For those who want to ride every mile of the week’s offerings, this is a pretty easy day. Except for the short hill between Wallowa Lake and Joseph (down on the way out, up on the way home), the day is mostly flat, traveling through verdant agricultural fields of the Wallowa Valley. The lunch stop is on the grounds of the county courthouse in the center of Enterprise. After lunch, the return route uses short sections of road that were used en route to Enterprise, but in the opposite direction providing a different view of the valley and mountains.
Cycle Oregon Blog
This is the day everyone has been waiting for, the reason for all those training miles. One of the best, and most challenging, one-day rides in Oregon. The warm-up portion is a great way to start the day – ten miles of mostly downhill road until turning onto Forest Service Road 39, the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road. Then it’s a gentle ride along North Pine Creek for a few miles before the first of three big (and one little) climbs. The first climb is only about sixteen miles of generally 6% grade, but what a view on the way up! After reaching the summit of the first climb, and a well-deserved rest stop, a short but steep downhill leads to the junction of the road to the Hells Canyon Overlook.
This Option Route is a 5.7-mile out and back road that travels to a viewpoint above the Hells Canyon Gorge, with the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho on the other side of the canyon. The road up to the overlook is relatively steep in places, but – it’s all downhill coming back to the main route!
At the overlook road junction, the downhill continues for a few miles before flattening out at the Imnaha River, and the lunch site in a Forest Service campground. After lunch a short respite of level road leads to the second climb of the day. This one is slightly less steep than the first climb, and shorter – at only about ten miles. A water stop is located at the top of this climb where everyone can take a breather in preparation of the third climb, after a short downhill, again less steep than the last one, and much shorter at only about four miles. After reaching the summit of the last big climb at just over 6,000’, fuel up at the Salt Creek Sno Park in preparation for an easy, but relatively fast, ten miles of downhill. Our sign team will mark them, but typically there are some potholes on this downhill grade to watch for.
After taking it easy for ten miles with no pedaling unless you want to, another uphill must be expected. After the last three, this hill should be pretty easy at just less than two miles of moderate grade, before riding on a gentle decline or flat highway through agricultural fields with the Wallowa Mountains getting closer by the mile, and the artsy/bronze foundry town of Joseph. A left turn in Joseph and a short hill leads to a stunning view of Wallowa Lake with the Wallowa Mountains as a backdrop, and a six-mile ride along the lake to the state park.
Just think, you don’t have to ride a bike tomorrow, unless you want to.
Day 4 – Halfway to Wallowa Lake
Halfway Oregon sits in a lush green valley backed by the jagged peaks of the Wallowa Mountains. The broad flat valley is bounded on the south by the Pine Valley fault, along which the valley floor has subsided over the last million years. This subsidence happens 3-6 feet at a time, during large earthquakes along the fault. Small earthquakes are still occurring on the fault today. Although the hills around the valley are made up of Columbia River Basalt, the high Wallowas are composed of metamorphic rock and granitic rocks of the Wallowa Batholith. The Batholith formed when huge blobs of magma were injected into the rocks of the exotic terranes about 130 million years ago. Because the magma was injected many miles below the surface, the molten rock cooled slowly, allowing the characteristic coarse salt and pepper crystal texture of granite to form.
For most of the rest of the day, we will be riding through stacks of Columbia River Basalt flows. You should not miss the side trip to McGraw Overlook, which will give you a spectacular view down into Hells Canyon, overlooking the stretch of road you took on the way to Hells Canyon Dam. At this point the Canyon is 3610 ft deep, dropping to the river at an average 30% grade.
On the Oregon side, the upper part of the Canyon is composed of layers of Columbia River Basalt, again forming the striking cliff and bench topography. You will also see that the trees prefer to grow on the benches. This is because the benches are formed on the broken lava rubble layer that separates successive flows, and it is easier for trees to root there. Part way down the slope you will see a sharp break between the basalt layers and smoother topography below. The smoother surfaces are formed on the metamorphic rocks of the exotic terrane, and the line of separation with the basalt, called an unconformable contact, represents a time gap of at least 200 million years, between the formation of the exotic terranes and the eruption of the basalt. Across the canyon, the Seven Devils range is formed of more of the exotic terrane rocks.
From the outlook, we drop into the Imnaha River canyon, where you will see some beautiful mature yellow pine forest. These trees are fire-adapted, and often form park-like groves of widely-spaced old-growth trees with a grassy understory. Periodic lightning-sparked fires clear out the undergrowth, while the big trees are protected by their fire-resistant bark.
We climb out of the Imnaha canyon and cross a few more small valleys before we arrive at the broad flat upper Wallowa Valley, and the last delightful miles as we ride into the heart of the Wallowa Mountains along the shore of Wallowa Lake.
