandwich. And we also split their Ale sampler. Some of the beers had a very interesting taste.
That was all. We washed and returned the vehicle and headed to the airport.
Eagle Cap traverse map.
Short hike in Hells canyon map.