|Exploring the Southern Hells
Canyon of Oregon & Idaho
|May 24 & 25, 2003
|Last Update: February 18, 2005 Article Repaired 4-23-08
|This would be a short trip, only 2 days, but it was the first major expedition of the year. My
friend John and I would only take one vehicle, my truck, and we would explore the southern Hells
Canyon area near the northern Oregon and Idaho borders.
|A map of the general area of
|While John and I have spent much time in Eastern Oregon, usually our trips that this far away would last at least 3
or 4 days. This time, we were limited to only 2 days. We had made initial plans to cover a wide area. We were
going to explore the southern Hells Canyon area on Saturday and then explore the vast mining area west of Baker
City, Oregon on Sunday. As it turned out, we barely were able to cover the first area in both days. The mining
area near Sumpter, west of Baker City, would have to wait until later this summer. Probably not a bad decision
considering the snow levels still prevented us front reaching much higher than 5500 feet. Much of the interesting
mining areas east of Baker City are well above those elevations. The Canyon rim in this area was not much higher
4000 feet. As it turned out we only barely saw any snow, but it did stop us from exploring one mine that we wanted
The trip started on Friday night, May 23rd. We were franticly trying to get out of town at the last minute. Leaving
the Portland area at about 10pm we were hoping to make the Umatilla National Forest, east of Pendleton by about
2am, where we had planned to camp for the night. We ended up stopping well short of our intended destination.
Somewhere west of Pendleton, while driving on Hwy 84, at about 2am, we agreed it was time to call it a night. But
with nothing but private land around us, finding a camping spot would be difficult at best. To make a long story
short we settled on an old dirt road next to a huge railroad trestle. It seemed like a nice quiet out of the way
spot....until a mile long freight train sped by out of nowhere at about 70 mph, only a few feet from our camp site.
We thought, how many freight trains could possibly be running in the wee hours of the morning...on a Friday
night....on Memorial day weekend.....in the middle of nowhere?
I lost count at about 5am. Still wide awake and wondering why we decided to park next to what would turn out to be
one of the busiest rail lines on the west coast. By 7am, I had caught maybe an hour of sleep. It turned out that
Union Pacific ran about 2 to 3 trains per hour that night.
|Our camp spot the first night. This is right next
to the major Oregon east-west Union Pacific
rail line. One of the busiest on the west coast.
|The rear of the truck, loaded for the trip
|Pictures of several of the many trains that ran by that night. These were taken by John. These trains were
traveling at full speed and the noise was deafening.
|From our sleepless camping spot, we promptly got up and drove into Pendleton where we ate breakfast and headed
to Baker City, about 1 hour away. Baker City is not a huge town, but big enough to support the surrounding area
and a great launch point for exploring one of the most interesting areas of Oregon. To the west is what used to be
one of the largest gold mining areas in the country. To the east and northeast is the famous Hells Canyon. The
deepest canyon in North America, surpassing even the more famous Grand Canyon. On this trip, we would be
skipping the mining area to the west. We had already visited that area several times, although we do have plans to
visit it again later this summer as there are vast unexplored areas left for us to see.
Today, we were going to head east and explore the southern Hells Canyon area. After refueling in Baker City, we
headed out of town, but made a quick stop in a small mining area just east of Baker City. In the relatively short
4000 foot tall hills just east of Baker is a smaller, but very old mining area peppered with mines as old as the mid
1800s. They including mines such as the Virtue Mine, Uncle Dan and Brazos mine. We had expected to be turned
away by gates, but this area was BLM land and very much open to the public. Since our time was limited we
headed for the biggest mine, the Virtue. There we saw several old buildings and even a few open shafts, but few
remains. This area is so easily accessible, that it is likely visited almost daily, by locals from Baker City. Most of
the mine shafts were collapsed, but a few were found still open. This is what is known as the Virtue mine district.
It dates from 1862 and continued production until 1884. It was reopened in 1893 and closed again in 1907.
Supposedly mining has not occurred since, but some of the few remaining equipment in the area indicates some
mining might have occurred sometime after 1907.
|The main shafts of the Virtue mine.
