Summer ushers in family road trip fun in Oregon, particularly on spectacular mountain roads that open once again once the snow melts. That’s true in Northeast Oregon, where one of the state’s most scenic routes, Forest Service Road 39 — aka Wallowa Mountain Loop Road — typically reopens by mid-June. The road winds through the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and connects towns like Halfway with Joseph, Enterprise and the Wallowa Valley.
The road’s reopening means road-trippers can once again make an unforgettable loop out of the 218-mile-long Hells Canyon All-American Road Scenic Byway. Along the way you’ll find gorgeous hikes, tasty treats and the chance to roar down the Snake River on a jet boat through the deepest river gorge in America. Here are some highlights the little ones will love.
Stroll Along an Easy Hike to a River Gorge with Wildflowers
The Wallowa Mountains burst with some of Oregon’s most stunning hiking trails as they punch deep into the 9,800-foot peaks that seem to erupt out of the placid farmlands, earning their nickname of Oregon’s Alps. Kids will appreciate the mellow hike out to the Blue Hole of the Imnaha River that sits a relatively flat 2 miles from the trailhead at Indian Crossing Campground, a site that also opens in June.
Along the way, be sure to scope the forest floor for wildflowers like pearly everlasting and flaming-pink fireweed. The Blue Hole itself sits a few hundred yards off the trail where the Imnaha River spills out of a 50-foot-deep natural constriction. Oregon’s hiking-guidebook king, William Sullivan, notes he’s found white marble pebbles on the beach there as well as plenty of stones for skipping.
Ice Cream and a Swim Near Joseph
What’s better than a summer road trip? A summer road trip with ice cream, of course. The scenic, artsy town of Joseph has no shortage of the frozen kid pleaser with stops to make your dentist cringe. Mad Mary’s, an old-school soda fountain set inside a faux-facade frontier-style building, also does root beer floats, malted milkshakes and kid-size cones packed with popular flavors like huckleberry and bubble gum.
Round out your time with a trip down to the southern end of Wallowa Lake, carved out by ancient glaciers starting around 3 million years ago. Wallowa Lake State Park offers camping, hiking trails and a swimming area. A marina rents motorboats if the kids want to try to catch trout, too.
Still hungry? Pile the family into a four-person gondola at the Wallowa Lake Tramway (after booking in advance to ensure you’ll get a seat) and ride it to the top of 8,261-foot Mt. Howard for burgers and fries on the patio of the Summit Grill.
Explore the Canyon by Car or Boat
Hells Canyon National Recreation Area helps define Oregon’s eastern border and is a must-see on any road trip out this way, with a 10-mile-wide chasm that can be a whopping 8,000 feet deep in places.
For awesome views over the natural wonder, drive about 40 miles south of Joseph on Wallowa Mountain Road to find the Hells Canyon Overlook, a stop complete with interpretive signs that explain the geology and how the Wallowas once formed the very edge of the continent. For a real kid-grinning adventure, however, you’ll want to crank up the A/C and drive down into the canyon.
Once there, Hells Canyon Adventures, based in Oxbow, offers half-day and full-day jet-boat tours from the Hells Canyon Visitors Center that will take you bouncing through the watery heart of the canyon. The highly experienced boat captains will guide you through some of the Snake River’s most thrilling rapids, including the class IV Wild Sheep and Granite Creek rapids. If it’s warm enough, they’ll even stop to let you swim — in the calmer areas, of course.