Hells Canyon Scenic Byway
These maps and directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, or other events may cause road conditions to differ from the map results. For travel options, weather and road conditions, visit tripcheck.com, call 511 (in Oregon only), 800.977.6368 or 503.588.2941.
Just about any place you find on TravelOregon.com can be added to your own Oregon Roadtrippers Account. Find out how.
Get on the road with Roadtrippers
We’ve partnered with Roadtrippers to provide a great way to plan a trip around Oregon. So start planning your next road trip to here, there or pretty much anywhere in Oregon.
America’s deepest river gorge, Hells Canyon, and “Little Switzerland,” the Wallowa Mountains, star on this 208-mile/335-kilometer horseshoe route through the state’s northeast corner, the rich ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce tribe.
Talk about a local’s secret: It seems much of the world has yet to discover this incomparable region, where the lofty Wallowa Mountains — named one of Oregon’s 7 Wonders — dominate the horizon, and wide ranching valleys give the picture-perfect perspective from which to appreciate the view. More than 19 of the Wallowas’ peaks rise above 9,000 feet, many of them forming the backpack-and-horseback paradise of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Beyond, the land cracks into the great cleft of Hells Canyon and the wild waters of the Snake River. It’s a secret you’ll want to keep to yourself, all within close proximity to Interstate 84.
Some 300,000 pioneers headed west on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s, literally seeking greener pastures to establish homesteads. The 2,000-mile/3,218-kilometer route passed right through La Grande, and many pioneers chose to stop right there — where clear rivers flowed down from surrounding mountains into a broad, grassy valley perfect for growing crops and grazing cattle. Just as it provided a resting stop along the Oregon Trail, today La Grande is a major commercial center in Eastern Oregon, with a lively downtown and vibrant Eastern Oregon University. It’s a convenient jumping-off point for forays into the Wallowas.
Elgin to Enterprise
The byway leads north on OR-82 through a fertile farming region replete with turf grass, barley, mint and other crops. Elgin, a farming and ranching town, hosts the Elgin Stampede, a stop on the professional rodeo circuit, each July. Downtown Elgin’s restored 1912 brick opera house hosts performances and houses a history museum. Elgin is also the departure point for trips on the Eagle Cap Excursion Train, chugging through the deep canyons of the Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers.
At Minam, the byway climbs and bends south along the Wallowa River. It’s a particularly scenic stretch of road, with the Minam and Wallowa rivers flowing through creased canyons, and the oft-snowcapped Wallowas rising ahead. The Minam State Recreation Area has riverside camping, popular with anglers and rafters.
The byway descends into Wallowa County and the Wallowa Valley, known to Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce as the “beautiful valley of winding waters.” The Nez Perce, admired for their superb horse skills, coexisted peacefully for decades with the settlers moving into their ancestral homelands. But eventually the cultures clashed. Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce triumphed in several battles against the U.S. military in 1877 but ultimately were forced to surrender and move to reservations.
In partnership with the National Park Service, the growing Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive Center in Wallowa celebrates Nez Perce culture. It hosts exhibits and, each July, holds its Tamkaliks celebration of traditional dance, food, song and dress.
The byway continues through scenic farms and ranches spread out at the base of the broad-shouldered mountains. In Enterprise, the county seat, the downtown core retains an Old West feel with its 19th-century architecture and present-day agricultural economy. Visit the chamber of commerce to pick up information on all of Wallowa County’s attractions and events.
Joseph and the Wallowas
The small town of Joseph has grown into a thriving arts community, with several downtown galleries, studios and walks highlighting public art installations. Anchoring the arts scene is Valley Bronze, one of the nation’s most notable bronze foundries. It offers tours of the production process, from clay models to finished castings. The Wallowa Mountains Office on Second Street has maps, permits, exhibits and information about the national forest, the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
A mile/1.6 kilometers south of Joseph lies Wallowa Lake, a deep-blue alpine beauty formed by glaciers and wedged between high peaks. Wallowa Lake State Park has a campground and a marina with boat, kayak and SUP rentals. From mid-May through September, the Wallowa Lake Tramway whisks passengers toward the summit of 8,200-foot Mt. Howard for easy access to high-altitude hikes.
