July 2014 – A wildfire in beautiful Hurricane Creek in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness just a few miles from Joesph, Oregon, spurred us to begin packing up and moving on. Looking at the statue of Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce tribe, in the center of town, as thick smoke rose from behind the mountains at his back, I wondered what he would think of wildfires in his beloved Wallowa mountains.
The discovery of gold on his tribe’s homeland in 1863 led to the forcible removal of his people from this gorgeous land. He argued with eloquence, grace and dignity before the American leaders of the day for equal treatment of all men under fair laws.
How tragic that Lincoln’s recently declared Emancipation Proclamation said the same thing but Chief Joseph’s impassioned pleas were ignored.
Wholly consumed with thoughts of gold, cattle grazing and game hunting, no one of that time could possibly have anticipated just how massive and mechanized the American population would become or the kind of pressure all this humanity would put on the land. Since that era just 150 years ago, America has grown by 750%.
In one of the country’s least populated areas, east of Joseph, Oregon, the Snake River has carved America’s deepest gorge: Hell’s Canyon. Cliffs rise as high as 8,000 feet on either side.
Wallowa Mountain Loop road (Route 39), a twisty National Forest road, runs from Joseph out to Hell’s Canyon Overlook where we got a peak at Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains that line the gorge.
This is a winding 45 mile drive, and although the views across the canyon were vast, it didn’t give us the perspective on the gorge we had expected.
For those views, we had to take a 150 mile detour back through Baker City to avoid the Wallowa Loop Road construction with our buggy.
We stopped in the little town of Halfway and admired their very cute red church, and continued on to Copperfield at the base of Hell’s Canyon.
Unlike the Hell’s Canyon Overlook that peers across the top of canyon, the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area offers dramatic scenery and lots of adventure between the canyon walls. We found loads of inspiring views to keep our cameras happy.
There were boaters playing on the water, fisherman casting their lines, and we even found a tiny private sandy beach tucked along the shoreline.
From our first glimpse of Hell’s Canyon at Copperfield, we drove north along the Idaho side of the gorge to the end of the road at Hell’s Canyon Dam.
This is one of fifteen dams constructed for various purposes along the Snake River, and it is one of three dams in Hell’s Canyon that were built to produce electricity and control flooding.
Like anything that interferes with the processes of nature, these dams have had unanticipated effects. The Snake River used to be a major salmon run for three different species of salmon that spawned far inland upriver but spent most of their lives in ocean. They’d wait until their last year of life to swim back upriver and spawn the next generation of fish.
Unfortunately, those aging salmon can no longer swim past the dams to spawn, so the ones that mistakenly swim up the Snake River this far end up trapped at the dam.
The National Forest Service rangers at the dam told us that because of this salmon roadblock, Hell’s Canyon Dam is an awesome place to go fishing.
They said that over Memorial Day weekend this year, the river was absolutely boiling with fish, and the banks were throbbing with fishermen!
What would Chief Joseph think of that?
I don’t know, but after seeing this part of the world, I understand why he loved this land so dearly.
Here are some links for more information on Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area (more here), the Snake River and its dams as well as RV parking options in Copperfield, Oregon.
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More from our RV travels in Eastern Oregon:
- Hurricane Creek Wildflowers – Enterprise OR 07/30/14
- Wallowa Lake Tramway – Into the Alps! 07/23/14
- Joseph Branch Railriders – What a ride! 07/19/14
- Joseph, Oregon – At Heaven’s Door! 07/15/14
- Baker City Cycling Classic 07/11/14
- On the road to Baker City, Oregon 07/08/14
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