Eastern Oregon on Two Wheels
A motorcycle tour of backroads and byways
The first thing you notice is the quiet. Next comes the heady incense of cedar, juniper and sage, and the crispness of the morning light, unique to the high desert. It’s good to wake up in Fossil.
It’s cold on this morning, and a hearty breakfast is a fine excuse to delay departure. No one I know does a better breakfast than Phil and Nancy at Wilson Ranches Retreat. It’s a meal served with a large portion of humor, as the banter between Phil, Nancy and guests rivals any comedy routine. Having stayed here once before, I consider them old friends, and I get the feeling everyone who stays here feels the same.
I’m here at the start of a four-day tour of my favorite part of Oregon, from the eastern slope of the Cascades to the Idaho border, a vast swath of endlessly curvy roads, incredible scenery and plenty of space to get lost in. The sun has warmed things up nicely by the time I strap on my gear and get in the saddle. Giddy-up.
Fossil to Halfway
I spend my morning on a leisurely ride along familiar state highways, unfamiliar gravel roads and sections of the newly minted Scenic Bikeways system through John Day River country. I pass through small ranch and farming communities with romantic names like Spray, Monument and Long Creek, climbing high into timber, then dropping lower in elevation to follow different forks of the river, occasionally stopping for photographs.
One of my favorite stops in Eastern Oregon is Austin House Cafe & Country Store, just off the junction of U.S. Highway 26 and Oregon Highway 7. It has served hungry travelers for 60 years. Current owners Jeff and Christy Keffer offer up a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as ice cream. The place has history, charm, huckleberry milkshakes and something on the menu called the Big Foot burger, which turns out to be a monster sandwich, terrifying to cholesterol-phobes.
A bit farther east, I travel the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway, from Sumpter, past Granite and over Anthony Lakes. It’s a genuine biker’s dream with sweeping curves and elevation changes. Rounding a tight left just past Anthony Lakes, I catch my first glimpse of the majestic Wallowas, some 30 or 40 miles as the crow flies to the east. I’ll be spending the next couple of days exploring those mountains and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
Arriving in Halfway just as the last whispers of golden light kiss the ridgetops of the Wallowas, I check in to the Pine Valley Lodge and walk down to Wild Bill’s Restaurant and Lounge for a chicken-fried steak and a couple of cold beers. I walk off dinner, strolling through town and soaking in the quiet of this mountain hamlet. I like it here — a lot.
From Halfway to Enterprise
Sleep comes easy. Waking less so, until I remember where I am, and what’s in store: the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. During breakfast, my hostess at Pine Valley Lodge suggests a few off-the-beaten-path side trips that you won’t find on main maps. I soon find myself traversing a steep side canyon to the confluence of the Powder and Snake rivers, with not another soul around and spectacular views rarely seen by car.
Travelers on the scenic byway are sometimes disappointed when they learn the Hells Canyon Overlook offers no view down into the Snake River gorge proper. What they find instead is an expansive view of ridgetops, chasms and the distant Seven Devils in Idaho that make up a section of Hells Canyon. It’s dramatic and sweeping, certainly, but to see the Snake, you have to go down.
More adventure-minded riders might choose one of the treacherously steep dirt roads, like Hess Road or Dug Bar from Imnaha. Take these routes at your own risk, as they are narrow and rocky with limited visibility around corners. There are no guardrails and no margin of error, so anyone choosing to take these roads needs to do so with extreme caution.
Riding solo on a 500-pound bike, I settle for Highway 86 down to Copperfield, the only paved route down to the river, with no regrets. Riding alongside the Snake River, I marvel at the steepness of the canyon walls and the undulating terrain.
Forest Service Road 39 winds through dense forest along clear rivers, connecting Halfway to Joseph and passing the Hells Canyon Overlook. My original plan was to ride to Imnaha and out to Hat Point, but on a suggestion from another local, I decide to check out the less well-known Buckhorn Lookout.
The road — 697 or 46, depending on which map you are looking at — is not well marked, but is well maintained as the gravel road that serves ranches and the national forest to the north and east from Enterprise. Crossing the Zumwalt Prairie, it offers spectacular views of the Wallowas to the west. Some 45 miles or so along, and shy of the overlook, I can’t resist a small, unmarked jeep trail that drops down, turns and ends at the canyon’s edge, offering the most spectacular view of this area I’ve ever seen. In the distance, some 5,000 feet below, I can see the Imnaha River as it disappears around one last corner before spilling into the Snake. The sun hangs low in the west, and shadows creep across to the ridges on the far side. It’s quiet up here, nothing but the wind whispering. Watching the sky change colors as the sun goes down is mesmerizing, and I can’t bring myself to leave, even though I know riding out here after dark can be dangerous. Finally, my sense of caution wins out and I head back to Enterprise, taking extreme caution in the dark the last dozen miles or so and narrowly missing suicidal deer.
Pulling into the Terminal Gravity Brewery and Public House, I find a grove of aspens twinkling with lights and scattered tables of diners and imbibers on the patio. Inside, a friendly publican pours me a pale ale and offers me the menu. I feel quite at home even though it’s my first visit.
Just north of town, I stop for the night at the Log House RV Park & Campground. It offers two luxury tents — full-size, safari-style canvas tents outfitted with wooden floors, king-size beds, sitting areas and gas heaters. This may be the perfect combination of camping and hoteling. Listening to the wind softly rustle the tent walls, I plan the next day’s ride back home and fall asleep staring at a new moon slowly sinking behind the silhouettes of the Wallowas. This is the end of a perfect day in perhaps the greatest place on earth.
About the Author: Robbie McClaran
Robbie McClaran has been a freelance photographer for 30 years and an avid motorcyclist for longer. His photography has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times Magazine, Reader's Digest, Time, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Inc., Bloomberg Markets, Business Week, Forbes, Runner¹s World and Popular Mechanics. Robbie lives with his wife, two daughters and dog in Portland.
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