Exploring Northeast Oregon

Hells Canyon

Day 1

A visit to Hells Canyon has been on my Bucket List for awhile.  Not being one to just hit the highway and drive straight to a destination, I found some worthwhile sights to see along the way.  First up was the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  There are actually three separate units in the park and, while each is markedly different, they all share colorful and unusual geological formations.  According to the park’s website:  For almost 150 years, paleontologists and geologists have been visiting the John Day Basin to study the area’s abundant fossils and surrounding geology. In 1975 the fossil beds became a National Monument to preserve a world class record of plant and animal evolution, changing climate, and past ecosystems that span over 40 million years.

First up was the Clarno Unit, 20 miles west of the aptly-named town of Fossil.  It is hard to miss The Palisades at Clarno because they loom up right next to the road.

The Palisades

There are hiking trails here and at the other units of the park, some of which are classed as “rugged”.  At each stop, I walked part of the easiest trails until they got too steep for my liking.  I probably could have completed those trails on a cooler day and with the help of a pair of walking sticks.  Having had a hip replacement, I am just too leery of loose sand and gravel on steep inclines to risk that sort of thing unaided.  Even so, I got to see plenty of interest.

The Palisades

The Sheep Rock unit is is actually a scattering of smaller parcels on both sides of OR-19 and US-26 and includes the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center where many fossils are on display.  Here is a skull of the John Day Tiger, found in the Blue Basin, origin 28 million years ago.

John Day Tiger

The Blue Basin is in the Sheep Rock unit and I was amazed to see that it really is a distinct blue-green color.  I was there in early afternoon, when colors tend to be washed out by the sun.  Even so, the cliffs were striking.

Blue Basin

Blue Basin

I timed my visit to the Painted Hills for late afternoon. With the sun lower in the sky, the colors were definitely alive and vibrant and I was glad I had saved the red hills for last.

Painted Hills

Painted Hills

On my way to the Painted Hills, I had noticed something a bit strange, but there was no good place to pull over to investigate.  Now, as I headed back in the opposite direction, there was a broad shoulder opposite this interesting tree.

Shoe Tree

How and why this dead tree came to be draped in discarded shoes and sneakers, I have no idea.  Does it have meaning for the locals?  Or is it just one of those things that took on a life of its own?  Do travelers contribute their hiking shoes, never to see them again?  In my mind, this gives a whole new meaning to the “Shoe Tree” in my closet. Sunset was near and at that point, I was more than ready to have dinner and settle into a motel room in John Day.  US-26 squeezed its way through Picture Gorge, cheek by jowl with the John Day River.  A prominent sign forbade the taking of photos in the gorge, and there was no place to pull over anyway, but as soon as I was through, I did pull onto the shoulder to take a picture.

Picture Gorge

I had no sooner got the car moving again when I saw a sign pointing off to the Mascall Overlook.  Never one to miss an overlook or viewpoint if I can help it, of course I turned off.  And got another perspective on Picture Gorge, as well as the Mascall Formation which wasn’t really that interesting to me.  Signs there told me that the gorge got its name for the Native American pictographs found there.

Picture Gorge

Mascall Formations

Day 2

When I saw the Wallowa Mountains near Halfway, Oregon, I knew I was getting close to Hells Canyon.  Just the week before, an unseasonal storm dusted the mountains with a little snow.

Wallowa Mountains

A little later, as I began the descent into the canyon, a sign warned me of ROCKS.  Little did I realize how many rocks lay ahead!


After being disappointed at the little spur that lead off to Oxbow Dam on the Snake River, I hesitated about the 27 mile private road owned by Idaho Power.  Thankfully, I decided to trust the advice found on the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway website.  Though I was often frustrated by the lack of places to pull off the road, it was without a doubt the most scenic 3 hours on the entire trek, so without further ado, let me show you a bit of the road and then a sampling of the breathtaking views.

