Eighty miles/129 kilometers of big mountain views and small ranching communities await on this peaceful tour through the Grande Ronde and Powder river valleys, an easy detour off Interstate 84.
With a fine location between the Blue and Wallowa mountains, the Grande Ronde Valley is the ancestral home of the Nez Perce people. In the mid- 1800s, the Oregon Trail passed right through La Grande. Tour route signs lead to Birnie Park, where pioneers camped before continuing over the imposing Blue Mountains.
The Grande Ronde River
Follow the tour route north on OR-82 to meet up with the Grande Ronde River near Imbler. Popular among rafters and kayakers, the river flows northeast through desert canyons largely inaccessible to motor vehicles, then joins the Snake River near the Oregon-Washington border.
The drive follows the river’s corkscrew course upstream through cherry orchards and crop fields, redolent with the scent of mint hanging in the air. Oregon is the nation’s leading producer of peppermint, extracting the oil for gum, tea, toothpaste and other products.
South to Union
The tour route passes through Cove, a small town known for its Ascension Chapel, an 1869 Episcopal church once visited by Desmond Tutu. In Union the tour route splits into a mini loop. Follow OR-203 as it climbs into the pines of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Several ski and snowmobile trails depart from Catherine Summit, elevation 4,150 feet.
To complete the mini loop, descend to Medical Springs, then travel west on the gravel Thief Valley Road to OR-237 and back to Union. The route follows OR-203 west past Hot Lake Springs, a 1920s mineral waters spa and hotel once billed as the “Mayo Clinic of the West.” It recently reopened after a seven-year restoration and boasts an impressive collection of Nez Perce artifacts. The tour route passes the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area on its return to La Grande.