These were open, although too
dangerous to explore. The last major
mining ended around 1907, but the left
over equipment indicated that some
local miners might have prospected as
recently as the 1950s or 1960s.
|One of the old miner's cabins near the
Virtue mine. This building could be as
old as the 1860s or as new as the very
|Driving up the dirt road to the Virtue
|The view from the area was great.
Here we're looking east to the
Wallowa mountains. Average
peak of the Wallows is about 8000
to 9000 feet. Picture was taken
from about 4500 feet.
|This was an interesting shaft of
the Virtue mine cluster. The
adit was not safely reachable
due to the huge winze directly
in front of the shaft. Here, ore
was likely dumped out of the
shaft into the winze to be
pulled out a lower elevation
|An open and accessible shaft in the Virtue mine cluster. However
the entrance was so unstable we didn't dare enter.
|Me checking out a mine. As can
be seen, I usually carry a firearm
when in remote areas to protect us
from dangerous animals, bear and
|More views of the Wallowa mountains. Average peak of the Wallows is about 8000 to
9000 feet. Pictures taken by John.
|Stopping to refill the water bottles
before departing the area. There
was certainly more to explore there,
but we were constrained by time.
|While exploring the area, we ran into the driver of this lost Unimog who
was trying locate a windmill research station on one of the local hills.
This was a company owned vehicle and very impressive. The driver was
only given GPS coordinates and was having a hard time navigating the
maze of old mining roads. We pointed him in the right direction using
the USGS maps we had on our laptop computer. . Imagine having to
drive a Unimog off road as part of your job. That would be fun!.
|Leaving the Virtue mining area we headed for our main destination, the Oxbow dam, the southern entrance into the
Hells Canyon area. Along the way, we did make a few more stops. For anyone visiting the area, the town of
Halfway is about 1 hour east of Baker City along the way to Oxbow dam on Hwy 86. North of Halfway, is an
extremely interesting ghost town of Cornucopia. This is a true ghost town and sort of a smaller version of Silver
City, Idaho (see my Silver City write up). Lots of very old buildings, no occupants, and no power or running water.
It is an extremely interesting and very authentic ghost town, without any tourist traps to ruin the experience.
However, since we had already visited Cornucopia in years past and because it was likely still snowed in, we
skipped the area.
Roughly halfway between Baker City and Oxbow dam on highway 86 is an interesting piece of highway history.
Here in about 1984 the old highway was completely covered and destroyed by a huge landslide. For several years,
the road was impassable and residents of the area had to take a major detour around the landslide. The Landslide
was so huge, the highway had to be completely rebuilt several miles around the slide area.
In this area there was also one interesting mine, called the Macy mine. We had discovered this mine several years
ago after we spotted the old stamp mill off in the distance from the highway. Exploring further we found the old
road leading to the stamp mill and several mine shafts. We decided to visit this mine again. To our surprise and
dismay, the stamp mill is now gone. It appears to be have torn down! I was horrified that such an interesting piece
of history would be destroyed. We knew the mines in the area were still being prospected by someone and
theorized that perhaps the mill (the only part of the mining area visible from the highway) was torn down to stop
luring curious travelers from exploring the area and disturbing the mines. Very disappointing indeed.
The Macy mine was discovered in 1920 and there are several thousand feet of tunnels in 2 main adits and 1 main
prospect adit. The lower adit is the one that was most recently worked and contains newer rail tracks. The
prospect is at mid level only goes back about 30 feet. The upper adit is well sealed off, but tracks can still be seen
leading out of the adit and onto the tailings pile. It is the rare find of existing rail lines that make these mines
among the more interesting.
|The view of the old highway 86 covered by a major slide in 1984. In the picture on the left you can see the remains
of the old highway. In the picture on the right, the huge slide is still evident today. The mountain is still moving
about 1 inch per day.
|The Macy mine main lower adit.
Recently still in use, this would be
an interesting mine to explore, but
we were stopped by a gate inside
|The middle prospect adit. This
shaft only went back about 30 feet
before curving the left and dead
|The ore car tracks just outside the
main Macy mine lower adit.
