After spending the first part of May in far eastern Nevada we moved on to far eastern Oregon. We made our way directly to one of our favorite places; Steens Mountain and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. This remote southeastern corner of Oregon butts up against southwest corner of Idaho and northern Nevada where all three states come together in a vast open land of wild horses, wild rivers, high desert plateaus, and deep canyons of black volcanic rock. This is Owyhee Canyon country and it’s a long way to anywhere from here.
We moved into the Bureau of Land Management’s Page Springs campground a few miles outside of the tiny settlement of Frenchglen. We planned to beat the Memorial Day crowds by arriving at Page Springs three days before the holiday weekend started, but even so the campground was almost full. We quickly backed our trailer into the last available spot and payed our $4/night fee (with 50% senior discount). Page Springs is spacious, but basic; no power, pit toilets and water at community spigots. The cellular signal was surprisingly strong and fast, but so were the mosquitoes. So, we quickly set up our “bug palace”, a large screen-sided tent, and moved our outdoor equipment into that. Now we were ready to wait out the Memorial Day holiday. As evening fell, we drove back to the turn-of-the century Frenchglen Hotel for their family-style dinner of braised beef and country potatoes, sharing the table with the guests of the tiny hotel. Stuffed with roast beef and merlot, we slept hard while it rained all night.
From Page Springs we took a number of side trips. The big trip around here is the scenic loop drive up Steens Mountain, a massive uplift rising to 10,000 feet through open sage lands, into aspen woodlands, and finally ending in arctic tundra and a series of dramatic 3,000 foot cliffs with glacially carved canyons. But, the road up the north side was still closed near the summit, so we drove back down to the Diamond Craters where not-so-old lava flows have formed an interesting landscape of volcanic cones and frozen rock, some craters filled with water to form miniature wetlands full of cattails and ducks; tiny oasis far out in the desert.
Another day we drove to Three Forks, a pastoral wilderness valley where the tributaries to the Owyhee River come together through deep canyons in the basalt cliffs, and then open into a flower-filled basin complete with hot springs and plenty of rattlesnakes.
Another day we drove up the south side of Steens Mountain until a gate a across the road stopped us again, but then hiked another few miles along the road into the tundra. I was kicking myself for not having loaded the mountain bikes onto the truck. Riding the closed road to the summit would have been a great ride.
On the way back from Steens we hiked to the historic Riddle Brothers Ranch where intrepid pioneer brothers lived in isolation over a hundred years ago. They picked a beautiful spot in the meadows along the Blitzen River where the river pours out of a massive canyon cut into Steens Mountain. Their old ranch house and barn are still there.
By now it was the end of May and time to move on. On to more of our favorite places in the Pacific Northwest; the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon. So, we drove from the southeastern corner of Oregon to its northeastern corner and the small ranching community of La Grande between the Blue and Wallowa Mountains. We had picked up a nail in one of our truck tires, so we were stopping in La Grande to have it repaired and to do laundry before we moved on to more remote locations. It was a long drive, but worth it as we set up in the U. S. Forest Service’s, Bird Track Springs campground, 15-miles outside of town.
Bird Track Springs is a beautiful place that we knew of from last year’s travels. It’s set in a quiet pine forest with a strong cellular signal, pit toilets and sites large enough to accommodate rigs of any size. It’s a dry camp; no water, no power, no trash pickup (pack it in, pack it out). But, with a just a few campers widely dispersed it’s a bargain at $2.50/night ($5/night without our senior discount). After months in the slick rock deserts and sage lands of Utah, Arizona and southeastern Oregon it felt strange to be surrounded by tall trees again. And, everything was so GREEN!
We finished our business in La Grande and moved on to Joseph, Oregon at the base of the Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness Area. This is an area we know well – I’ve been backpacking into the Eagle Cap since the early 1990s.
Last year we had noticed a small campground, Pacific Park, at road’s end above Wallowa Lake and so we reserved a spot there for the next four days. We were looking for an alternative to expensive, crowded, and smoky Wallowa Lake State Park down at the shoreline. Pacific Park is a small, six-site campground set along a rushing mountain stream in a douglas fir forest bordering the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area. Operated by PacifiCorp, a local power provider, each site has 20a power (bring an adapter) and water hookups (bring a pressure regulator), trash collection, and pit toilets, but no sewer hookup or dump (RV dump station in Joseph behind the fire station for $5). The cellular signal is weak, almost unusable. The sites are small (only sites 1 and 2 barely large enough to accommodate our 28-foot long trailer) and requires serious leveling. There was a constant hum from the small hydroelectric plant above the campground and they had floodlights on power poles shining all night into the campground. It cost just $15/night, but this was not one of our favorite camp sites and we won’t be back. We set up in a cold, heavy rain (welcome to Oregon).
