Friday, August 28, 2020

Hat Point

The Seven Devils rise over Hells Canyon
0.5 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Narrow, steep, rough unpaved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

At Hat Point Overlook in northeastern Oregon, the ground drops away 6000 feet to the Snake River, which continues to carve out North America's deepest gorge: Hells Canyon. The hike to reach this view is short, just a half mile loop that visits a picnic shelter before climbing the steps up a very tall fire lookout tower. The price of this view isn't the hike but the long, steep, narrow drive through the Imnaha Canyon necessary to reach this point. But the payoffs- views of the towering Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho, the Snake River below, and the Wallowa Mountains to the west- are worth the effort it'll take to drive here.

I visited Hat Point during a September road trip to the Wallowas. After spending the morning near Wallowa Lake, I left Joseph for Hat Point in the afternoon. It's important to budget a lot of time for this drive: although you can reach Imnaha from Joseph in just over a half hour, expect to spend an hour and a half driving the 23 rough miles to Hat Point from Imnaha. From Joseph, I took Highway 350 east, which cut across the serene Wallowa Valley before dropping into the deep Imnaha Canyon, arriving at the village of Imnaha 30 miles later. Here, after crossing the bridge over the Imnaha River, I stayed straight on the road past the post office and the general store and started out on the Hat Point Road. Signs warned me of the rough road ahead: take note. 

The paved road quickly transistioned to dirt as the road slowly began ascending above the Imnaha River Canyon for the first mile. It wasn't until turning east into a side canyon that the fun began. The road soon began ascending at a very steep grade, climbing aggressively as it traversed the high and open slopes of the canyon. The road here was steep, rocky, and narrow, with dramatic drop-offs to the canyon below to the south. This was certainly one of the more challenging stretches of road I've driven. The steep grade leveled out as the trail reentered forest, but the last 17 miles of the drive to Hat Point Overlook remained bumpy and rocky, taking the good part of an hour. Along the way, I stopped to admire Imnaha Canyon from Granny View and marveled at my first view of the Seven Devils rising above Hells Canyon shortly after following a great north bend in the road. Twenty-one miles past Imnaha, I arrived at the turnoff for Hat Point Overlook; I turned right here and followed this gravel road two final miles to the parking area near the lookout. 

Imnaha Canyon from Granny View
Hells Canyon
While some visitors might just walk the short paved path up to the lookout, I found it far more rewarding to walk to the rim of the canyon via a series of short, unsigned trails. Starting off on the main path to the lookout, I left the paved trail at the end of the first switchback, following a well-trod path south to reach a jeep track heading east. I followed this track east to reach a number of picnic shelters close to the rim of the canyon. The Hat Point Fire Lookout, an 82-foot tall fire lookout- one of the tallest I've ever seen- rose high above the burnt forest in this area.

Hat Point Fire Lookout
This picnic shelter trail led out to a spectacular platform viewpoint from which I could gaze into the depths of the canyon. Standing atop the basalt rim of the canyon, I gazed down past layers of basalt some thousands of feet thick to the winding Snake River some 6000 feet below. The scale here is nearly impossible to comprehend: each of the basalt layers on the canyon walls were tens to hundreds of feet thick and the Snake River, which looked small enough to ford, is actually 200 feet wide at this point in the canyon. The basalt layers on the canyon's rim were laid down by massive flood basalt eruptions in the Columbia Basin in the past 16 million years; multiple frequent volcanic events unleashed massive amounts of less viscous lava that flowed across much of the inland Northwest, each volcanic event leaving down yet another layer of basalt across the landscape. The Snake River has since cut through the entire history of those flood basalt events: this is one of the few places where the full geological history of the Columbia River Basalts is exposed, from the most recent layers at the top to the basalts abutting the basement rocks of the Wallowa terranes far below.

The Snake River flows through the depths of Hells Canyon
Leaving this viewpoint, I followed a single-track path up towards the lookout; this path met the paved path just below the lookout itself. I climbed the stairs of the lookout up to the observation deck 60 feet above the ground and started enjoying the views here first, but the fire watcher in the cabin at the top soon invited me up to enjoy the view from the top of this 82-foot tall structure. The views from here are surely some of the best in the Hells Canyon area: the Wallowas rose to the west and I had a commanding view of He Devil Mountain rising almost 8000 feet directly from the depths of Hells Canyon, an astonishing vertical drop that makes Hells Canyon the deepest gorge in North America. The Seven Devils Mountains are across the river in Idaho and are the westernmost range of the Rocky Mountains in this region.

Seven Devils from the Lookout Tower
Smoke from a small fire near Wallowa Valley wafted up in the west. The Hat Point Fire Lookout is still an active lookout today: I chatted with the fire watcher, who stayed up in the cabin all summer and spent his days looking out for smoke on the horizon. The fire watcher lived in Zillah, Washington but spent his summers out here, monitoring for wildfires each year until the first heavy rains of the fall relieved him of his duty.

The Wallowas from Hells Canyon
After enjoying the early evening views here, I descended the long staircase of the lookout tower and then followed the gentle paved path back down to the trailhead. I did not return down the most challenging stretch of the drive until after dark and was thankful that no other cars were driving up the narrowest, steepest stretch of the road.

This is a wild, remote, and absolutely beautiful part of the country. While the deepest canyon in America may still lack the wow factor of the Grand Canyon, Hells Canyon is an astonishing landscape worth visiting. Hat Point was by far the most commanding viewpoint of this great canyon during my visit; if you put up with the long and difficult approach road, you'll be rewarded with solitary views of vastness.

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