Route takes motorists to remote areas of Wallowa CountyIt may not sound like the most inviting road in the world, and it may be hard to imagine a whole lot of vacationers and tourists eager to visit any place with the word "Hell" in its name.
But do not be deceived. Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is so eye-poppingly gorgeous that it is one of only 27 routes in the nation designated by the federal Highways Administration as an All-American Road - an honor exclusively shared by the likes of Oregon's Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, California's Big Sur Coast Highway, Maine's Acadia Byway and, yes, the Las Vegas Strip.
The 218-mile Hells Canyon route - 400 miles if you include all the side-trip possibilities - is a loop that winds through Wallowa County, encircling the Wallowa Mountains and intersecting with Interstate 84 at La Grande and Baker City. The entire roadway is well-paved and easy to drive, but plan ahead for 80-mile stretches without gas station services.
The U.S. Forest Service's Wallowa Mountain Loop Road (No. 39), which connects Joseph and Halfway and is one of the most scenic segments, is closed by snow every winter. At that time of year, check ahead if to see if the road is open.
If you plan to exit the main byway roads to hike, snowmobile or explore, pick up detailed maps and additional information at the Wallowa Mountain Visitor Center (541-426-5546) on the hill at the west edge of Enterprise.
There are five ways to enter the byway: From La Grande or Baker City via Interstate 84, Elgin via Oregon Highway 204, Enterprise via Highway 3, or Oxbow via Idaho Highway 71. To drive the full route, start at La Grande, drive to Wallowa Lake and then back to Joseph. Proceed east toward Imnaha to the Loop Road turnoff, and drive on to Oxbow on the Snake River and Halfway, ending up in Baker City.
Of course, the byway also can be traveled in reverse by starting at Baker City. In either direction, you'll pass through a total of 11 communities - including the Wallowa County cities of Wallowa, Lostine, Enterprise and Joseph, each of which offers a variety of shopping, dining and lodging opportunities.
While it is possible in good weather to travel the byway in four or five hours, reserve a few days to really enjoy the route, which winds its way through exceptional river and mountain scenery. In addition to sightseeing and wildlife viewing from the car, you may enjoy fishing, camping, hiking or cycling along the way.