Day 5 – Wallowa Lake to Enterprise
The optional layover day route starts from our camp at the Wallowa Lake state park, one of the gems of the Oregon park system. Don’t miss the Gondola ride to the top of Mt Howard, where you will get great views across the Wallowa valley and Hells Canyon to the east, and into the Eagle Cap wilderness to the west. The rocks straight across the canyon are grey, white and reddish metamorphic rocks, originally shale, sandstone and limestone on an ancient seafloor. You can see several narrow bands of brown rock that cut across the metamorphic layers. These are bits of Columbia River Basalt that formed as the magma forced its way through fissures in the surrounding rock on its way to the surface to feed the giant eruptions. Some of the magma remained in the fissures and cooled to form a lava body called a dike.
The top of the tram also provides a great view of Wallowa Lake, a classic example of a glacial moraine lake. The long high ridges that hem in the lake are lateral moraines, huge piles of rock rubble that accumulated around the edges of a glacier that completely filled the area of the lake just 17,000 years ago.
If you take the day ride to Enterprise, you will be rewarded with great views of the steep, straight edge of the Wallowas. The front of the mountains is so abrupt because it is formed by another fault line, along which the mountains have been uplifted in a series of 3 to 6 foot jerks accompanying large earthquakes. The lava flows of the Columbia River Basalt on which Enterprise sits match those on the top of Mt Howard, having been separated by almost 4000 feet vertically.
Day 6 – Wallowa Lake to La Grande
We start the day with one more spectacular ride along the shores of Wallowa Lake, then head down the Wallowa valley. As we descend through the towns of Lostine and Wallowa, we pass several more big canyons coming out of the Wallowa Mountains, and will continue to see the Wallowa fault that forms the sharp front of the range. The Wallowa valley narrows to a canyon, as the highway wraps around the north end of the Mountains, and shortly after we pass the confluence of the Minam and Wallowa Rivers, we start a long steady climb out of the canyon. This climb takes us up through a series of layers of Columbia River Basalt, each layer formed during a massive eruption that blanketed much of eastern Oregon and Washington in molten lava. You will notice that there are layers of rubbly rock, often colored pink, red or orange, that separate layers of more solid brown or grey rock. These colored rubbly zones mark the tops of successive lava flows. As the lava flows across the landscape, the upper surface cools and solidifies, forming a rocky crust that is then broken into rubble by the continued movement of the underlying lava.
As we descend into the town of Elgin you can see a tree-covered conical hill to your right. This is Jones Butte, one of the youngest volcanoes in eastern Oregon. Most of the volcanic eruptions in this area ended 13 million years ago, but Jones Butte is only 2 million years old.
We leave Elgin and ride west to the foot of Mt Emily, which rises over 3000 feet above the Grand Ronde valley floor. The long straight front of Mt Emily is another large fault; the West Grande Ronde Valley fault. Geologists have been able to match the Columbia River Basalt layers exposed in the steep face of the mountain with identical layers from a 3,000 foot deep water well drilled in the middle of the valley floor, proof that the fault has uplifted the mountain by thousands of feet. At mile 75, just past Woodell Lane there is a small hill on the valley floor to the left. This hill is made of the same lava flow that caps Mt Emily, 3200 feet above you to the right. The Grande Ronde Valley is a great example of a geologic feature called a graben. A graben (German for grave) is a basin that is formed when a block of the earth’s crust sinks down between two large faults. The West Grande Ronde Valley Fault forms one side of the Grande Ronde graben, while the East Grande Ronde Valley Fault on the opposite side forms the other. The Grande Ronde river has not eroded out this valley, and instead is slowly filling the valley with sediment as the graben subsides. As we enter La Grande, you will notice that the Grande Ronde River occupies a steep, narrow canyon west of the City. The mountains to the west are being actively uplifted along the West Grande Ronde Valley Fault, and the river is rapidly cutting its canyon deeper in an effort to keep up.
Day 7 – La Grande to Baker City
We start across the flat floor of the Grande Ronde Graben and pass Hot Lake on our way to the town of Union. Hot Lake is a high-volume hot spring, where water at 180 to 200 F (82-93 C) gushes up along a fault line that runs along the base of the mountain. Hot springs either form around young volcanos, where there is hot magma near enough to the surface to heat groundwater, or in areas where large faults allow cold ground water to circulate deep in the earth where it is heated and then rises back to the surface. Hot Lake was developed as a grand resort and sanatorium in the 1920’s and 1930, but fell into disrepair over the years. The resort has been restored to much of its original glory over the last decade by the Manuel family. There is another hot springs at the town of Cove, a few miles east of Union, and we will pass a few miles from Radium Hot Springs in the town of Haines as we ride through the Baker Valley.
