Oregon: Westward on a Wing
August 26, 2013
Story and photos by Bill Stoughton
“Motorcycling is the
closest thing to flying—only it’s done on the ground.”
once told me that, and his words echoed back into my mind as my wife and I
descended into Hells Canyon on the Idaho-Oregon border. I felt as though the
Honda was dropping out of the sky, lined up on final approach for the Snake
River which loomed at the bottom.
Benjamin L. E.
Bonneville, an early explorer, described this awesome gash in the earth’s epidermis
with these words: “The grandeur and originality of the views presented on every
side beggar both the pencil and the pen.” A century and a half later, we still
haven’t invented words that do justice to Hells Canyon. As we swooped down on
it, we could only soak up the spectacle and store it away in memories.
Part of the problem in
capturing the essence of Hells Canyon is the sheer size of the place. It
stretches most of 100 miles from the Washington-Oregon border south to the
small town of Copperfield, Oregon. And it’s as deep as four Yellowstone
Canyons, two Yosemite Valleys, or 47 Niagara Falls.
Plus, Hells Canyon is
different from other famous holes in the ground. Unlike the Grand Canyon, the
stereotype of what a canyon’s supposed to look like, there’s no well-defined
edge where you can peer down from the brink. Hells Canyon is in the midst of
mountainous country that drops away dramatically from the peaks of the Seven
Devils range to the east and the Wallowas to the west.
Our landing approach
took us through a series of tight curves that focused my attention on countersteering,
downshifting and apexing corners rather than sightseeing. Eventually, we
reached the bottom and followed Idaho Route 71, which hugs the Snake River for
21 miles from Oxbow Dam all the way up to Hells Canyon Dam, where the road
ends. Continuing north would require something more nimble than a Gold Wing, so
we enjoyed the view for a while, then turned south, retracing pur route out of
Hells Canyon offered a
dramatic opening chapter to a ride across Oregon, and we were anticipating an
equally dramatic conclusion along Oregon’s rugged Pacific coastline. But in
between, we weren’t quite sure what to expect.
Climbing out of the
canyon on Oregon Route 86, we discovered an endless expanse of golden wheat
interrupted by dark basalt and gray-green sagebrush. This is a land that has
spawned endless stories of Indians, pioneers and gold miners.
Through this high
desert country, the history books say, walked the Shoshones, the Paiutes, the
Nez Perce, the Cayuse and the Umatillas. Explorers, missionaries and trappers
But what really put
eastern Oregon on the map was the Oregon Trail, which opened the floodgates on
a tide of settlers headed toward a new life in the American West.
We crossed the old
route of the trail near Flagstaff Hill, six miles east of Baker City. An interpretive
center just north of the highway filled us in on trail lore, then allowed us to
see some of the well-preserved ruts carved into the ground by the passing of
thousands of iron-rimmed wagon wheels more than a century ago.
From the 1840s through
the 1860s, an estimated 300,000 immigrants passed this way in the midst of a
five-month, 2,000-mile journey. Today, even more travelers roll by on
Interstate 84, which parallels the old trail through most of Oregon.
Near the end of the
Oregon Trail’s useful life, prospectors discovered gold in this valley and a
new rush was on. Within a short time, millions of dollars of gold was
uncovered, and Baker City blossomed into a thriving trading center.
A memento of that era
resides in the United States National Bank on Main Street. It’s a gold
nugget—the biggest in the state—found nearby. The Armstrong nugget, discovered
in 1913, weighs 80.4 ounces, or a little over five pounds. At today’s prices,
that one nugget is worth more than $30,000!
Near Sumpter, about a
half-hour west of Baker City, it’s hard to miss another reminder of the gold-rush
days. There you’ll find the state’s largest gold-mining dredge field, an area
turned topsy-turvy by giant dredges that churned the soil from 1913 on into the
The Honda appeared
tiny parked next to the valley’s sole remaining gold dredge. This behemoth,
inoperative since 1954, is scheduled to become the cornerstone of a new Sumpter
Valley State Park. It features 72 buckets, each capable of scooping up nine
cubic feet of earth.
The town of John Day,
50 miles west of Sumpter, also owes its existence to the gold rush of the
1860s. Over $26 million worth of the precious metal was pulled from the ground
by miners around here.