At the head of Wallowa Lake, you’ll find some of the easiest access to Oregon’s largest wilderness area, the 360,000-acre Eagle Cap Wilderness.
From Joseph, the byway heads east toward Hells Canyon. It follows OR-350 to FR-39, swinging south to briefly parallel the Wild and Scenic Imnaha River, important spawning grounds for chinook salmon and steelhead trout. For your first look at Hells Canyon, turn left on FR-3965 near the Ollokot campground to the Hells Canyon Overlook. Perched at the rim, you’re peering down into the deepest canyon in North America. Spoiler alert: You can’t see the Snake River from this viewpoint, but the gorge is stunning — more than a mile/1.6 kilometers deep and carved by eons of Snake River erosion. From some areas on the east rim, Hells Canyon plummets more than 8,000 feet, dwarfing even the Grand Canyon.
Back on the byway, FR-39 continues south to a junction with OR-86. Detour north past Copperfield/Oxbow to the Hells Canyon Dam and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Visitor Center for a look at this mighty canyon from the river level. To really experience its grandeur, sign on for one of the area’s rafting trips or jet-boat excursions, which descend through the canyon and tackle the Snake’s exhilarating white-water rapids.
The byway winds west through the towns of Halfway and Richland along a route traveled by early settlers. You can explore the mountains and foothills here with Wallowa Llamas, a guide company whose sure-footed creatures pack your gear so you can enjoy the view. Near Baker City, the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center offers exhibits and living-history presentations on the great migration that forever changed the American West. The byway ends in Baker City, where it intersects the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway and the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway. Downtown Baker City is ripe for exploring with more than 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Take a horse-drawn tour with Colton Carriage Service or journey on foot and find a fine mix of museums and galleries as well as craft breweries, a distillery and an artisan chocolate maker.
Editor’s note: Find current conditions, events and more information about this byway at hellscanyonbyway.com.
related Trip Ideas
Some facts about Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s the deepest river gorge in North America; it’s 8,000 vertical feet in the deepest portions; it includes more than 215,000 acres of wilderness; and it’s not for wimps. One of Oregon…
Surrounded by the remote Eagle Cap Wilderness, glacial lakes, working ranches and the wide open spaces of Eastern Oregon, The Wallowas are one of Oregon’s most beautiful secrets. Here are some spots you won’t want to miss when you go see…
My husband and I have come to Joseph, a small town nestled at the base of the Wallowa Mountains, to escape the bustle and pull of our everyday lives. Joseph combines the creativity of a thriving arts community with the hospitality and wild beauty of…
Mark Yates makes his living in the deepest gorge in America. He’s a 12-year veteran river guide who loves to share his vast backyard with folks eager to see an unchanged piece of Oregon from a different point of view. We met Yates at the…
Born in the Loire Valley and raised in Bordeaux, chef Pascal Chureau of Allium Bistro discovered his love of food early. An avid outdoorsman, Chureau spends his free-time reveling in the wilds of Oregon with his equally adventurous family. One of…
When I think about the Wallowa Mountains and Hells Canyon region of Eastern Oregon, I think about clear waters winding from snowy alpine crags into rocky desert canyons at the bottom of the continent. I think about waves of evergreen forest…
Hells Canyon is worth seeing, whatever time of year you manage to get down there. I’ve heard several connoisseurs of the canyon argue that an early spring look at those imposing walls is an entirely different experience and not to be missed.…
I hear that train a comin’ It’s coming round the bend If I’m a little lucky There’s a steelhead at the end Well, that’s not exactly how the Johnny Cash song goes, but as I rode the Fish Train through the Wallowa…
We woke up to the first beautiful, warm Sunday of the season. The sun was bright, the birds were singing, and the sweet smell of Baker County spring was in the air. It was the perfect day for a long, lazy drive. After grabbing a latte from Sorbenots…
Is any of the information on this page incorrect?
Keep in mind many of the routes listed here travel through remote areas where gas stations are few and far between. And since road and weather conditions can be hazardous, even into summer, we urge you to call 800-977-6368 or check Trip Check before starting out.