USA's beauty that only Americans seem to know About

Published: April 30th 2012
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The states continually come up with surprises. New ways to explore and discover are just around the bend. Little did I know I had covered parts of the Oregon Trail months earlier only this time, I would start from its grand finale - the Colorado River.

The Oregon Trail is an unknown road for most tourists travelling the US. In 1803 President Jefferson sent instructions to some guys called Lewis and Clarke to explore the Missouri River and other rivers for a direct route to the Pacific Ocean. The route they found is still partially used but not entirely because it wasn’t suitable for wagon transportation. Their 1804-06 adventure confirmed that there were two major rivers heading out of the northern Rockies but no easy route through the land from the east to the west. Therefore not good for emigrating easily but perfect for a road trip in 2012.

I would only get a sniff of this place but what I saw I can’t recommend enough. I only scratched the surface covering the Columbia River that splits Oregon State with Washington State. East Oregon toward Hells Canyon into southern Idaho toward the Craters of the Moon than south toward Nevada.

Hwy 84 is your main highway starting from Portland and before too long about 20 minutes you’ll see a poorly positioned sign and have a guess to turn off and hope its right. This will lead you to Hwy 30 the old highway purposely built to cover the best part of the Columbia River.

I’m still not even sure if it’s the right turn off but it will lead you to Chanticleer Point. That point will look down toward the Columbia Gorge you will drive through and the Columbia River you’ll drive next to.

The technical start is at the Vista House at Crown Point. This 1916 built house is the information centre and that provides one of the highlight viewpoints. The main feature is a 12 mile road that covers 5 waterfalls and a gorge. You can hike it or drive the mile or two between each fall and then hike the area near the falls. Even with the weather being rather miserable it’s impressive.

What is so good about America (with a car) is that you don’t have to plan that far ahead. Have a rough guide of where you want to be in a few days time and just drive and see where it takes you. From Crown Point you go on a series of figure 8’s toward the river level and meet up with the waterfalls.

The first fall shocked me because I didn’t even expect them to have so much power. Suddenly it was a great day to see this place with all the downpour of previous days. Each fall had its subtle differences. Some cascading straight down others swerve its way down the wall passing underneath a bridge and into the River.

The highlight however is the Multnomah Falls, which is a multi tiered fall covering 620ft (189m) from top to bottom. (Only 3 other waterfalls are higher in the country.) There is a path that zig-zags around to different viewpoints and a bridge half way that makes you look front on with the spray of the falls drop as well as looking over the top of the second fall. I’ve seen many a waterfall but I’d say for convenience to a city its up there with one of the finest (About a 30 minute drive from Portland.) Nothing beats a true cascading waterfall with greenery everywhere, very photogenic.

Back on the road it’s hard to grab the scale of the cliffs and hills towering over the river until you look across to Washington State. Small waterfalls leave the land falling off the cliff face. Whilst mini looking trucks and cars travelling along the top or half way up the hill. Sometimes a barge boat passes along the river at a very slow pace. This is the finish product of the trail. Oregon at its finest and still providing the rewards.

This area is known for its moist green look. But once you hit Mosier the lush western fjord changes to the eastern deserts. The change is almost instant as you pass the Blossom fields of Mosier, currently just twigs and rise over a few more peaks and lush, moist green is now a glorious memory. Moving to the Oregon desert of drier colours of yellows, browns and light green.

To appreciate the scenery you stop a lot so overnight stopovers are common. The hostel industry in USA is extremely poor when you think of what it has to offer so you are probably wondering how can a backpacker afford to hire a car and stay in a hotel? Well I slept in the car if I wanted to get up in the morning to see some nature sight at its best lighting – dawn. The other option is to grab a coupon booklet from the tourist information centres that provide discounts at hotel chains. This sometimes dominates where I’d spend the night.

On this occasion after one final big night out in Portland I had to have a good nights sleep. I was heading toward Hells Canyon so I stayed the night in Hermiston.

A lot of the no frill chains are run by Indians (Asian) and The Way Inn hotel was no different. They are hit and miss with the service and this place did the job. Nothing to right home about accept on this occasion except the curry smelling entrance like all other Asian Indian owned hotels... and that will be all.

Because I loved Oregon’s scenery so much I ended up staying another night in East Oregon in Baker City. There I stayed at Bridge Street Inn. Baker City was named after the only US Senator to be killed in military combat. Dying leading his Union troops in 1861 in the Civil War. Originally just a post office, once the railroads came along it expanded and became the biggest town between Portland and Salt Lake City. It has an Interactive museum on the Oregon Trail and in hindsight I should have visited but I didn’t.

There are many hotels to stay at but I found a cheaper option than the coupons at Bridge Street hotel. A Thai lady works there every Wednesday and it was the nicest stay I had in these types of hotels.

To keep her sanity she explained, she cooks a free meal for all her guests. This way the night passes quicker and she gets to know her customers. Most of the time these hotel workers just provide a dry response to your request for a room. Rarely a smile but here, there was conversations on her life moving from Thailand to be with her husband. Some guy who spends a grand some weeks on gas for work in the winter because he has to go the long way around. It was almost hostel like with an adult touch - Completely unheard of. The rooms are in pretty good nick for what you pay. Which is almost the same as a hostel in the big cities.

Between those two towns and the next day was my effort to see USA’s deepest canyon, Hells Canyon. Deeper than the Grand Canyon it would be a hell of an experience when the price of gas was hurting the brown strip of the back of my credit card.

