PLEASE NOTE: Check with the US Forest Service for road opening and conditions.
Guest Posted 2014:
Having not been there for a few years, I heard Hat Point calling my name. So, last Monday I took a road trip with my cousin Eric, who lives in Portland, driving from North Powder to Wallowa Lake where we met up with my sister Sandra and her BFF from California, Debbie.
We packed a picnic (recommended because you will get hungry!), huckleberry buckets, and lots of drinking water. It was a very hot day, about 101 when we made our mandatory stop at the five-mile overlook above the Imnaha Canyon and the tiny town of Imnaha.
The view from that spot is truly amazing and when you reach that point you have the added comfort of knowing the steepest, most winding and sometimes frightening climb of the road is behind you! So, breathe a sigh of relief, exclaim over the view and travel on to the forested ridges that take you to the edge of Hells Canyon.
We stopped a couple more times to scope out huckleberries and mark the road where we found some (Yum!), then stopped again at the Granny Viewpoint. There we got our first real view of Hells Canyon, ate our lunch in the shade, and reminisced about pack trips into the canyon many years ago.
This is where a good pair of binoculars is essential. The canyon is so huge, it is hard to gauge distances, and the trails we once traveled by horseback are far below. Layers of basalt cliffs, grassy open ridges and lines of giant pine trees give the scene texture and scale.
At 79, cousin Eric is a spry cancer survivor who put us all to shame as he scrambled over the rocks, climbed the tower with apparent ease and jogged down the trails. Eric spent nearly 30 years exploring Hells Canyon with his mule Mariah and pack horse Huckleberry. His knowledge of the trails and memory of every trip, each source of water, all of his favorite camping spots, is amazing.
Eric had not been back since the 1989 fire that burned the timber around Hat Point Lookout and scorched a large swath of the rim. We lamented the loss of the tall firs that had provided shade at the foot of the tower. Their skeletons stand as reminders of fire’s transforming nature. But the spectacular view of the canyon is otherwise the same and the landscape still has the power to make you feel tiny, insignificant, yet an intimate part of it at the same time. Even late in July, the wildflowers are plentiful and sprinkle brilliant color across the scene.
At Hat Point, the climb to the top of the 90-foot tower is a little frightening. Although I have climbed it many times, I had to stop and give myself a pep talk before going the final 20 feet! But that is the part of the historic tower that is most familiar and once at the top, the old green paint and wooden floor were like stepping back to my years as a teen.
The tower has been upgraded and widened at the bottom to allow more people to enjoy the scenery. Old weathered wood and chicken wire is reinforced with new, solid beams and shiny bolts. The last few landings of stairs are only open when a fire ranger is on duty. We were in luck! Michael Shaw, of Boise, Idaho, was there to greet us and to point out landmarks. He and Eric had a nice conversation about old trails and experiences in the canyon.
It is always hard to pull yourself away from Hat Point, where the Snake River is just a ribbon of blue a mile below the rim and jagged fingers of rock point skyward to the Seven Devils Mountains on the Idaho side. But we had berries to pick and miles to go before we slept, so we promised the breeze we will return and headed back toward civilization.
We arrived at R & R Drive-In in Joseph with purple fingers, treasured caches of huckleberries and memories of another unforgettable venture into canyon country. My chicken fajita was delicious and Debbie’s taco salad looked equally appealing. (Choosing where to eat in Joseph is challenging because there are so many good restaurants. And alas, we didn’t make it this time to Arrowhead Chocolates as it was getting late and we had nearly 100 miles yet to travel.)
Note: Gas up at Joseph or Enterprise. Give yourself at least four to six hours to make the side trip from the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway proper to Hat Point and back. As mentioned, the gravel road is rocky, narrow in places and winding. You will want to take your time, both for safety and to fully appreciate this incredible place. There are campgrounds for those who want more time and lots of trails to explore. Just remember, when hiking here, what goes down, must come back up! Wear a hat, take lots of water, and pace yourself. Also, elevation at the rim is . This is wild country; know where to watch for snakes and how to steer clear of bears, cougars and wolves – sightings are rare, but they are around. Chances are better you will see mule and white-tail deer, elk, coyotes, and mountain goats.