The idea is old, but the route is new. In the past year, I have worked with an energized team at Greater Hells Canyon Council to remap a thru hike spanning the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon, which we also refer to as the Greater Hells Canyon Region. The Blues are a unique region composing multiple eco-regions. The mountains and valleys of the Blue Mountains connect the Rockies, Cascades and Great Basin, and with a small human population density, they serve as a critical wildlife corridor. This poorly understood corner of Oregon has pockets of overwhelmed recreation destinations, while many true wilderness trails are now neglected.
By developing the Blue Mountains Trail, we are hoping to change how we experience and maintain the recreation infrastructure of the region. And we are hoping to engage more people with the awe we feel for these landscapes, for it is this sense of wonder that leads us to work so hard to protect these public lands. We are picking back up where the Blue Mountains Heritage Trail left off, a monumental lift by longtime conservationists and Hells Canyon Preservation Council (GHCC’s former name) board member Loren Hughes who began working on the idea in the late 1970s. Dick Hentze and Greg Dyson joined the effort soon thereafter, and Mike Higgins took up reins in the late 1980s in a push for HCPC to get directly involved in the trail. Together they worked to put the Blue Mountains on the map alongside more well known outdoor destinations, but their effort stagnated.
A year ago we had the original 870-mile loop trail. I met with Mike to rekindle the effort and explore the opportunity to include a handful of incredible places that were left out of the loop. By April, we had added, removed and reworked significant portions of the trail. And today we have a new route that has been hiked from end to end by four highly accomplished thru hikers.
The Blue Mountains Trail is now a 566 mile point-to-point, with a spiral shape connecting its termini at Wallowa Lake State Park near Joseph and John Day. The rerouting allowed us to accomplish a number of goals for the trail. All seven wilderness areas of northeast Oregon are on the route, including the Eagle Cap Wilderness, the Elkhorn Crest section of the North Fork John Day Wilderness, and the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. It crosses the summit ridges of the subranges composing the Blues: the Wallowas, Elkhorns, Greenhorns and Strawberries. It descends to the Snake River in the heart of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. It requires no new trails to be built and limits both road walks and bushwhacks. And it connects hikers to some of northeast Oregon’s most inviting and recreation minded communities.
A hike on the Blue Mountains Trail is long on solitude, wildlife, lake basins, North America’s deepest canyon, diverse forest ecosystems, and walking alongside the world’s largest living organism. You are more likely to encounter a black bear, mule deer, or mountain goat on much of the route than cross paths with another hiker.
In June, the spread of Covid-19 slowed our groundtruthing efforts until Renee “She-ra” Patrick began sharing news of the trail. Renee is the Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator at Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), and she has been instrumental in the progress we’ve made this year. At first I had hoped Renee would help us with some guidance on what to do and what to avoid when a conservation organization develops a thru hike, but we got more than we bargained for. Renee has now completed the trail herself, her input included in depth support with the mapping and wayfinding tools that allowed us to sign up volunteer hikers, and she introduced the trail to Whitney “Allgood” La Ruffa, Naomi “The Punisher” Hudetz, and Mike “Iron Mike” Unger, our first thru hikers to successfully complete the new trail.
As their trail names suggest, Whitney, Mike and Naomi were up to the challenge (combined they have hiked more miles than span the globe twice over). They have come to be known as The Intrepid Trio inside GHCC. They completed a 588 mile version of the route in early October, and Renee wasn’t too far behind when she completed the trail on October 30. Along with their effort, we received valuable feedback from Jennifer Schemm, Zoe Symon, Jim Kennedy, and Christian deVillier who hiked sections of the trail to groundtruth our lines on the map, as well as Emily and Rob Klavins, Grant Richie, Charlie Jones, Darilyn Parry Brown, and so many others with deep trail experience in the area.
The resulting trail is shorter by 20 miles than the route envisioned in April, and each day saved is helpful for a trail with a fairly compressed season for those who want to hike it in one go. Thru hiking the Blue Mountains Trail means contending with mountain passes still snow covered in July, and descending to the Snake River and along the Western Rim Trail of Hells Canyon where water is scarce. As we experienced this summer, wildfires may cut any hiking season short. But this is no different than many of the great thru hikes in North America, and like those hikes, the vast majority of people will hike it in sections or day hikes, rather than attempt the full trail at once.
And like most thru hikes, this one is still a work in progress. The trail traverses some challenging terrain, including canyons choked with debris following recent burns, unmaintained trails overgrown with salmonberry, Ceanothus, blackberry, and poison oak, and a section that was flooded out in early 2020. It may take us years to solve these challenges, so alternate routes provide safe walking passage for hikers wishing to avoid these pitfalls.
I invite you to explore more about the history of the Blue Mountains Trail, to learn about its founders who shared the same passion for hiking and fighting to preserve these expansive ecosystems, and to come out and experience the trail for yourself. Please follow us and sign up for our newsletter. This year will bring many new updates, resources, and inspirational content for those of you wishing to hike the Blue Mountains Trail.