Day Trip to Hell and Back

Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area, that is. Located in relative close proximity to where we are staying in the Wallowas, the Hell’s Canyon “natural wonder” was something we felt we had to visit. Although we were not disappointed, getting there certainly made this a trip of an entire day.

We really did not know what to expect. Our research indicated that there were a few different places to view the canyon. One of these is Hat Point Overlook. It is one of the best viewpoints, and is also the closest to Joseph, Oregon where we were starting from. Before you can get to Hat Pt., you must first drive to the town of Imnaha. On the map, the road appeared to be fairly straight and headed due east ending at Imnaha some 30 miles from Joseph. We figured “no sweat”. We’ll just drive to Imnaha, head over to Hat Pt. and look at the canyon. At that moment, we had no idea what was in store.

Since Hell’s Canyon is the deepest canyon in North America, deeper than the Grand Canyon, we assumed that Imnaha was a town on the canyon’s edge. We’d just drive out there and basically look down. After just a couple of miles from Joseph, we noticed that the road started descending from the high plain that is the Wallowa Valley. The further east we went, the more we dropped in elevation.

Road to Imnaha

The distance from Joseph to Imnaha is about 30 miles.  This photo gives you an idea of the terrain and geologic features that were more and more dramatic the closer we got to Imnaha.




There is not much to see in Imnaha. At the end of the paved road (yes, after 30 miles it’s a dead end), you make a right turn and this view is what you are presented with. The post office is on the left, and the Imnaha Store and Tavern is on your right. That’s pretty much it except for a few houses up this street and to the left. If you can enlarge this photo, you will notice that the street narrows as it heads towards the hill in the background. Shortly, the pavement ends and a gravel road bends to the right and immediately you start climbing literally up the side of the mountain. Little did we know what we were in for by driving this road.

Not Hells Canyon After about 20 minutes of climbing, we came to a turnout and were presented with this view. Although a deep canyon with dramatic features, and even a river at the bottom, this is NOT Hell’s Canyon. The farms and ranches at the bottom gave a clue, as there are no farms or ranches in Hell’s Canyon. And this canyon was not nearly deep enough or wide enough.


Jeep_Hat Pt. Road


Once on top, we found ourselves driving through forest that, at times, was quite heavy. Among other things, there was ample evidence of past forest fires. But there were also large areas of old growth trees spaced so tightly that it was hard to see very far into the forest. Quite beautiful. It was about this time that we stopped to check our map and GPS to find that this road was going to take us 24 miles to Hat Point Overlook. We had thought it was about 12 miles.

7 Devils_Hell's Canyon As we were leaving Joseph to go to Imnaha, and then on to Hat Pt. Overlook, we could see a jagged mountain range way off in the distance. Even after leaving Imnaha and climbing up onto the ridge that would eventually take us to Hat Pt., this same sawtooth range seemed quite distant as we caught glimpses through the trees. Then, after nearly traveling 24 miles on top of our mountain, we came around a bend and we were face-to-face with the 7 Devils of Hell’s Canyon. Even in this photo, it’s hard to believe the “Devils” are 10 miles on the other side of Hell’s Canyon.

Fire Watch Tower_Hell's Canyon


The landmark that lets you know that you have arrived at the Hat Point Overlook is this fire watchtower. We found it quite ironic that this tower was almost completely surrounded by evidence that a forest fire all but burned the tower down. In reality, this tower and Hat Pt. are at the same location, which is on a mountain top overlooking Hell’s Canyon. This is prime territory for frequent lightning strikes, the cause of most forest fires. Whether lightning caused or not, we saw evidence of separate past fires all along the 24 mile stretch of this particular ridgeline as we were climbing up and then driving on top.

Wild Flowers_Hat Pt. Overlook_Hells Canyon

In spite of the barrenness of the past fire at the base of the fire watchtower, and the lateness of summer, these flowers did not get the memo. Although not so evident in this photo, there were beds of color from fresh blooms covering the entire areas adjacent to the parking area.


Hells Canyon

The claim is that Hell’s Canyon is wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon. And, although that is true, it’s hard to have a vantage point for demonstrating the difference. This was about the best shot we could get that showed the Snake River far below, but this spot does not necessarily show the canyon at its deepest point…or its widest.

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