Hells Canyon and the Wallowas


10d 0h 0m


1240 miles


After taking a horse-packing trip through eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains in late July of 2007, I knew we’d return someday and try to cover the same territory on foot. So that’s what we set out to do in June. We’re also frequent users and contributors to an online camping resource called Campendium, and very few of the facilities in the Wallowa area have been reviewed. Doing some field research for Campendium sounded would perhaps provide some “shape” to this trip.

We departed Tuesday, May 31, taking I-84 east to Pilot Rock, then detoured onto East Birch Creek Rd (NF54) for what appeared to be a “scenic route” through the Umatilla Indian Reservation towards LaGrande. Many hours and much heartburn later, we crawled out of no-man’s land and camped at Hilgard Junction State Park for the night.

In the morning, we stopped in LaGrande where David did a little work and took a conference call with a client. Then we stocked up on a few more fuel canisters for our cook stove. We also checked out Minam State Recreation Area, which is only a few miles off of Oregon 82 between Elgin and Minam. It’s situated above the scenic Wallowa River and we wound up wishing we had stayed there instead of Hilgard which was too close to I-84.

In Joseph, we checked in at the ranger station to inquire about the snow level up in the mountains, then walked around town before driving to the far side of Wallowa Lake to the state park campground. We got a nice lake front spot which was away from the generators and wood smoke of the other loops.

June 2: After breakfast, we set off from the campground to the Chief Joseph Mountain Trail. We gained 1650 feet in elevation in four miles miles before dead-ending at a waterfall which proved too wild for us to cross. Rather than backtrack, we bushwhacked down to a water tower and got thoroughly soaked in the rain. After a quick shower back at the campground, we packed up and returned to Joseph for a surprisingly good wood-fired morel mushroom and pepperoni pizza at Silver Lake Bistro.

Late in the afternoon, we drove 30 miles northeast of Joseph to the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve which we’d seen featured on Oregon Field Guide. Along the way, we passed a herd of 35 elk grazing by Speer Ranch. When we got to the Zumwalt gate, we changed our minds and drive another 30 miles on gravel NF46 to the Buckhorn Overlook on the western edge of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. The evening light was stunning, the wildflowers in full bloom, and we had the place to ourselves. We’d expected to camp at the nearby Buckhorn Campground in the Wallowa National Forest but it was in an overgrown, dark depression. Instead, we drove a couple of miles back to the lookout parking area and called it a night.

A favorite panorama of our little home at the Buckhorn Overlook

June 3: The next morning, we were awakened at dawn to the loud protests of a hundred head of cattle being driven along the fence line near the van. After coffee, we hiked northeast of the lookout along a section of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail then on to the Cemetery Trail No. 1731 for 6 miles.

In the afternoon, we drove a dozen miles to find the Vigne Campground, another remote NFS campground that hadn’t seen any care in a long time. So we returned to the Buckhorn Lookout for another night. Over the two days we stayed there, only a handful of other visitors stopped by.

June 4: We set out looking for Indian Village Grove (on the National Register of Historic Places) where the Nez Perce people camped each spring in the 1800s. They peeled and ate the inner bark or cambium layer of ponderosa pines in the grove, leaving large oval scars on the trees which are easy to spot once you know what to look for. We hiked out to a point along Hells’ Canyon where I found a tiny red bird point (arrowhead). We found a glorious spot to camp off of FR 880 near the turn off for Indian Grove. (5 miles past past Thomason Meadow Forest Station). Took a much needed shower with the Nemo Helio pressure shower.

June 5: We reluctantly left our little paradise and drove the thirty miles back to Enterprise, passing the same herd of elk on the way in. There we stocked up on groceries and had lunch at Terminal Gravity Brewing.

Our next destination was a twelve mile stretch of the Lostine River Road where we photographed six of the Wallowa National Forest Campgrounds for Campendium. Even though it was 90 degrees out, we were surprised to see no one else out and about on a Sunday afternoon. We hung up the hammock and hooked up the Helio, took a shower and enjoyed our riverfront site at Turkey Flat Forest Camp. It cooled off  to 45 degrees over night.

June 6: We departed Turkey Flat at 8 am to hike the nearby Chimney Lake Trail from the Francis Bowman Trailhead. Nine years ago, I had made a note to return to pristine Chimney Lake when I rode up there on horseback. However, this year we were seven weeks and several feet of snow too early in the season. We trudged through the snowy sections of the trail by pulling on our microspikes, but when we hit a torrential stream of icy runoff after climbing 1700 feet, we wisely called it quits. We stayed at Walla Walla Forest Camp Monday night.

June 7: We exited the Lostine River area and returned east through Joseph and down into tiny Imnaha, a town in the depths of the the Hells Canyon. Our destination was Hat Point Overlook, 23 miles from Imnaha on a steep (16 percent grade in some sections) gravel dead-end road. We discovered that we were the first vehicle to get all the way to the overlook after the winter snows thawed.

The 82 foot tall Hat Point Fire Tower Lookout is unusual in that visitors can climb 90 steps up to a platform near the top where the views are astonishing in all directions. We even spotted a herd of mountain goats napping in the distance. Hat Point is the high point on the Oregon rim of Hells Canyon, 5,600 feet above the Snake River that runs in view below. On the way back, we spotted a perfect place to boondock for the night and tucked the van along a spine about 14 miles from the lookout.

June 8: We returned through Imnaha in the morning and drove the Upper Imnaha Road, a 30 mile stretch of scenic gravel road that follows the Imnaha River towards Halfway, Oregon. Along the way, we checked out and photographed several more campgrounds for Campendium: Ollokot, Blackhorse, Saddle Creek, Union Creek and Copperfield Park before stopping in Halfway for a delicious lunch of fried chicken at Wild Bill’s Cafe.

We checked out Bates State Park before settling down in Deerhorn Forest Camp in the Malheur National Forest which is on the banks of the Middle Fork of the John Day River.

June 9: The next morning, we encountered about 200 head of cattle heading west on Oregon Rt 20, attended by a cowboy on foot who told us “he hadn’t rode a horse in 5 years”. He does everything on foot, and prefers the exercise. He’d already put in 15 miles and it wasn’t even 8 am.  Two hundred cows and calves sure make a mess of the road!

We took pictures and made notes about Lone Pine and Big Bend, both BLM campgrounds near Kimberly, and stopped to watch flocks of busy Townsend’s Warblers in the cedars. Eventually, we found ourselves in Maupin where we stopped for great food and beverages at The Riverside before making the final hour and a half drive back home.

Trip route (split into two maps):


2 thoughts on “Hells Canyon and the Wallowas

  1. Sounds and looks like it was a great trip! –Great to have this info, as my wife and I may go over to the Zumwalt Prairie and Buckhorn area next week.

  2. My dad Thomas P. Mortensen manned that lookout in the 30’s when my folks lived in the Wallowas… I have some great pics of the building and the setting.

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