These tracks and the bridge appear
to be modern construction that was
built not too long before we first
visited this mine a few years ago.
|The upper adit of the Macy mine. Note the very old ore car tracks leading to the edge of the huge tailings pile.
This adit was closed shut with a huge iron door and did not appear to have been worked in many years. We rarely
find intact original ore car rail lines. These were very interesting.
|We soon left the Macy mine and the old highway slide area to make our final push to the Oxbow dam. Oxbow is a
small town that is the gateway to the southern Hells Canyon area. The Oxbow dam and Hells Canyon dam, about
20 miles down river, form several huge reservoirs that are excellent for boating, but the remoteness makes it a
difficult and long journey for most. The Oxbow dam and Hells Canyon dam are part of the Idaho Power Company.
They were one of the few privately built dams in the U.S. While construction of the Oxbow started in 1909, it wasn't
completed until the 1960s due several decade long delays. The Hells Canyon dam was finished around the same
time. Fortunately, environmentalism took favor over corporate greed and the northern Hells Canyon dam projects,
planned for the late 1960s and early 1970s never got underway. Had they been completed as planned, the
incredibly scenic northern Hells Canyon area would have been flooded as well. Today, it will remained unmolested
as a national recreation area, hopefully forever.
To gain access to the lower Hells Canyon area, you must first cross a bridge near the Oxbow dam. From there you
are now in Idaho and can only travel north on very narrow and twisty, but paved road to the Hells Canyon dam site
about 20 miles away. From the Hells Canyon dam you can take boat rides down the huge rapids of the remaining
wild section of the Snake River. It is the only road into and out of the area...except for one...the infamous
The Kleinschmidt Grade is a pretty steep and very historical dirt road that leads up the canyon wall on the Idaho
side and into some very remote old Idaho mining country. The base of the grade is located roughly between the
Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams. The grade was built in the late 1800s to supply a road from the Seven Devils
mining district in Idaho to the Snake River. The original plan was to ship ore from the Seven Devils area down the
Kleinschmidt Grade and up the Snake River to a railroad. A steam boat was actually built for this purpose, but the
run upriver never happened as the boat was unable to navigate up the heavy rapids. Later, that boat was floated
down river and used elsewhere. A feat in and of itself that a steamboat was able to safely float down the heavy
rapids of the Snake River, even if only once. In the 1920s the Ballard Landing bridge was built across the Snake
River at the base of the Kleinschmidt road to an existing dirt road on the Oregon side. The Idaho road between the
Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams did not exist at that time. The bridge was the only access across the Snake River
from the Oregon side. Ore from the Iron Dyke copper mine in Homestead, on the Oregon side of the canyon. was
transported up the Kleinschmidt grade to a processing plant built in the remote Seven Devils district. Today, that
bridge is long gone. It was destroyed sometime in the mid to late 1960s, after the canyon was flooded and a new
bridge was built at Oxbow and a new road built on the Idaho side that connected with the current Idaho road near
the Kleinschmidt Grade. Not long ago, the Kleinschmidt road was extremely dangerous due to lack of travel and
maintenance. Today, the road is still rarely maintained and it can be dangerous, but an occasional grading allows
passage by 2WD car, in dry weather conditions. The views are breath taking.
Our plan was to initially skip the Kleinschmidt Grade and push on to the Hells Canyon dam. We would drive up the
Kleinschmidt Grade that evening on our way back from the Hells Canyon dam and find a camping spot near the
canyon rim. The Hells Canyon dam is a beautiful site. However it is depressing to realize what this once raging
river must have looked like before it was destroyed by the dams. I've heard there are possible plans to pull out the
dams. I have mixed feelings about this. I certainly hate to reduce our power resources, but returning the river to
it's natural state would offer one of the most scenic areas in the world.
|The Idaho road to Hells Canyon
dam. We stopped here to cool off
in the river. The temps that day
was a very soggy 100 degrees.
|Some more views of the canyon and a creek up a valley. Pictures
taken by John.
|Another view of the Wallowa
mountains just prior to entering
|A view of the old Hells
Canyon dam bypass tunnel.