We climb a low pass out of the Grande Ronde Valley at Union, and enter the Baker Valley at North Powder. As we ride up the North Powder river, you may notice a large quarry on the low hill to your left. This quarry provides much of the ballast rock (gravel that supports the railroad ties) for the Union Pacific Railroad in the region, because of the high strength and uniformity of the crushed rock it produces. We turn south across the North Powder and after a few miles riding straight south, the road takes a short jog to the left. As it does so, it crosses yet another fault, the Mansfield fault, which has uplifted the eastern side of the valley a few feet higher than the western side. This fault has moved since the glaciers melted off of the Elkhorn Ridge (so named because it is shaped like an elk horn when viewed from above), probably 5-10,000 years ago. Don’t be surprised if you don’t see it, as it was only recently discovered when high resolution laser topographic maps of the area were produced.
From here you can enjoy the views of Elkhorn Ridge as you finish the ride, and may even see the Wallowa Mountains to the east.
Cambridge advertises itself as the “Gateway to Hells Canyon,” which of course is why we’re here (Duh!). Very little traffic uses the state highway from town to the Snake River, which makes a great cycling route with gentle climbing until reaching the top of a little grade after fifteen miles. Then a great downhill of over thirteen miles leads to the Brownlee Reservoir, and a return to Oregon.
This 57-mile long reservoir separating Idaho and Oregon (impounding the Snake River) is in many experts’ opinion the best warm water fishery in the western United States. The Oregon State record smallmouth bass and the current state record flathead catfish were caught in Brownlee. Idaho Power operates three hydroelectric dams in the Hells Canyon Complex (Brownlee Dam, Oxbow Dam, and Hells Canyon Dam), and Cycle Oregon riders can see all three (visiting Hells Canyon Dam will take a little extra work).
After the second stop of the day at Woodhead Park on the lake, the route follows the reservoir past Brownlee Dam, then along the Oxbow Reservoir to climb another little grade (hill) past Oxbow Dam, and then downhill to Copperfield for lunch. Copperfield Park, the campground (managed by Idaho Power) across the road from our lunch site, is the old town site of Copperfield, a mining community known in the early 1900s as the rowdiest town in Oregon. Fire, reportedly of dubious origin after the Governor dispatched the state militia to restore order, destroyed Copperfield in August 1915.
When arriving in Copperfield, its decision time:
- 1st Option – Eat lunch and then start the climb to Halfway and the overnight site eighteen miles away, (we get back in the Pacific Time Zone when leaving Copperfield) or;
- 2nd Option – Ride to Hells Canyon Dam (the end of the road) along the Snake River through Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, before returning to Copperfield for lunch and the climb to Halfway. (An interesting fact: this road to the dam in Idaho is owned by Idaho Power.)
The option ride is not an easy ride. It is a challenging forty-six mile out-and-back ride with quite a few whoop-de-doos and one big hill, with approximately 3,000 feet of elevation gain, and sometimes a head wind on the way back to Copperfield.
To make the decision a little easier, there is a way to see part of Hells Canyon without riding all the way to the dam. Six miles from Copperfield is Hells Canyon Park. One could ride to this park, return to the Copperfield lunch site, and then ride to camp in Halfway.
If interested in the option ride all the way to Hells Canyon Dam, because of the difficulty of the ride –The option route will close at Hells Canyon Park at Noon.
No Cycle Oregon participant may begin the option ride and travel past Hells Canyon Park after Noon. Please plan ahead if considering the ride to Hells Canyon Dam from lunch.
Cambridge, Idaho is a tiny farming, ranching and logging town nestled in a valley at the base of Cuddy Mountain about 100 miles northwest of Boise. Just more than 220 people call this place, which serves as the eastern gateway to Hells Canyon, home.
Not surprisingly, its proximity to the canyon and the Snake River, make Cambridge an outdoor enthusiast’s utopia. More than 100 miles of backwater from three Idaho Power Hydroelectric dams provide the perfect space for recreational boats and fishing charters.
Rafters and kayakers run the swift whitewater rapids below Hells Canyon Dam as the Snake River rushes north to join the Clearwater at Lewiston, Idaho. Hot water is also a big attraction for the many tourists who flock to Mundo Hot Springs, where they can soak in a hot pool or stay at the RV Park, campground and hostel.
Those who prefer to move by bike or on foot might take in parts of the 84-mile Weiser River National Recreation Trail. The trail runs through Cambridge at 2,650 feet above sea level with the encompassing mountains reaching elevations around 8,000 feet and then plummeting to 1,500 feet in Hells Canyon.
For a quieter day, visitors can stop by the Cambridge Museum, which features exhibits on local history with Native American and pioneer artifacts, geological displays and farming relics. In search of food, check out Bucky’s Café & Motel, the Gateway Store & Café, the Eat-Ery or Mrs. G’s Ranch House.
Every year, in early June, Cambridge hosts Hells Canyon Days, featuring a BBQ, bull riding, art exhibits and a car show. The annual event illustrates some of the best the community has to offer, from good food to great views.
All images courtesy of Don Dopf of the Cambridge Commercial Club