Hells Canyon

July 2003

After trading in my old car for a newer one recently, it was time to take it out on a roadtrip.  My big roadtrip for the year is usually over the 4th of July weekend, but this year I had to work that weekend, so I made my trip a week later.  This year’s excursion was out to the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, a 220+ mile loop between La Grande and Baker City, in the northeast corner of the state.  Of course, first I had to get there…

I left Portland around 1:30 in the afternoon.  After fighting my way out of the metro area, the rest of the drive to Baker City was on I-84.  East of The Dalles, there’s not a lot to see along the way.  I drove most of the way with the cruise set on seventy-five, in the slow lane, being passed by Buicks and pickup trucks.

East of Pendleton sprawls the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the highway begins to climb and wind as you cross the Blue Mountains.  The experts say that between 300 and 220 million years ago, two tectonic plates in the South Pacific collided, forming the Blue Mountain Island Arc.  Then over the next 100 million years or so, the islands slowly migrated north, eventually slamming into the North American plate.  This pushed up the mountains of central Idaho, and shoved the Pacific Ocean further west.  Afterwards, until about 6 million years ago, various lava flows filled in the rough topography, forming a 70,000 square-mile plateau in parts of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho known as the Columbia River Basalts.

The Blue Mountains today likely appear much smaller than they did millions of years ago, but nonetheless I discovered that my Civic doesn’t care for driving uphill at sixty.  At least I never came close to overheating, but all along this trip I saw a number of other cars parked along the highway with their hoods up.

When I arrived in Baker City, it was around 6:30 pm, and 90 degrees.  I managed to make the drive on a full tank of gas, and filled up after checking into my motel.