Trip from Oregon to Washington
Bill Powell • July 2-9, 2016
Friday morning, July 2nd, found eight intrepid explorers meeting at the Green Mountain Bakery in Lakeview, Oregon. Our intrepid explorers included Neal and Marian Johns, Bill and Julie Smith, James and Heather Ray, Jim Watson, and your humble host Bill Powell. After breakfast, introductions and the obligatory paperwork, we convoyed the 20 miles South on Highway 395 to the California border and the official start of our trans-Oregon adventure. Following County Road 2, we quickly found the end of pavement and began a long ascent up to a 7600 foot pass into Oregon.
Once in Oregon, we proceeded generally North at high altitude surrounded by peaks with still a bit of snow near the summits. Then we gradually looped back toward the West and made our way back to Lakeview for lunch. We left Lakeview again at 12:30 p.m. and proceeded over paved roads in a Northwesterly direction until we were well into the Fremont National Forest, where we shifted back onto the dirt. Around 3:30 p.m., we tried following the official route up a marginal track between two well maintained Forest Service roads, but had to turn back when the track petered out. Fortunately, we found a detour and were quickly back on our prescribed route.
At around 5:30 p.m, we made our way out of the mountains to the town of Paisley for gas. I had thought we might spend the night camping at a nearby hot springs resort, but after sending out a scouting party, we decided they wanted too much money for camping, so we followed the creek that runs into town back into the mountains and found a lovely, if narrow place to spend the night for free. Total distance covered from the official starting point was 122 miles.
Day two started at about 8:30 a.m. and we first backtracked back up to about the 6000 foot level and proceeded more or less along the rim of Winter Ridge which overlooks Summer Lake. These features were named by the 1843 Fremont mapping expedition when they suddenly came to the escarpment overlooking the snow-free lake 2000 feet below them. Fremont spent the remainder of the Winter at the lake before departing in the Spring. We made brief stops at two different overlooks to take pictures and stretch legs. Just after noon, we again hit pavement where the route crosses Oregon Hwy 130 and turned right on the highway to get gas and have lunch in Summer Lake. After filling both tanks and bellies, we drove back to the route and started our desert portion of the trip. About two miles into this section, the Rays decided that is was getting too rough for their vehicle, so they reluctantly backed out of the expedition and drove up to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to continue their vacation.
The following ten miles of trail were quite rocky and we decided to take a short cut into Christmas Valley to avoid an additional 15 miles or so of more of the same. After a gas and ice cream stop in Christmas Valley, we drove up to an interesting geological feature called Crack in the Ground. It is a three and one half mile long volcanic fissure only a few feet across. We spent a while exploring the fissure and then saddled up and drove over mostly paved roads to our overnight camp in the Lost Forest. Lost Forest is a Ponderosa Pine forest 60 miles out into the desert that exists only due to a geological quirk that allows the soil to retain sufficient moisture to sustain the trees.
Day three started early at 7:30 a.m. and we drove through nearly 40 miles of rough desert terrain before reaching U.S. Hwy 20. We then drove 9 miles East to Riley, OR for gas and lunch. During lunch we discussed which way to proceed from there. The official route continues nearly straight across from where we entered the highway and crosses another several miles of desert before gradually climbing into the Ochoco National Forest. I was able to preview this section in May and it was just as rocky as what we had spent all morning traversing with the added treat of innumerable gates to open and close, so the decision was made to bypass that section and proceed via easier roads to the end of that stretch. We subsequently drove a good way into the Ochoco Mountains and stopped for the night about 5:30 p.m. on a saddle North of Sugar Loaf mountain. That evening we broke open the wine and celebrated the 4th of July and the Smith’s anniversary. Mileage 131.
Day 4 started well at 7:30; but 18 miles in we ran into a stretch of trail with downed trees as far as we could see. After three different attempts to find a way around, we bailed out to the last main Forest Service road and descended East to Hwy 395. We then turned North and drove about 10 miles to the town of Seneca where we gassed up and rejoined the route in section three. Departing Seneca at 10:30 a.m, we started into the Blue Mountains and the Mahleur National Forest. After a brief stop for lunch, we pressed on and after fording the Mahleur River, we stopped early for the day along the North Fork of the Mahleur River at a pleasant little campground alongside the river. Total for day four was 97 miles.
Started out at 7:00 a.m. on day 5 by fording the river. Around 9:00 a.m. atop Table Rock. The final ascent was rather steep, but nothing like the other side (straight down.) We were afforded a spectacular view, but we didn’t stay long because of the wind and temperature. Continuing onward, we arrived in Unity, OR for gas and lunch about 11:00 a.m. 4:00 p.m. saw us in the town of Sumpter, OR where we toured the old gold dredge. We hit the road again and finally stopped for the evening at about 6:00 p.m.
We woke up to frost on our gear the following morning. As were were only a few miles from Granite, OR, we decided to skip breakfast and head directly into town. Arriving in Granite, we discovered that the store wasn’t open yet and the gas pump only had premium gas (at an outrageous price,) so we decided to take the highway back to Sumpter. That went well until we ran into road work and flaggers. After waiting awhile, we were able to continue into Sumpter. The gas station there wasn’t open yet either, but we stopped for a nice breakfast at a restaurant that WAS open. Upon finishing our meal, we gassed up and sped back up the highway, this time avoiding a wait in the construction zone. Back on the route at 9:00 a.m., we stopped at the Fremont Powerhouse a few minutes later. The powerhouse was in operation from 1908 until 1967. It provided electricity to Granite and Sumpter as well as power for the gold dredge. Water for the turbines was brought from Olive Lake, seven miles away, in wooden pipes.
At Noon, we stopped for lunch along the John Day River, Afterward, we followed the river for several miles before climbing out of the valley. About 70 miles later, we ventured onto Interstate 84 and drove into the city of La Grande, OR for gas and dinner at a chinese buffet. After our meal, we split for the evening. Jim Watson decided to leave the group due to concerns over a slice in one of his tires and the possibility of rain on the following day. Neal and Marian decided to look for a free campsite (which they found nearby). The rest of us decided to luxuriate in a motel.
175 miles covered for the day.
Our remaining group met for breakfast at 8:00 a.m. at Denny’s. Leaving La Grande at 8:30, we drove back to the route and started back onto dirt about 9:00 a.m. (at which point the rain started.) Fortunately, the rain was light and intermittent which did wonders knocking down the dust. The first 25 miles was on excellent gravel roads along the rim of the Grande Ronde Valley. We had excellent views that were somewhat spoiled by the clouds. We got back on pavement for about 20 miles taking us into Tollgate, OR. After a quick pit stop in Tollgate, we carried onward hitting dirt again a few miles later. We traversed an area that was being logged with a few slippery places due to the road being churned up by the logging trucks. The final few miles in Oregon were over good gravel roads as we wound down out of the Blue Mountains toward the Washington border. The final stretch into Walla Walla was on pavement. We arrived at our destination at about 2:15 p.m. and after final good byes, we all went our separate ways. Mileage for the day was 110 and our total mileage was just over 900 miles including our side trips for gas.
~ Bill Powell
Photos by Julie Smith
and Bill Powell