Things to See in the Blue & Wallowa Mountains

Things to See in the Blue & Wallowa Mountains
The Cascade volcanoes and the coastal headlands may be the most well-known of Oregon landscapes, but visitors miss out if they pass over the vast, lightly populated, immensely-scenic eastern portion of the state. The Blue and Wallowa mountains constitute a unique network of highlands stretching from central Oregon to the Idaho and Washington borders, providing dramatic relief in their surroundings of lava plains and sagebrush- and bunchgrass steppe. The Blue Mountains are a great series of individual ranges trending southwest to northeast from the Prineville area to southeastern Washington, including the Ochocos, Aldrich, Strawberry, Greenhorn, Elkhorn and Northern Blue mountains. The Wallowas, geologically distinct, lie nearby in far northeastern Oregon, at the western edge of Hells Canyon, North America's deepest gorge.

The Great Summits

While the High Cascades are Oregon's most famous peaks, there is a greater density of major summits---many formerly glaciated---in the less-visited northeast. Sacagawea Peak and the Matterhorn lord over the heart of the Wallowa Mountains and are the loftiest points east of the Cascades at 9,838 feet and 9,826 feet, respectively. Dozens of other Wallowa horns breach 9,000 feet. In the jagged Elkhorn Range, there's Rock Creek Butte at 9,106 feet; and, farther southwest, Strawberry Mountain (9,038 feet) looms over the John Day Valley.

High Country

High mountains surrounded by open, rolling lowlands are a sure recipe for great views. You can see High Cascade volcanoes from Emigrant Hill in the Northern Blue Mountains, traversed by Interstate-84, if the sky is clear enough; the prospect's especially apparent at sunset. Hitch the European-style tram up Mount Howard in the Wallowas to wander a paved trail at over 8,000 feet, enjoying whitebark pine, Clark's nutcrackers and vistas spanning the alpine Wallowas to the south, the Joseph Uplands and Northern Blues to the north, and the Hells Canyon country eastward---including the fierce Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho. You can also hike to stunning alpine lakes in the Wallowas, Elkhorns, and Strawberries.

Fossil Country

The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument manages three separate units along the John Day River near the Ochoco and Aldrich mountains, protecting one of the richest concentrations of Tertiary Period fossils in North America. The National Park Service-administered preserve includes the stunning Painted Hills, an ethereal stretch of colorful badlands; Sheep Rock, a distinctive peak rising above the John Day breaks; and the Clarno Unit's plant fossils, visible from hiking trails.

Flora

The Blue and Wallowa mountains are ecological crossroads; across their breadth, they bring together plants and animals from the Cascades, the Great Basin, Columbia Plateau steppe, and the Northern Rockies. While individual species composition varies from the Ochocos to the Wallowas, typically these uplifts rise from steppe or lava plains of sagebrush, bunchgrass, and/or juniper; ponderosa pine savanna at lower- and mid-elevation grades to a higher, wetter, deeper forest of firs, western larches (flaring the highlands golden in the autumn), and other conifers. The timberline country of the Elkhorn Range and Wallowa Mountains contains substantial populations of hardy and long-lived limber and whitebark pines.

Fauna

Some of the largest Rocky Mountain elk herds in the nation roam the wild tableland pastures of the northern Blues. Other ungulates include mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats (especially in the Wallowas and Elkhorns), a burgeoning moose population and pronghorn along the foothills and interior valleys. This is excellent mountain lion country, and black bears feast in the plentiful huckleberry thickets. Gray wolves have recently re-established themselves in northeastern Oregon (entering from Idaho via Hells Canyon), and there are occasional sightings of wolverine in the high country.

Base Camps

While far less populated than the Willamette Valley of western Oregon, the Blue/Wallowa Mountain country features a number of vibrant, beautiful towns that enjoy enviable access to the great outdoors. The towns of the Grande Ronde Valley---La Grande, Imbler, Elgin, Cove, and Union---are great jumping-off points for wilderness excursions, set between the Northern Blue and Wallowa mountains. On the other side of the Wallowas, Enterprise, Joseph, and other outposts of the Wallowa Valley---formerly home to Chief Joseph's Nez Perce band---enjoy unparalleled scenery. Farther southwest along the Blue Mountain front, check out Baker City, John Day, Prairie City, and other regional settlements for the kind of warm hospitality that feels especially good after an extended jaunt in the wilds.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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