Sun, Snow and a Devil’s Tail

By Bryan Hall

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Let’s face it: the weather this year has been positively off its meds. Snow, rain, hail, sun, wind…and sometimes all within a few hours! One day it’s 80 degrees, the next it’s freezing cold and raining. The good news is, we survived it all and are gearing up for those road trips.

Personally, I have been dying for a road trip for months, and we finally had a weekend where the weather was going to cooperate. I had been looking at a trip through Eastern Oregon and Hells Canyon, worked out the route, we packed the bikes, and headed out.

SNAKE RIVER AT HELL’S CANYON DAM, IDAHO

It was sunny and mild when Laura and I saddled up and rolled away from Nampa, avoiding the freeway and instead taking Highways 95 and 26 into Oregon. We passed through the small towns of Nyssa, Vale, Prairie City and John Day, skirting between the Umatilla and Malheur National Forests. After a quick stop in Dayville, we turned onto Oregon Highway 19 and rode through the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, catching stunning views of Sheep Rock and the Painted Hills as we rode along.  A short thirty miles later we turned onto Oregon Highway 207 and ran the twisting road through the Umatilla National Forest up to the town of Heppner, our stop for the night.

These highways are perfect for motorcycles: almost no vehicle traffic, breathtaking scenery, and twisties that ranged from low sweepers to hard corners. We found a nice little (old) motel in town called the Northwestern Motel and RV Park that was biker friendly and very reasonable: $56 for a room that was clean and comfortable, although small.

The view along US HIGHWAY 26 – NEAR UNITY, OREGON

My plan the next day was to run the backroads out of Heppner, riding Willow Creek Road to Ukiah and then catch Forest Service Roads 52 and 73 (both paved) up past Anthony Lakes and through the Blue Mountains to North Powder on I-84. Twisting and climbing as high as 7,100 feet above sea level, the road is another of those wonderful twisting and serpentine paths cutting through the forest. Anthony Lakes is actually a collection of fifteen lakes and marshes, with campgrounds and the highest ski area in Oregon. As we climbed ever higher into the mountains, we began seeing mounds of snow on the forest floor, and even a bit on the roadway itself in a couple of places.

Unfortunately, about eight miles up the road, we rounded a curve and saw the road blocked by snow. A closer inspection revealed this was the end of the road for us, so Laura and I turned the bikes around and headed back down to the junction at the North Fork of the John Day River. A quick consult of the map, and we headed south on Forest Service Road 73 into the town of Sumpter, made a quick fuel stop and continued on to Baker City. We felt a well-deserved snack and beverage break was due, so we stopped at the Main Event Sports Bar on Main Street. Afterward we made our way to Oregon Highway 86 and headed east toward Hells Canyon, cruising along past a combination of desert scrub, cultivated fields and the occasional ranch.  We stopped in Richland to top off our fuel, and being the only game around for miles, we had the luxury of paying $4.01 a gallon for premium…but at least it was non-ethanol fuel.

The temperature continued to climb into the high eighties as we neared Hells Canyon, and about thirty miles later we came to the Snake River at Copperfield. Originally, I had planned to ride up to the Hells Canyon Overlook on Pine Road, but instead opted to ride up to the Hells Canyon Dam — and ride the Devil’s Tail.  Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America, as deep as 7,900 feet and it has a width of up to ten miles. By comparison, the Grand Canyon is (only) 6,000 feet deep. Not only does Hells Canyon serve as the boundary between Oregon and Idaho, but it also separates the Blue Mountains of Oregon from the Seven Devils Range of Idaho.  The dam was built at the narrowest part of the gorge, and the 22-mile roadway up to the dam is carved out of the steep mountains.  This road is like a snake, winding along the river and climbing up and down the mountainsides.  I don’t think I got out of 3rd gear the entire length of the road.  Trust me, this road is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun!

FOREST SERVICE ROAD 73, NEAR ANTHONY LAKES, OREGON

I have ridden the famous Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina/Tennessee, which boasts 318 curves in eleven miles. I got to thinking about how many curves are included in the Devil’s Tail, so on our way back to Copperfield, I counted them. While I did not count all 22 miles, and since the Tail of the Dragon is eleven miles, that was my basis for comparison. In the eleven miles from the dam toward Copperfield, I counted 184 curves.

We headed south on the Brownlee-Oxbow Highway, crossing the Snake River once again into Idaho and on to Highway 71. The first three miles or so of the road in Idaho greeted us with more twisties and stunning views of the river, then the asphalt ribbon took us through the Cuddy Mountains into the small town of Cambridge.

The Frontier Motel was our home for the night, and was another biker-friendly place. Other than a noisy A/C unit (aren’t they always?) the room was clean, comfortable and the motel even had a heated pool for us to relax in after a 325-mile day on the road. Cambridge, at present, only has one restaurant still in business, and they are closed on Mondays.  The Canyon Station Café is small, but the food is great! Sandwiches, burgers, even a steak and pork chop are on the menu, with the meats provided by local farms. Service was top-notch as well.

Even though we racked up a little over 700 miles in three days, the ride was leisurely and relaxing, along with tons of opportunities for photos.  Put some or all of this run on your to-do list, you won’t regret it!

Bryan Hall is an experienced rider and author based in Nampa, ID; and his stories have appeared previously in Quick Throttle.  His book “Life Behind Bars” was published in 2013. You can read more on his website at “hiwayflyer.com”

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