Eastern Oregon Adventure Part #2: Weathering the Extremes
We left our cool retreat up in the heart of the Blue Mountains with the intent of exploring the last section of Oregon that I’d not been to (and probably the most remote part, too).
This time, we pointed the car to the southeastern corner of the state, and with temperatures forecast to be in the 100’s, we took extra precautions to make sure we had plenty of water and supplies, as well as a full tank of gas. Because the temperatures were so hot, we also realized that there was no way we wanted to hike/camp out in the desert – we’d melt, along with everything in our cooler! So our plan was to explore SE Oregon in one day, then return to the mountains north of the town of Burns to cool off.
A long day of driving stretched out in front of us, but we were game, and so were the dogs who are always ready for a car ride!
Descending out of the Blue Mountains, we made our way east to the Oregon town of Nyssa, just west of the Idaho border. In fact, after we turned south, we paralleled the Snake River, which lazily meandered near green farm fields. It seemed hard to imagine that not too much farther north, the Snake would quickly speed up in its plunge towards the Columbia River. This descent created Hells Canyon, which, at 7,900 feet deep, is the deepest chasm in North America, and seemed a far cry from the sleepy flow alongside us.
As we continued south, the temperature climbed, and the Snake River headed away from us to the east. We were now in a seemingly lonely stretch of road that looked to go on forever. The panorama stretched for hundreds of miles, with nary a tree in sight and a gravel road that stretched on for miles. Our first stop was Succor Creek State Recreation Area, a well-known spot in Oregon for thundereggs (otherwise known as geodes), which also happen to be the state rock. The recreation area was a treed oasis along Succor Creek, and was a welcome rest stop in the heat. Above us, towering rock formations reminded me a lot of Zion National Park in Utah. Only one other car passed us during this time, so we were alone in this beautiful arid landscape as we stretched our legs and walked around, exploring the scenery. Finally, the heat became too much and piling back in the car, we made our way to our next stop, Leslie Gulch.
Formed by repeated volcanic ash eruptions and lava flows, erosion has revealed a unique geology in Leslie Gulch, which is designated as an Area of Environmental Concern, due to fragile formations and rare plants found in its reaches. What drew us to this area were the descriptions of giant pillars of rock which were formed as a result of the Mahogany Mountain caldera, which is a large volcanic depression that surrounds the entire region. There were a series of violent eruptions that took place over 15 million years ago, and time has eroded the landscape into a visual array of spectacular formations.
Before we descended into the gulch, we paused at a sign that noted that local cattle rancher Hiram Leslie was struck at this point by lightning and killed. The sign also mentioned that this was the only road in and out of Leslie Gulch, and subject to flash flooding, so care was to be taken in watching weather patterns. I squinted at the sky. We had been noticing building clouds to the west, but for the time being, they didn’t seem a threat, so we headed into the gulch.
We were stunned. I had trouble keeping my eyes on the road, as I continuously wanted to keep looking up at the fantastical rock walls above us. We finally got out and did some hiking around near some of the campgrounds. A few other brave souls were out and about, mainly in the camping areas. But a quiet calm seemed to encompass the area – perhaps it was because of the oppressive heat – the temperature had settled at 100 degrees. Only a few swifts skittered across the sky, which was growing ominously darker. After about 15 breathtaking miles of scenery, we rounded a bend and saw the Owhyee River Reservoir, which incidentally is also the state’s largest. Interestingly enough, the word “Owhyee” is actually is the old spelling of “Hawaii”, and the river was apparently named after a number of Hawaiians on explorer Donald MacKenzie’s Snake Country Expeditions of 1819-20.
But history wasn’t concerning us at the moment, because as we were hiking around the reservoir beach area , thunder started rumbling and brought urgency to the moment. We needed to get going. With the only road in and out of Leslie Gulch running alongside a dry creek bed, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine a large torrent of water completely washing out the dirt road. So off we went.
Just as we reached the crest of the ridgeline above the gulch, (right near the sign informing of the demise of Mr. Leslie who was struck by lightning), the skies let loose. The thunderstorm was on top of us and even though the wipers were going furiously, the deluge came down even faster. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that we were underwater!
Lightning bolts danced across the hilltops nearby and the rain pounded us as we made our way back to the main gravel road. Cows grazing on rangeland stared at us as we passed nearby, either wondering what on earth we were doing out there or gasping in relief as the storm’s cooling cascades brought the outside temperatures down. As we continued on, Brad and I watched the car’s outside thermometer drop down to 51 degrees in about an hour and a half. From 100 to 51 degrees! That’s the desert for you – a land of extremes.
Our route took us to the town of Jordan Valley, where we briefly ducked outside the leading edge of the storm. As we pointed our way back west towards the town of Burns, we made a brief final stop at the final resting place of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Son of Shoshone guide Sacajawea who led the Lewis and Clark expedition through the West, Jean Baptiste lived an amazing life. It was eerie standing at his gravesite. Here was an accomplished man who had, under the tutelage of William Clark, completed his studies and the spent a great deal of time in the company of Prince Paul Wilhelm von Württemberg, nephew of King Fredrick I. Charbonneau ended up living and traveling all over Europe for six years and learned to speak several languages, including German, Spanish and French. The place where he is buried seems so far removed from the gilded royal salons of Europe, which makes his presence here in an isolated stretch of Oregon all the more noble.
After several hours, our time in the car was up. We had ended up catching the back end of the big thunderstorm and drove in silence through the rain pelting the sagebrush plains. In Burns, we grabbed some dinner and headed up into the mountains to find our campsite for the evening, and quickly located the Idylwild Campground, set up our tent and crashed for the night. Our exciting adventure in Eastern Oregon was now complete, and tomorrow, we were headed home with some great memories of the rugged beauty of this sparsely populated corner of the state of Oregon.
For more information on hiking throughout Oregon, please visit our Outdoor Recreation section.
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