Blue Mountain Scenic Highway, Oregon

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As Day 9 began, I had only one ultimate goal: to end up in Portland by the end of the day, in order to catch my red-eye flight back to Florida.  The challenge became which way to go, and what to do, on my way there.  As I ate breakfast in La Grande, I looked at the map and realized I had two choices: I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge, which I had seen 8 days ago, or some tiny roads that cut across the state, some of which made up the Blue Mountain Scenic Highway.  Of course, I chose the latter.

Location

A few miles west of La Grande, take Oregon Rte. 244 west.  At Ukiah, take Willow Creek Road (just follow the scenic byway signs) to Heppner.  From there, Rte. 74 north will lead you to Ione, and eventually, back to Interstate 84.

My Visit

From La Grande to Ukiah, I didn’t see anything worth stopping for a picture.  I began to question whether the landscape was really boring, or whether the end of my vacation had soured my mood.  While I wasn’t thrilled that the trip was almost over, I’m pretty sure that the first hour of driving was not the least bit interesting.

After Ukiah, I joined the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway, and things improved immediately.  The road lifted me out of the flat plains, and into some nice rolling hills…

most of which were lined with trees, and didn’t allow me to see much.  After another hour of tall firs and nothing else…

… the road opened up a bit, and there were a few scenic spots.

Just before arriving in the town of Heppner, you come across the Willow Creek Dam.  There’s a picnic area with a nice view of the dam. You can also push a button on the interpretive sign, to hear the story of a day when 1/4 of the population of Heppner died.

A century ago, there was no dam here, and when a sudden storm hit on June 14, 1903, there was nothing to stop rushing flood waters from heading down the canyons, and into Heppner.  Many of the town’s buildings were washed away, and by one estimate, 250 people died.

The Heppner County Courthouse had only been built a year, when those flood waters rushed through town.  Its stone structure survived, but nowadays it’s widely reported that the place is haunted.

According to the State of Oregon’s website, Heppner resident Leslie Matlock deserves credit for saving hundreds of lives downstream. When the flood waters hit Heppner, he rode on horseback to the neighboring town of Lexington, warning residents to head for higher ground. Only two houses in Lexington were left standing by the flood.

Ione, Oregon

As you continue up Rte. 74, you’ll drive through the town of Ione.  The only skyscrapers here are grain elevators, and as you pass through the community, you get the feeling that farming is about the only thing that’s happening.

This giant grain elevator stands on the north side of town.

There’s one thing I found in Ione that left a lasting impression: the town’s first fire hydrant.  The 100 year old hydrant stands in a place of honor, at the edge of a small park in the middle of town.  A sign informs that it was “bought in 1906”.  I suppose by Ione’s standards, that’s a reason to be proud.

Beyond Ione, the road winds north toward the Columbia River Gorge.  You’ll pass a few more grain elevators and some rolling farmland, but that’s about it.

At the end of Rte. 74, hop onto Interstate 84 for the long drive into Portland.  Unfortunately, there aren’t any other good alternatives for traveling west.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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