This is the last of a series on a late October road trip to southeast Washington and northeast Oregon.
How often do you get to cross a destination off your “must see” list? Seeing Hell’s Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge, has been on my bucket list for years. With unpredictable work deadlines and life zipping by, I finally grab a small window of free time in late October to go.
The short story: Go earlier in the season if you can, when the weather is better and the canyon is more visible. But I still think any road trip is fun, regardless of the weather.
When we arrive in Joseph, Oregon, tucked up against the northern edge of the Wallowa Mountains near the Idaho border, a fresh dusting of snow highlights the dramatic backdrop behind town.
Joseph, a historic ranching town that has undergone a renaissance, now is home to numerous artists working in local bronze foundries and a rising tourist traffic. It’s also named after the famous Nez Perce Indian Chief Joseph, whose father Old Chief Joseph's remains are a cemetery just outside town overlooking Wallowa Lake. (Joseph's tribal name was Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt, translated as Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain.)
We booked a room at Chandler’s Inn bed and breakfast for a couple nights as a base to explore the area. Good choice! Our hosts Lisa Allen and Syd Montgomery complement each other well. Lisa is the über-friendly talker and Syd is the great cook who whips up tasty omelettes and other breakfast goodies. We’re the only guests this weekend at the inn (a plus of going in the off-season), so we have the place to ourselves.
At Lisa’s recommendation, we head to Ember’s Brew House on Main Street for dinner. This bright and cozy spot has great bar food. My personal favorite: the sweet potato tots— crispy on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside, and a colorful vibrant orange. (Sorry, my photos of these delectable little treats came out fuzzy.)
Alas, the predicted early winter storm arrives the next morning, our day to go hiking and see Hell’s Canyon. After a wonderful breakfast omelette (Syd’s special ingredient – plenty of sautéed leeks), we grab rain gear and drive the 55-mile road through the mountains to the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area overlook.
Yes, it’s raining and snowing, but it’s still beautiful. We wind past glowing golden larches, raging streams, snow-flecked hills, deer, and a few hunters along the way.
After about 30 minutes of tromping in the rain and taking pictures at the overlook, the clouds dissipate a bit—just enough for us to get a sense of scale and what we can’t see today. This place clearly warrants a longer trip in warmer weather, either rafting or hiking through the canyon. After all, there are 900 miles of trails in the recreation area! And that’s not even counting adjacent Eagle Cap Wilderness!
When we get back to Joseph in the afternoon, I wander through some shops on the main street. I score a pair of lovely silver Navajo earrings at an end-of-season sale at the Joseph Fly Shoppe. Although this is primarily a shop for fly fishers, their selection of Southwest-style jewelry is impressive for the Northwest (yes, I’m a turquoise and silver junkie.)
Before dinner we go for a walk into the grassland that comprises the Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Area at the southern edge of town. There’s no one else out here, and the views in every direction are expansive and lovely. Interpretive signs remind us to respect this land, which is sacred to the Nez Perce, Colville, and Umatilla Tribes.
Tomorrow morning we need to hit the road early for the long drive back to Seattle (a little less than 8 hours), but I’ve just gotten a taste of what this area has to offer. Next time I’ll be back with my back-country skis or hiking boots. Shoulder seasons are good for deals, but not for optimum exploring.
When You Go
Here’s a map of the Joseph/Hell’s Canyon area. The overlook we drove to is identified by the number 28 on this map. If you stay at Chandler’s Inn, say hi to Lisa and Syd!