By the end I would see still stunning scenery but not the desired result of Hells Canyon. Instead realising that East Oregon cows love to eat the stuff from outside the fence. Yep! It’s amazing where your eyes look to and your brain concentrates on when they are both over the car snorting up the road.

The roads are not straight forward, they manoeuvre around the land from fertile farmland and through nice little towns like Elgin and Joseph. The whole time Wallowa Mountains are to your left. A slight veer off is the Wallowa Lake. Just before you get there, there is a burial site of Old Chief Joseph the towns namesake. An Indian leader of the Nez Perce tribe a group of natives in the northwest region of the states.

He died in 1871 and was succeeded by Chief Joseph his son. In 1877 a war broke out after the tribes of the region refused to give out their ancestral lands and move to reservations in Idaho. Again the story of promises that weren’t kept and they lost their land. Old Chief Joseph had a permanent burial site but it was desecrated and his skull taken as a souvenir. Eventually he was reburied near the lake. Close by in a white marble gravesite of the McCully’s who were respected by the natives and seen as friends and proof that not all white people from that era are bad.

A short drive further is the Wallowa Lake one of the worlds best moraines, from a crystal clear look one end the other side is covered in mist. Mountain ranges surround the place and you can hear a pin drop the silence is that peaceful. They have skiing in the area at Ferguson’s Ridge and Mt Howard but it seemed only operational on the weekends.

There is something special seeing the first pats of snowfall hit the windscreen. I always feel like it’s my lucky day. But luck would soon turn sour. Usually the Hells Canyon route is a nice loop trip that takes about 5 hours. It would take me that long but only because eventually I would retrace my steps.

Just past Joseph a turn off about 40 minutes later from memory is hwy 39. Here you climb to 5000ft (1524m) along a slowly deteriorating road that has been snow ploughed. Rocks from the cliff face on the side is scattered everywhere. The pine trees have snow all over them and I just had to stop to take a photo and pee. Some of my great viewpoints in remote places have been great pee spots as well. I am not alone with this traveller fetish. Many people have admitted this prior to me making a comment.

As I took a photo another car of I think Christians drive pass me. Soon after I see them ahead and the car has overheated. I don’t know much about cars but as they stood there in this remote part of America in the snow covered in early Spring it appeared I had more knowledge than them.

I have my bum blue wind jacket on not shaven and say, “I think you should turn the engine off to cool it down.” They think that this is a good idea. I offer if they want me to drive back to the next gas station, as I will probably be blocked off at the top of this mountain. They look at the situation and figured it’s safer to not take the offer up.

I drive off and reach Salt Creek Recreation area. There are cars there but in the car park the road is fully covered. I wanted to just see what I could do and test out the road. Maybe if I had a travel buddy with me to put that last seed in the head. Instead I saw someone who said that, “only snowmobiles are allowed. It will be like this till May most likely.” So I had to drive 3 hours more than I would have normally in summer and ended up in Baker City as dark set in.

Prior to Baker City I passed the 45th parallel, the half way point between the equator and the North Pole. That was prior to Haines where I would return to on my way to Anthony Lakes in the Elkhorn Peaks, the next day.

Skiing never crossed my mind. In North America, Canada and the USA Rockies are the only places that come to mind but the states are full of skiing options. The weather was not encouraging but I climbed up in my Nissan Versa through the icy road thinking, “I hope I have no problems with friction on the way down.”

I got to the ski field and the powder of the fresh snow should have got me out of my seat but I had to try Hells Canyon one more time. At the Grand Canyon I saw it from the top. Even with the top closed off I could still see Hells Canyon from the bottom up.

The road goes along the Inmaha River passing sites like the Hole in the Wall. Travelling up and down valleys to eventually a misty land of no point continuing when you just pass a town called Halfway. The best town name to give you a warning ever. Hells canyon felt like a hell of a few days as I went back to see the only worthwhile site to mention apart from the lush farm lands that could be mistaken for the Scottish highlands.

The Hole in the Wall is when in September 1984 heavy rains and a possible earth tremor caused a landslide of a small portion of Hwy 86. This caused the isolation of many people toward the Hells Canyon area. Around 10 million cubic yards of soil and rockslide. The equivalent of a 10-yard dump truck bumper to bumper extended from Baker City (east Oregon) to New York and back again. You can still see the remains of the highway along the north bank of Powder River.

As you descend making your way back toward Baker City a viewpoint looks out to the plain. The Blue Mountains to the west and a solitary tree in the valley below. French Canadian fur trappers called it l’arture seul (the lone tree) For possible centuries this tree was a landmark for Indians, trappers missionaries and Oregon Trail emigrants until 1843 when some emigrant put an axe to it and now we just have a plain.

The main highway is still highway 84/30 as that provides the final bastion to Oregon nature in spectacular fashion in the form of massive hills to climb whilst the petrol metre showing bright orange all the way to the end with the promise of cheaper gas on the downhill cycle to Idaho and Boise. I barely touched the surface of Oregon and I crave more.

One day if this life treats me well from here on in I will have myself another chance to visit Oregon. A gifted state that for months whilst travelling the states I heard all Americans say… “Do yourself a favour. Go to Oregon.” And they were not wrong. There is so much diversity with this country for me to pinpoint my absolute favourite but don’t be surprised to see this in my top 3 states and Portland in my top 3 cities by Journeys end.

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