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Old 06-14-2021, 10:36 PM   #1
MarinBlaine's Avatar
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Eastern Oregon adventure tips? Steens/Alvord/Blue Mountains/Hellís Canyon

Hi folks,

This being the summer of “critical mass” camping, my wife and I plan on visiting somewhere we’ve been talking about for a while and making Eastern Oregon the destination in mid-July.. The plan is to head east to Winnemucca, then head north to take in Steens Mountain, then up to the Blue Mountains, with Hell’s Canyon as the furthest destination. Then back south on the other side of Steen’s to take in the Alvord Desert.

I have only traveled through here once, heading from Boise through Rome and then to Burns and south on 395. It was stark and amazing country.

Several questions, any local advice is appreciated:

1. Is there dispersed camping on Steen’s Mountain? Otherwise is there adequate camping at the campgrounds? I’ve heard that the weather can turn and spoil this part of the trip but gotta try. And can my 2wd E250 EB do the whole loop?

2. Any light anyone can share about the Blue Mountains is welcome...I just learned of them last week! Any favorite spots with views/lakes/rivers? Do I need to worry about crowds, or are these remote enough that we should be ok?

3. I’ve got Hell’s Canyon as my final area...any suggestions about where to visit are welcome...and is Hell’s Canyon busy?

4. Heading back to take in the Alvord Desert.

Anything we should add? Anything we should skip? Any little known mountain ranges? Should we try to find remote access to the Owyhee River (much further east!)

As you can see we are generally aimless and wandering favorite traveling. Any tips or tough love are appreciate!


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Old 06-14-2021, 11:37 PM   #2
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Highly recommend Leslie Gulch at the top (southern) end of Owyhee reservoir. Amazing geology and access to the lake... also great hiking. West of the Steens is the Hart Mt. Antelope Refuge - great camping up on top or down on the Western edge. It's going to be hot out there so be sure to bring your own shade.

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Old 06-15-2021, 06:59 AM   #3
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The Blue mountains are pretty fantastic! The main camping areas like Anthony Lakes to fill up, but you don't have to go far to find your own camp spot.

I highly recommend some time at Wallowa State Park, if you can get a spot. If not, a day trip there would still be worth it. I really enjoyed one of the Rail-Rider trips along the river last summer. And there's some amazing hikes and horse-back trips that all start in the little village at the state-park entrance.

For the most part, besides the popular lake campgrounds, you shouldn't have much trouble with crowds. Or people in general. Also stop by Sumpter! They have a giant old gold-dredge, and a neat little steam railway.

One stopover that surprised me was Unity Lake. It's wide open prairie in this area, but the views of the lake at sunset can't be beat.
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Old 06-15-2021, 11:23 AM   #4
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Location: Roseburg, OR
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For Hells Canyon I would recommend taking a trip out of of Joseph/Enterprise north into the Zumwalt Prairie and up to Buckhorn Overlook. In the Zumwalt you are likely to see Elk in the lower grass lands. AT the Buckhorn Overlook you are looking over the canyon into Idaho and Washington. There are several different ways to make a loop around in this area. All accessible by 2wd van. I can send you some coordinates to some camping spots up in this area.
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Old 06-15-2021, 02:14 PM   #5
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There is dispersed camping around Steens Mt. There is also private land so a good map/gps is nice. The campgrounds have fences to keep the cattle out though. The south half of the Loop road is really rough, but I saw a minivan doing it. Slowly.

The Blue Mts is our closest camping area. There aren't a lot of water features or points of interest, so those get crowded esp on weekends. The Grande Ronde river upstream from LaGrande is nice. It warms up enough for swimming, and there are some dispersed sites on the way. The road continues to Anthony Lakes and Sumpter. But we like to go up higher where it's cooler and less crowded. Just drive out any ridge road and find campsites that are only used during hunting season.

For Hell's Canyon, starting at the south end, drive from Oxbow out to Hell's Canyon Dam to see the Snake river starting down the canyon. Then take USFS road 39 north towards Joseph. Hell's Canyon Overlook is along that road, and dispersed camping down any side road. Continue to Joseph, or turn right on USFS gravel road towards Imnaha. From Imnaha out and back to Hat Point lookout (highest point). No dispersed camping between Imnaha and Joseph - all private land. The only busy spot is near Oxbow due to fishing. There are no gas stations except between Oxbow and Halfway, and in Joseph. For sure drive out to Wallowa Lake near Joseph!

The other area we liked was the Warner Range east of Lakeview and Alturas. Very lonely there, and unexpected deep forest in the desert.
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Old 06-15-2021, 07:48 PM   #6
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There is a road that goes down the oregon side towards Hells Canyon damn that gets much less use that the ID side. A couple miles down by the tunnel is amazing camping on the reservoir. The strangest thing is this wifi hotspot in the middle of the camp spot. I could stay down there for a week.

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Old 06-15-2021, 10:02 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by dhally View Post
There is dispersed camping around Steens Mt. There is also private land so a good map/gps is nice. The campgrounds have fences to keep the cattle out though. The south half of the Loop road is really rough, but I saw a minivan doing it. Slowly.
I live not too far from the Steens so I've done that loop several times; dhally is correct. Want to add that the north part of the loop has a lot of washboard but is a good road. Lots of camping area but - on a holiday weekend they can be pretty full. Yes, the south half of the loop will take time - lots of rocks sticking out of the road but nothing that your 2wd van can't drive over. You just have to go slow.

Looking at the Alvord playa from the top of the Steens:
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And you might like to check out the ruins of Alberson Station, a few miles north of the Alvord Playa:
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Old 06-16-2021, 04:59 PM   #8
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Just commenting on Hell's Canyon in July (HOT)! Actually as America's deepest canyon it ranges from approximately 1500' to 7000' in elevation so you could pick your preferred climate. Expect the temperatures along the Snake river in the canyon bottom to reach upwards of 105-110 degrees in July. Along the Snake (upriver from Hell's Canyon Dam) you can find plentiful dispersed sites and a few developed campgrounds run by Idaho Power. A fun side trip would be to sign up with one of the outfitters running jet boat tours below Hells Canyon Dam. This would also give you a great perspective of just how rugged and steep the country is.

If you want to remain relatively cool and camp at higher elevations, I personally prefer the Oregon side for touring via road systems versus the more restricted access in Idaho. Dhally gave a good suggestion to take road #39 between Joseph and Oxbow Dam. I really like Forest Rd 66 which accesses Twin Lakes off of Rd 39. There is a small campground at the lake, but also plentiful dispersed sites before the lake as well. Another side trip off Rd 39 is following the Imnaha River up Forest Rd 3960. There are three developed FS campgrounds along this stretch with a few dispersed sites as well.

If time and temperament allows I would strongly recommend leaving your rig parked at one of the Eagle Cap wilderness trailheads and partaking in some epic backpacking opportunities. This wilderness area is a gem, but appreciating it requires a fair amount of physical exertion.

As far as crowds go, I think the river corridor will be mostly "light" due to the heat. The more popular campgrounds near lakes at the higher elevations will probably mostly fill up on weekends. However, there should be many dispersed sites to choose from as well.

Photos: Looking into Oregon from Idaho side, Imnaha River, Twin Lakes

Have a great trip!
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Old 06-17-2021, 09:42 PM   #9
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Wow! The exceptional responses deserve many heartfelt thanks! Many blanks have been filled in! Please share any other thoughts, this is vast country. This group continuing to give such great info is why I think this is the greatest online community. Always great advice, thank you thank you!


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