Hells Canyon Twisty-Curvy Road

Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon Reflection

Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon

Day 3

On my parents’ recommendation, I wanted to go Joseph and ride up the Wallowa Tramway to the top of Mt. Howard.  I knew the tramway didn’t open until 10:00AM, but I was up and ready to go much earlier than that.  After breakfast, I took advantage of the early hour to photograph the magnificent bronzes that adorn Joseph, which has its own bronze foundry.

Downtown Joseph

Joseph Bronze

Joseph Bronze

Then I made my way around Wallowa Lake.  It was a glorious morning, calm and clear.

Wallowa Lake

I will admit without shame that I found it a bit scary to look down on tall treetops as I rode on the Wallowa Tramway.  With a 3700 foot vertical rise, 1.83 mile distance, at 3 meters per second, it takes 15 minutes to travel from the base to the 8150 foot high summit of Mt. Howard.

10-146-Tram Goldola View

The town of Joseph on the far side of Wallowa Lake looks tiny from this perspective.

10-157-Mt Howard view

The mountain views were grand and really needed a panorama shot to do them justice.  Unfortunately, a panorama shot doesn’t fit here, but maybe you can get a little sense of the view from this.

10-154-Mt Howard view

I had to stop to catch my breath and/or rest my aching knees while hiking around the mountaintop.  A couple of times the resident chipmunks came by to entertain me.


As I started to contemplate the trip home, a back-country guide with a pack mule lead a couple of tourists on another kind of adventure.

Back Country Tour

I could write a book on the sights and experiences to be found in northeastern Oregon, but hopefully, I have managed to give you an inkling of what is there.  Before I sign off, however, let me say that most of the places I went were not well-populated.  You won’t find the usual tourist facilities outside of the larger towns like The Dalles, Baker City, La Grande, Redmond, or Bend.  John Day and other smaller towns do have a few motels and restaurants, but services may not be what you might be used to.  For example, when I visited the John Day Fossil Beds, I did not see a gas station for about 150 miles.  When I stopped for lunch in Fossil, it was at a little cafe where it was just me, a couple of ranchers, and the waitress/cook.  In mid-afternoon, I found a tiny convenience store where I was able to get a bag of chips and a bottle of Dr. Pepper.

If you go, don’t expect luxury or convenience.  Do expect friendly people and scenery that is spectacular.

For more information:
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Hells Canyon Scenic Byway
Wallowa Lake Tramway

If you would like to see more photos of my NE Oregon trip, they can be found right here:


12 thoughts on “Exploring Northeast Oregon

  1. Ever since I found the Sheep Rock webcam several years ago, I’ve wanted to visit John Day Fossil Beds. Thanks for sharing this trip! Hells Canyon doesn’t look too tough now that the dam has made a lake there! :’ )

    You seem to be getting around better and better, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, each year since 2012 has been better than the year before.

      I know the Snake River does have white water sections, but it looks pretty tame in the Hells Canyon area. Judging by how rugged the canyon is, it must have been wild once upon a time.


  2. I ran across a shoe tree in the middle of nowhere on the road to Coalmont in BC on a trip several years ago and had the same questions you did. The tree was much larger and there must have been hundreds of shoes in it. That sort of thing might make more sense in or near a town. But you have to wonder how it all gets started out in the boonies along a highway.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Spectacular shots! Thanks for sharing them! John Day Fossil Beds is one of my favorite places to visit in Eastern Oregon. I think I may have supped at the same little cafe in Fossil as you did. I was the only one there at the time. The waitress sat at the table with me and we had a nice conversation over breakfast. Springtime is the best time to visit the area, as there is a lot of green color. If you time it just right, you will get to see all the colorful desert wildflowers in the area. I haven’t been as far east as Hell’s Canyon yet. That’s on my bucket list of places to visit.


    1. Someone I talked to at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City said winter was the best time because the air is so clear and you can see forever. I don’t know if I care to go exploring in freezing weather, but it is something to think about. On the other hand, now that NE Oregon has been crossed off my bucket list, I’m not sure that I will return. There are too many other places still on that bucket list demanding my attention.


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