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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.”

A motorcyclist-aviator 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 the canyon.

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 followed.

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 ’50s.

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 National Monument.

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 mountaintops.

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, respectively.

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 Florence.

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. 

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