The river flowed through this
concrete tunnel during dam
construction in the 1960s.
|Another view of the Hells
Canyon dam and spillway.
|The Hells Canyon Dam.
|A view from on top of the dam
looking north. Here you see
the last remaining unmolested
stretch of the Snake River.
The most famous part of Hells
Canyon is well north of here.
|The Kelvi schmidt Grade. Lots
of warning signs might give
cause for concern, but this road
is easily passable by 2WD in
good weather. It is, however,
not a road for those who fear
heights. There are no
guardrails, the road is just wide
enough for one vehicle and it's
straight down several thousand
feet on most of the road.
|Starting up the Kleinschmidt
Grade. The views only got
better the higher we climbed.
|The only real concern with
the Klienschmidt grade in dry
weather is that it is a single
track road with only a few
turnouts. Luckily we met few
|Yet another incredible view
from near the top of the
Idaho side of the canyon rim.
|Map of the Kleinschmidt Grade
|A view while driving up the grade. Note the computer on the right
picture with maps of the area on display. This is the view from the
passenger side. Pictures by John.
|The Kleinschmidt Grade leads deep into the Idaho copper mine country, the Seven Devils mining district. It is one
of the very few access roads into Idaho in the Hells Canyon area. Upon reaching the top, our plan was to camp for
the night and then explore the Seven Devils mining district and the ghost town of Cuprum the next day. We found
a pretty nice flat camp spot and actually got some decent sleep that sleep. There were no trains anywhere keeping
|Map of the Cuprum and
Bluejacket mine area
|Our camp site the 2nd night, about
2 miles west of the ghost town of
|The next morning we got up and drove into Cuprum. I knew nothing about Cuprum, other than it appeared to be an
extremely remote ghost town. Turns out it wasn't much of ghost town at all. It was actually pretty well occupied
with perhaps a few dozen summer time residents. It had power and most of the buildings appeared to be modern
cabins, although there were no stores or gas stations or any public services. The town dates to the late 1800s, but
we saw few buildings that appeared to date that old. The town is extremely remote. A rough and very windy dirt
road about 50 miles long separates it from the nearest Idaho highway, so it is the perfect summer hideout for those
who own cabins in this "ghost town."
The major mines of this district are just outside of Cuprum. Most copper mining here occurred around the turn of
the century, but some mining was done as late as the 1980s. The Copper Cliff mine was a major operation located
just outside of town that was in operation into the early 1980s. The major mill on site even processed copper ore
from some Oregon mines. The ore was driven up the Kleinschmidt Grade and processed here. The mine has been
abandoned since sometime in the 1980s and the main road to this mine was destroyed, but we found another access
road from above and was able to take some pictures of the mine site, although we respected the no trespassing
signs. Unfortunately, the entire site was completely destroyed and the buildings and equipment removed sometime
after we visited.
Just up the road from the Copper Cliff mine and Cuprum are the older mines of the area such as the Blue Jacket
copper mine. Two major town sites, Decorah and Landore exist here as well. Today, little is left except signs and
open fields to mark the spot of the short lived towns. One partly collapsed log cabin was found. This was the
headquarters of the Blue Jacket mines during the very early 1900s. Here we began to run into snow. An steep
hike through deep snow for about a mile would have been required to reach the Blue Jacket mines. Not knowing if
it would be worth it, and constrained by time, we decided to skip it.
|One of several bridges required to
reach the mine area. These
bridges and roads were likely
maintained to support logging
since the late 1970s, as mining in
the area has long ceased.
|The Copper Cliff mine just outside of Cuprum. The main road to this mine
was destroyed, but a side logging road provides access from above. The name
sake of the mine is the cliff above the lake, which was blasted off to obtain
copper ore. The mine is now completely abandoned and falling apart. Last
use was sometime in the late 1970s.
|A wide angle view of the Copper Cliff mine. Note all the buildings and equipment still remaining on site. Cheryl Crouse who worked at the
mine into the very early 1980s, told us that when her son visited the site in the summer, 2006, he found it to be completely destroyed and all the
buildings and equipment removed. Only some foundations remains today.
|We were able to hike to some lower
unnamed mines, but all shafts
were collasped. Only this minor
structure remains today.
|This log cabin was the mine
headquarters of the Blue Jacket
mines and dates from the early
|The town site of Decorah. Not
much is left here, except an open
|After being somewhat disappointed in the lack of any major finds in the Blue Jacket mining area, we headed back to
the Cuprum. From there we drove up Hathaway gulch north of Cuprum in an attempt to reach a major radio tower
lookout site. To our relief, snow was nowhere in site and we made it to the radio tower for a spectacular view of the
|The highest point we were able to reach on this trip, 5500 feet, gave us the best view yet of the Hells Canyon area.
