Biking Chief Joseph Country

October 23, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chris Santella’s new book, Fifty Places to Bike Before You Die, which features two must-ride cycling routes in Oregon.

“We all have certain places that speak to us in a special way,” Jonathan Nicholas began.  “For some, it might be the Parthenon. For others, Pebble Beach..  For me, Chief Joseph Country is one of those signature landscapes.  You know when you first set foot here that you’re in a place where special things have happened.  It’s one of the last places where an intact Native American civilization encountered the incursions of an alien culture—it was just 150 years ago.  You can still walk in the footprints of the people who came, who saw, who conquered,  and drink deep of both the triumph and tragedy of what transpired.  As soon as you see the Wallowa Valley, it’s immediately apparent why the Nez Perce tribe – and later the settlers – so revere the area.  You can understand why, to this day, people fight for the right to live here.  All this beauty, all this history, is right there for the taking.  You just have to be smart enough to slow down, and the place will speak to you.”

For those who think of Oregon in terms of giant Douglas firs and the sea stacks that emerge along its 400-mile coastline, the rugged, wide-open spaces of eastern Oregon come as a surprise.  The high desert, punctuated by various mountain ranges (the Alps-like Wallowas, the jagged Elkhorns, the Blues) and Hell’s Canyon, North America’s deepest gorge, is at once expansive and dramatic.  “I first biked there in 1982 while visiting some friends,” Jonathan continued, “and I was determined to come back and explore more.  I did, and ultimately put together a little tour that I call the Chief Joseph Loop.  The circle begins in La Grande, heads south to Baker City, then east to a small town called Halfway, then north to the town of Joseph, and finally west again to La Grande.  Accessing this region by bike gives you a sense of the  remoteness of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.  The climbing – especially on day 3 – leads you to a slow reveal of the Wallowa Valley, a remarkable western landscape.”

A slightly extended version of Jonathan’s route, it’s worth noting, is periodically offered by Cycle Oregon, an annual week-long biking odyssey that Jonathan helped launch.  “In 1988, when I was a columnist for The Oregonian newspaper, I resolved to tour rural towns that were being hard hit by changes in the timber industry,” he explained.  “Clearly, the age of massive timber harvests was over.  My plan  was to report on how the communities were dealing with this change, and maybe inject a few dollars into those small towns cafes where too few people were showing up to buy beer and pizza on a Monday night.  I mentioned that I was going to do the ride in a column.  I thought that perhaps 50 people would join me.  One thousand and eight came.  And everywhere we went, the story was the same. The smaller the town, the bigger welcome. .  It continues today, with Cycle Oregon bringing over 2,000 cyclists to the far corners of the Beaver State each year.

Heading south from La Grande, you get a gradual introduction to the region’s remote beauty as you cycle along sylvan Catherine Creek, with the Blue Mountains providing a breathtaking backdrop.  Day two begins in Baker City, a turn-of-the-century gold rush town that still boasts much impressive Victorian architecture.  On the road out of Baker, you should linger at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, where you can literally walk in the ruts of the wagons that carried settlers west to the “promised land” of the Willamette Valley.  The route continues north to the town of Halfway, which for a brief time was renamed “” as an Internet company marketing stunt.  The ride from Halfway to Joseph – Day 3 on Jonathan’s itinerary – is particularly awe-inspiring.  “The ride is 70 miles, and has 7,000 feet of climbing,” Jonathan described.  “You need to be self-reliant, as you can’t count on flagging down a passing car if you run out of water—there may not be any!  The ride has two significant ascents, but you have the shade of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest to provide relief as you climb.  At the top of the second ascent, you’ve reached the stunning Hell’s Canyon Viewpoint.  In my opinion, this is one of the most impressive vistas anywhere.  You gaze out across deep, rolling canyon lands, including that remarkable gash carved by the Snake River.  The Nez Perce would spend winters down there, following the game – the elk and the deer – as they retreated from the snows of the High  Wallowas.  Beyond the canyons are the Seven Devils Mountains.  To the west you have the snowcapped peaks of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.  There are many great vistas on this ride, but the overlook above Hell’s Canyon is hard to beat.  [According to Nez Perce folklore, Coyote dug Hells Canyon with a big stick to protect ancestors in Oregon’s Blue Mountains from the ‘Seven Devils’ (mountain range) across the gorge in what is now Idaho.]   If you can spare the time, stay an extra night in Halfway.  You can ride a variety of loops into the Snake River Canyon, anywhere from 20 or 30 miles to nearly 100.

“From the Hell’s Canyon Viewpoint, it’s a long, gradual descent into the Wallowa Valley and the town of Joseph (named for Chief Joseph).   Joseph has had a renaissance in the past 20 years, earning  a national reputation for its bronze foundries and art galleries. BBut it hasn’t lost its spurs and saddle soul.”  Though now, it’s true, you can find the great coffeeshops and brewpubs that are the new signatures of the Oregon landscape.  Cyclists generally stay in town or camp at nearby Wallowa Lake, close to the spot where where Chief Joseph is buried.  (  (Resisting forced resettlement from his people’s ancestral homeland,  Joseph – called Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain in his own language — tried to lead his people to freedom  in 1877After a nearly 1,200 mile  journey that military historians still hail as a remarkable example of a fighting retreat, they were apprehended near the Canadian border.)  The Day Four ride takes you along the bucolic floor of the Wallowa Valley—Wallowa translates from the Nez Perce language as the “land of winding waters” – and you’ll follow the Wallowa River much of the route.  It ends with a spectacular downhill ride back into the college town of La Grande

“The moment of the ride that always stays with me is the point where you come over the last rise on the Halfway to Joseph stretch.  There are a couple of final rollers then, suddenly, the entireWallowa Valley spreads out below, the wind dancing across the prairie and  the sun beginning to set behind the Eagle Caps.  It’s as if the whole history of the American West is laid out there before you, the place the pioneers called ‘The Land at Eden’s Gate’. .”

Jonathan Nicholas was born and raised in the coal-mining valleys of Wales. He was 12 years old when his grandfather, a coal miner, first took him 1500 feet underground. The experience, Nicholas says, gave him a renewed interest in schoolwork.

He spent four years working on international aid projects in the Himalayas then settled in Oregon  where he spent 26 years writing a newspaper column that served as a breakfast staple for the state.

In 1988, Nicholas invited readers to join him on a bicycle ride across Oregon. Each September, thousands of cyclists from all over the world now join him on Cycle Oregon. The tour has grown into much more than a charitable effort to bridge the divide between rural and urban. With an endowment of more than $1 million, it serves today as a key change agent forging a role for bicycling in everything from easing traffic congestion and enhancing air quality to fighting childhood obesity and fostering tourism.

About The

Chris Santella
Chris Santella is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Portland. He is the author of 23 books, including the "Fifty Places" series from Abrams Books. The most recent title in the series is Fifty Places To Practice Yoga Before You Die. Santella is a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post and Trout. When he’s not writing or fly fishing, he plays guitar and sings in Catch & Release.