Hell's Canyon via Forest Roads


Continuing our adventure, my friend Phil Kopp on his Suzuki DL650 and I on my BMW F800GS headed to Spokane Valley WA from La Grande, OR by riding the paved road to Imnaha, OR (locals say "im-NA-ha") and then attempting to find a gravel/dirt route to Asotin, WA on the Snake River. Phil was sure it could be done. Four out of the five locals we asked said "Nope".

As luck would have it, when we got to the general store/cafe in Imnaha, 3 KLR riders were just about to depart, and one of them was an acquaintance, Rick Sauter, who rode the '03 Ironbutt Rally with me. They had a crude map we took a long look at. It didn't match up terribly well with our Gazetteer or our GPSes, but we figured we'd give it a try.


This is about as close as I could get Google Maps to show our route. I think we were actually a bit more eastward north of Joseph, but I couldn't get the route to "stick" there.

The trick is to turn west off the paved road just a mile or two south of Imnaha on Camp Creek road and then head for Buckhorn Overlook. There is an easier way to get there via taking paved Hwy 3 north out of Enterprise and turning off towards Cougar Campground. But we didn't want the easy way.

Check out this Oregon Map — you can see our route from La Grande north and east to Joseph. From there we went northeast then north along the left rim of the canyon through the blank spot in the upper right corner of the map.

The KLRs were long gone by the time we headed up Camp Creek Rd and turned left onto Trail Creek Rd and found it to be a very challenging route for such heavy (approx. 450lb) bikes. The KLRs would have had it easier. Made me wish for my KTM 450EXC (except it doesn't have the fuel range for that ride).

I regretted not refueling in Enterprise, as I had 80 miles on the odometer at this point and my F800GS has only about a 4+ gallon tank. Fortunately, I averaged about 60mpg on this leg so I didn't hit reserve until well within range of Asotin.


The west side of Hells Canyon is just over 5,000' in elevation, and in the last week of August 2011, parts of it looked like this. Up here the gravel roads were good, and the temps were in the high 70's. Very nice riding weather.

Photo by Phil Kopp

Phil's shot of me and the Nikon Coolpix S570 I used to take most of these photos. The Buckhorn Overlook is the best view I've seen of Hells Canyon from the rim. There is a nice overlook on F.S. 39, a rough paved road that runs from near Oxbow to the Joseph-Imnaha road, and another less nice view from paved Hwy 3 (aka "the Rattlesnake Grade"), but both pale in comparison to Buckhorn Overlook.


This shot and the next two give you a pretty good idea of what Hells Canyon looks like on a fairly clear sunny day. At least one of these was taken from Buckhorn Overlook, where we caught up with Rick and the KLR trio. The others were taken from other spots along the rim as we followed forest road 46 north.


This shot shows the Seven Devils mountains of Idaho on the far horizon. Measuring from their top down to the Snake River makes this canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon, and in fact it's the deepest river gorge in North America at 7,993'. Wikipedia says "most of the area is inaccessible by road" and they aren't wrong. Much of it is also designated a Wilderness Area, meaning no motorized or mechanized vehicles allowed, not even bicycles. So access is via foot, pack animal or by water (but no motors!).


Another view from another spot. On the horizon you can see a fire, which Phil caught in close-up with his superior point-and-shoot camera. Standing there just fills your heart with beauty! It's hard to walk away and get back on the bike...
a_photo Photo by Phil Kopp


Here's Phil on the DL650 coming down the road from Buckhorn Overlook. At this point, he had no idea how much he was going to wish for a 21" front wheel with knobby tire like I had when we got to Cold Springs road!


We saw a sign warning that Cold Springs road was unsuitable for passenger cars, RVs, trailers, etc. In our opinion, it was likewise unsuitable for a Jeep, being so narrow in places you'd likely scrape the sides on logs or rocks. Plus if you met an oncoming Jeep one of you would have to back up, possibly for a mile.

Our bikes banged and rattled across the rocks all the way down. Phil had lost his centerstand spring earlier in the day, and on this road a rock jammed his centerstand into the frame so tightly that it was wedged permanently in place — the nylon cord we had holding it on went slack.

Here, where the "road" widened a bit and got a lot easier, we stopped to re-hydrate and relax a bit. Fortunately, the really rough bit was only a dozen miles or so.


A short bit later the road improved to this condition, probably because we started encountering farms and the odd habitation. I think we were still at 2,700' here. It was getting noticeably hotter too.


Finally, we got to the Grande Ronde river, a short distance west from where it joins the Snake river. A few dozen miles upriver is Boggan's Oasis at the bottom of the Rattlesnake Grade on (paved) Hwy 3, where we often stop for refreshment (they have wonderful shakes made with Schwann's ice cream). Remember to say "bo-GANs".

There are lots of unexpected pronunciations in this part of the world. Mesa, WA, for instance, which is on a small mesa ("table" in Spanish), is pronounced "MEE-sa" by those who live there.


I think these are Mountain Goats, which I photographed from the bridge across the Grande Ronde. Interestingly, a day earlier north of Granite, OR in the Wallowa-Whitman N.F., we crossed the Grande Ronde for the first time on this trip, where it was a mere creek we could wade across and barely get water in our boots.


A final shot of the Grande Ronde, just 1/2 mile from the Snake river which you can almost see from here. This was my last shot, as I took so long photographing the goats that Phil went ahead and I was trying to catch up so I put the camera away. The altitude here was less than 800' ASL and it was 97°F (36°C). Apparently they don't call it Hells Canyon for nothing...

Copyright © 2011, by H. Marc Lewis. All rights reserved.