The little campground made a good base for exploring the Wallowa and Imnaha Canyons and we took short hikes near the Old Chief Joseph Memorial at the base of Wallowa Lake. It was here in 1877 when Chief Joseph (Old Chief Joseph’s son) led a small band of women, children and warriors, out of the Wallowa Valley, their traditional homeland. They were fleeing orders from the army to resettle on a reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph fought off the pursuing army for three months, defeating the army in every battle against overwhelming odds. But, winter caught his band in Montana, just thirty miles from the safety of the Canadian border. With his people starving and freezing, he surrendered with his famous speech; “from where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” The Nez Perce still honor Old Chief Joseph at his memorial at Wallowa Lake.
We spent a day driving up to Hat Point, the spectacular overlook into Hells Canyon, where the Seven Devils Mountains rise from the Idaho-side of the canyon to form the deepest gorge in the United States. Some of the most beautiful camping spots we’ve ever seen are up there along the rim of the canyon. But, the road up to Hat Point is steep, rough and narrow, and we wouldn’t even try dragging our trailer up it. Still, it’s one of the most spectacular drives in the United States and we’ll be back with our tent and car-camping gear to spend some time in this magnificent high country.
We left the Pacific Park campground a day early and drove up Lostine Canyon and into the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area. We set up in Williamson, one of the many U.S. Forest Service campgrounds along the Lostine Road, for $8/night ($4 for us with our senior pass). This was more our style; no water, no dump, no trash pickup, no cellular signal, and no people (but clean pit toilets). No sooner had we set up than one of our rear truck tires went flat. I put the spare on, but we didn’t want to haul our trailer without a spare tire, so the next day was spent in Enterprise Oregon buying two new tires for the rear of the truck.
That chore taken care of we drove to the Joseph Canyon Viewpoint 20-miles outside of Enterprise and watched a cinnamon colored bear and some elk browsing in the meadows below. On the way back we visited with the owner of the Log House RV Park in Enterprise and found we could set up there for $325/month. We were already thinking about spending more time in the Wallowa Valley, maybe in September, and this would be a good spot to do it. Once back in camp I rode my mountain bike up the Lostine Canyon Road and hiked into the high country to see the snowy summit of Eagle Cap Peak. So, even with the flat tire we had a good day.
Another day we drove northward out of Enterprise and up to Zumwalt Prairie. This is another unique area where ancient volcanic cones have eroded into gently rolling hills covered with grasslands and acres upon acres of wildflowers. The views were overwhelming; flower-filled hills and valleys backed by the snow-covered Wallowa and Seven Devils Mountains, all this divided by the immense canyons of the Snake and Imnaha Rivers. We stared silently at this breathtaking scene before hiking through the white, blue and yellow hillsides, a small herd of elk watching us from a distance.
After the prairies we drove further, to Buckhorn Overlook, a magnificent promontory perched over the remote Imnaha River Canyon. Hells Canyon is deeper, but the Imnaha Canyon is just as spectacular and even wilder. As if to prove that point, on the way back a grey wolf trotted across the roadway just fifty yards in front of us. What a sighting! Wolves have been drifting into the Wallowa Valley from Idaho for years, but it’s exceedingly rare to see one. Like the cougar we saw in Nevada, the wolf was gone before we could get the camera out. We celebrated the day with an excellent meal at the Terminal Gravity Brewpub in Enterprise (great beer and even better food).
We lounged in our quiet camp in the Lostine a couple more days, driving to road’s end and taking short day hikes into the mountains. There’s a beautiful camp at the end of the road, Shady, but the road gets progressively narrower and rougher, although still good enough to haul our trailer on, carefully. Next time here we’ll probably pull all the way to the Shady campground.
By now it was the second week of June and we had business to take care of. We had an appointment for servicing our truck in Kennewick, Washington and reservations for a campground along Puget Sound in Anacortes, Washington for July. So, reluctantly, we moved on from the Wallowa Valley towards the Tri-Cities in eastern Washington State. Before we left we visited Winding Rivers whitewater rafting guides in Joseph and planned a four-day whitewater raft trip down the Snake River in Hells Canyon for September. We had decided to spend a month in the Wallowas on our return trip south later this year. But for now, it’s on to Washington State to visit old friends, go sea kayaking on Puget Sound, and hike into the wilderness of the North Cascade Mountains.