The interstate leads you to identical fast food joints, mini-mart gas stations and cookie-cutter Wal-Marts. However, when riding to the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally (HCMR) it’s easy to notice there is a vast difference between the metropolis and the hinterlands.
Due to marathon rains and cold weather leading up to HCMR we didn’t “call-the-ball” until the last possible minute. We finally departed at noon and as a result we rode directly to Baker City via I-84 to maximize our time in eastern Oregon. Fortunately the wind was behind our back. It was peaceful and we barely made a ripple in the air stream while enjoying the mechanical sounds of the V-Twin.
That evening we graced the downtown area refreshment centers to witness the Baker City welcome mat. Indeed they have a way of thanking motorcyclists who choose to spend their time and money in the small town and for that I thank you!
The next day we woke to pure blue skies and perfect riding temperatures! We opted to travel to Oxbow and the Hells Canyon Dams. The Hells Canyon is the deepest canyon on the North American continent, and the Hells Canyon Dam is located at one of the narrowest points in that canyon.
It’s a couple hundred miles round trip.
We departed on Highway 86 out of Baker City where traffic is non-existent and sweepers cut alongside the Powder River toward the Snake River. The previous month of heavy rain left the country-side greener than normal and was most noticeable on the Powder River with water flow very high this year. We passed by the town of Halfway, which is halfway between the gold mines of Cornucopia and the town of Pine Creek. Just past Cooperfield we crossed the Snake River, near Oxbow Dam and entered Idaho to continue north on “The Devils Tail” which was affectionately named so by the motorcycle riders who attend the rally every June. On street maps it’s know only as the Hells Canyon Dam Road. The 22-mile narrow stretch provides long sweepers and tight switchbacks along the roads edge. The Road King is a proficient cruiser, but after an hour or so of these twisties a person couldn’t help but notice how agile the sport bikes looked as they throttled on around corners with ease. We crossed over the Hells Canyon Dam and stopped at various locations for the obligatory tourist photo.
On the return route – isn’t it odd how the scenery changes when reversing directions on the same road? – the scene turned more toward scorched rock and weeds, but that might have been the result of the sun getting lower in the sky. We had to watch out for gravel and mud washed onto the road surfaces, but in all the roads were in good shape. The only road closed that was on the HCMR recommended ride routes was Road Rash Pass (FS 39) from Pine Creek to Joseph. It has been closed for a few weeks due to torrential rains washing out approximately a ½ mile of road. In addition the steep road edge led to water so the attention needed to navigate the twisties seemed more intense on the return. We made our way back out of Highway 86 up Pine Creek and stopped at Scotty’s Hells Canyon Outdoor Supply. A lot of riders were roaming around the store where folks were relaxing with refreshments. Temperatures were approaching 80 degrees and we listened to an oldster tell his story of dumping his motorcycle in the rocks vs. going for a swim.
Interestingly that after the city fixed up the downtown area and spend all the time, energy and money they chose to NOT close off Main Street this year during the motorcycle rally due to safety concerns. It wasn’t a big impact, as there were motorcycles all over the place along with a number of vendors, but it did take away from the quaint social street scene of years past. I hope they rethink this in the future.
Departing the rally we elected to ride the Pendleton (Hwy 395), Heppner (Hwy 74) and Arlington loop to take in miles of nothing. As the view atop Franklin Summit (3,456 ft) is just that… a land that is remarkably uneven, no trees and barren hills sculpted by the winds of time. On a motorcycle it seems like an endless maze of hilltops and valley bottoms. The sweepers are smooth and lend themselves so well that nothing is forced and you can almost close your eyes. It’s a real contrast to the braking hairpin turns of The Devils Tail.
We descended down into Heppner and grabbed lunch at the one open diner. It was good grub, but time was passing and we needed to get home before dark. The road was a good experience until we opened up into the Gorge. We should have anticipated the change when the large array of wind farms came into view. These 10-story high towers may represent the future in renewable energy, but they clearly have a visual environmental impact. Needless to say the steady head winds mixed with even larger gusts meant we could watch the gas gauge decrement with every wind burst.
It’s been stated in the past that the best gifts are the ones you don’t expect. HCMR is a great gift/experience and the ride is highly recommended. Especially if you’re looking to get off the beaten path.
UPDATE: June 17, 2010 – Rob Green the editor of http://www.road-quest.com has provided some excellent video coverage of HCMR. This year he brought out the HD video gear to capture the true essence of riding “The Devils Tail.” Check it out HERE.
Photos taken during HCMR.