HAT POINT LOOKOUT — Need someplace to get away from the coronavirus restrictions? Take a summer drive to one of the highest points in Wallowa County and see the top of the world from Hat Point Lookout.
Sure, it’s a long and at times slow drive some 65 miles from Enterprise, but the scenery on the way and the view you get on arrival are well worth it.
From Enterprise, head to Joseph and take Oregon Highway 350 to Imnaha. Head straight through the thriving metropolis of 159 people and up the hill to National Forest Road 4240, also known as Hat Point Road. The lookout is 24 miles from Imnaha on this narrow, gravel road, much of which was carved out of the hillside.
The Forest Service website warns that the road is steep, narrow and low-clearance vehicles are warned to use caution, particularly on the lower sections of the road. When wet or frozen, the advisory recommends against trailers.
But for the adventurous, there are numerous places to stop along the way — either for the view or to get out of the way of oncoming traffic — on this winding, at times bumpy trail.
Those stops can give a breathtaking — and informative — view on the way up. At about 4,000 feet, there’s a pullout where you can see Imnaha below at 1,978 feet and the Imnaha River passing through it that carved the canyon there and eventually empties into the Snake River. The canyon is full of impressive geological formations bordered by finger-like protrusions running south to north that form the canyon walls.
The layers in the Imnaha Canyon walls are basalt flows. They are 16.8 million-year old Imnaha basalts — the oldest of the Columbia River basalt flows that line the Columbia River Gorge and covered much of Oregon, Washington and western Idaho from 16.8 million to about 12 million years ago, according to a local geologist.
One can even see the tops of the Wallowa Mountains from the road up to Hat Point, though they’re obviously much farther away than we’re used to in the Enterprise-Joseph area.
The drive levels out a bit once you reach the summit and you travel another 10 miles or so on an up-and-down trek — still the narrow, winding road. Clearings along the way are covered with a wide variety of colorful wildflowers. Edible plants, such as wild strawberries, also can be found.
Near the end of the summit portion of the road, visitors come to the old Memaloose Guard Station, what appears to be a largely unused federal site with a landing strip, an A-frame cabin and several other boarded-up buildings. When there, you’re just 2 miles from Hat Point. The landing strip is still used occasionally by skilled, backcountry pilots.
Keep on going and you come around a corner to see the road head sharply uphill with the majestic sight of the 82-foot-tall Hat Point Lookout tower reaching toward heaven.
One of the few remaining operational fire lookout towers in the U.S, the Hat Point Lookout is staffed every fire season by a Forest Service lookout. The tower looks over into Hells Canyon at the highest elevation above sea level (6,982 feet) on the Oregon side of the canyon. A plaque on the tower says visitors are standing at 7,000 feet and looking down to the Snake River about 5,800 feet below.
In addition to the river and canyon, visitors can get an extraordinary view of Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains. There’s even a plaque at the tower identifying each of the Seven Devils.
At the base of the tower are amenities that include picnic tables, toilets, interpretive displays of all that’s there and parking for vehicles, trailers and RVs.
But the real highlight is taking the climb up the tower to the observation deck at 60 feet. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, visitors are only allowed that far, but in normal times, they can climb on up — two at a time — to the 7-by-7-foot lookout cab.
Looking down from the viewpoint or the tower, visitors can easily see the Snake River that carved Hells Canyon. Rush Creek Rapids are visible below. A sign at the viewpoint says the rapids are the result of a landslide that created a dam nearly 400 feet high some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Rafters on the Snake find the rapids a thrilling challenge.
According to National Historic Lookout Register, the lookout tower was registered in 2004. The original tower, built in 1916, was replaced in 1948. That original tower was a 60-foot pole tower with a 7-foot-by-7-foot cab. The current tower was extensively restored in the 1980s with the observation deck added at the 60-foot level.
One display at the site says the tower replaces the “smoke chasers” of the late 1800s and early 1900s, who lived in a pup tent on the site and would climb the nearest tall tree to scan the horizon for fires. If the smoke chaser spotted smoke, he’d race on foot or horseback to find and extinguish the fire. The lookout trees were replaced by taller, more efficient towers. On a clear day, visibility can extend 80 miles, when not obscured by clouds or by smoke from wildfires.
At the observation deck is the swivel plate for an Osborne firefinder used by lookouts to determine the location and size of fires. Invented in 1911, it was perfected in 1934 by William Osborne. Though other devices have been tried, this remains the preferred instrument, according to a display on the tower.
Along the journey a few campsites and hiking trails take off from the Hat Point Road.
It seemed the only viable way back was the road up from Imnaha. But that gives another perspective both to driver and passenger. Altogether, the day’s trip shows much of the beauty of Wallowa County.