Farther west, you’ll
find two more sites bearing the name of John Day that feature different sorts
of earthly treasures. These are the two units of the John Day Fossil Beds
At the first location,
known as the Sheep Rock Unit, are the final remains of saber-toothed tigers,
three-toed horses and giant pigs, all of which roamed the area as much as 50
million years ago.
At the second site,
the Painted Hills Unit, you’ll be dazzled by bands of red, pink, gold, black
and bronze that streak ash-hardened mounds of barren earth.
Leaving the Painted
Hills behind, we climbed through a series of 30-mph turns to the 4,722-foot
summit of Ochoco Pass. It was an enjoyable ride, but only a small taste of what
lay ahead—the rugged, volcanic Cascade Mountains.
From the Ochoco
Wayside, near Prineville, the Cascades formed a jagged wall to the west. Many
of the peaks display the characteristic conical shape revealing their volcanic
origin. And even in the warmth of summer, patches of snow still lingered on the
north-facing slopes of the highest mountains.
The town of Sisters is
the jumping-off point for the scenic McKenzie Pass Highway (state Route 242)
through the Cascades. This road, open only in the warm-weather months, is just
made for motorcycling.
The climb toward
5,325-foot McKenzie Pass winds through large stands of ponderosa pines. Along
the way, you’ll encounter lava beds, waterfalls, lakes and snow-crowned
On a clear day, the
Dee Wright observation point at the summit gives you a view of many of the
highest peaks in this part of the Cascades, including Mt. Jefferson at 10,497
feet, and the North and Middle Sisters at 10,085 feet and 10,047 feet,
The observation point
is also the starting place for the half-mile Lava River Trail that wanders
through a 2,700-year-old lava field featuring some of the most impressive
examples of volcanic activity in the U.S. This desolate landscape once served
as a training ground for astronauts preparing for Apollo voyages to the moon.
The 37-mile McKenzie
Pass Road, designated a National Forest Service scenic byway, is no place to
hurry. Once over the summit, you descend in a series of tight hairpin curves
that follow a pioneer wagon road of the 1860s. It’s a gorgeous ride best
enjoyed in a low gear.
Picking up state Route
126, we followed the tranquil McKenzie River into the Willamette Valley. This
route was blazed in 1862 by Felix Scott, who drove 900 cattle and nine wagons
of supplies over the Cascades to reach the valley, which became home to most of
Oregon’s early settlers.
We continued west past
the Eugene/Springfield area, where we were confronted by two choices for the
final leg of the route to the Pacific Ocean. We could remain on Route 126, or
take the road less traveled—state Route 36 out of Junction City. We chose the
latter and were glad we did.
Route 36 provides the
kind of motorcycling that’s remembered long after a trip has ended. It wanders
through the low-lying Coast Range, follows nearly every twist and turn of Lake
Creek, and eventually rejoins 126 for the final run to the coastal town of
In 1979, Florence
became known nationwide as the place where 41 sperm whales beached themselves
and died. I prefer to remember it, though, for its magnificent expanse of
beaches, seaside forests and cliffs.
Old Town, a
three-block stretch along the Suislaw River on Bay Street, is where the fishing
fleet docks. It’s a good place to partake of fresh delectables such as salmon,
cracked crab, oysters and clam chowder.
Fortified by a seafood
feast, we headed north from Florence on U.S. Route 101 to Sea Lion Caves, a
commercial enterprise that gives visitors a glimpse of the Stellar sea lions
that make their home here.
Farther north is
Haceta Head Lighthouse, one of the world’s most photographed beacons. And along
the way, you come across the unusual Darlingtonia Botanical Wayside, a preserve
for the carnivorous Darlingtonia California plant. Parking the Wing, we
strolled along a boardwalk over a soggy bog surrounded by these tall green
plants, which bear a striking resemblance to cobras. That appearance isn’t entirely
deceptive, since the Darlingtonia traps and digests insects to sustain itself.
Wandering south again,
we passed through Florence and continued to the Oregon Dunes National
Recreational Area. Here, 14,000 acres of dunes—some 500 feet high—stretch for 47
miles along the coast.
Stopping at an
overlook between Florence and Reedsport, we walked out to inhale the salt air
and listen to the booming surf. We had reached the end of the road.
From the magnificent
desolation of Hells Canyon to the spectacular beauty of Oregon Dunes, our
flight across Oregon had been a feast for the senses. Along the way, we’d
encountered rich traces of history, rugged volcanic mountains and lush valleys.
You can’t ask much
more from a state than that.