This was a radio tower site and thankfully was free of snow.
|By now it was starting to get late in the afternoon and it was time to say goodbye to Idaho. We headed back toward
to the Kleinschmidt Grade. Heading down the grade offered the same incredible views. I was a bit worried about
what would happen if I ran into oncoming traffic. Fortunately, the only truck coming up the grade was seen just in
time for me to find a turn out.
|Here you can see part of the
Kleinschmidt Grade cut into the
Hells Canyon wall.
|Parked at one of the few turn outs
on the Kleinschmidt Grade as a
truck comes up from the bottom on
the single track road.
|We arrived back in the city of Oxbow and the Oxbow dam. We explored the dam site with a little time we had left.
Surprisingly, both the Oxbow and Hells Canyon dam do a very good job of accommodating recreational users.
Especially in this time of increased security and anti-terrorist protections. Boaters and fishermen have nearly full
access to both dam areas.
Upon leaving Oxbow for home, we noticed what appeared to be an interesting cave or mine site on the other side of
Pine Creek just outside of Oxbow. After finding concrete remains near the site, we thought that this must be a
major mine site, but our books and USGS maps gave no mention of it. At the time of our visit we didn't know what it
was and access was impossible due to the river, but it turns out it's is an abandoned railroad tunnel! The concrete
was pilings for the old bridge. The Oregon Washington Railroad Navigation company built a railroad along the
Snake river to Homestead, where the Iron Dyke copper mine was location, in 1910. The railroad was abandoned in
the 1930s, but later put in use between the 1930s and 1960s to accommodate dam construction for the Oxbow and
Hells Canyon dam before being completely abandoned again. There is little sign of the old railroad today, except
this tunnel. Much of the grade south of Oxbow is now a road and until the Brownee dam, where the grade is now
I was extremely disappointed that I couldn't explore the tunnel site further, but I intend to return someday to
explore inside and the surrounding area.
|The Oxbow power plant. This dam
was unique in that the power plant
was about a mile from the dam
|The Oregon Washington Railroad Navigation tunnel and bridge
pilings. The old bridge crossed Pine Creek. It's not known at this
time if the tunnel is fully open or if it's partly collapsed. From my
standpoint it looked as though you can walk at least a short ways
inside the tunnel. I can't wait to better explore the tunnel later this
|The final stop on the mad dash home was near the Macy mine site and highway slide area mentioned earlier. Just
across the highway from the Macy mine site is another mine site that we had missed earlier, called the Minnie May
Mine. At this site, the tunnels were caved, but we did find a very interesting piece of homemade mining equipment.
Take a close look. At one time a motor, probably electric, ran a belt to the first axle differential when was then
attached to a second differential for the lowest possible gearing, which then ran two drums. The drums appeared to
use cables. The two handles in front of the seat, operated brake boosters, which is what stopped the cable drums.
This piece of equipment likely hauled ore into and out of the mine.
|An interesting piece of mining
equipment at the Minnie May
|As we usually do, we made a mad dash for home. A straight 5 hour drive back to Portland. That's usually how our
trips end. Exploring to the last minute and driving home in the wee hours of the morning. We gassed up in Baker
City and actually drove all the way from Baker City to Portland without refueling. We ended up using 10 of the 12
gallons of reserve fuel that I carried on the trip.
I would highly recommend visiting the Hells Canyon area if you happen to be in this part of the state. It's a
beautiful area and well worth the drive. Our next trip will hopefully be to visit the vast mining area west of Baker
|Map of the Oxbow area.
|Map of the Virtue Mine area.
|Copyright © 2003 Brian McCamish, All Rights Reserved
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