Out There: Hells Canyon drive

The Kleinschmidt Grade out of Hells Canyon will test your nerves
The expanse of the high country out of Hells Canyon near Cuprum, Idaho, offers a lot of back-roads exploring. (AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Pete Zimowsky) MANDATORY CREDITAP/The Idaho Statesman

BEAR, Idaho — The truck's tires on the driver's side were inches from the edge of a 1,000-foot dropoff, while the side-view mirror on the passenger side came pretty close to scraping a craggy rock wall.

"Keep your eyes on the road, not the scenery," I gently suggested to my wife as she drove the Kleinschmidt Grade out of Hells Canyon. I was leaning out the passenger window taking photos.

I've wanted to drive the Kleinschmidt Grade for years and never got around to it.

There's something intriguing about the name and some of the history that goes with it.

Here we were in late June powering up the mountain road with vistas of Hells Canyon and Oregon's Wallowa Mountains around every turn and over every hill.

"There's dust up the road. Must be a vehicle," I said to my wife.

Sure enough. A motorcycle with a side car came around the bend. The driver immediately found a wide spot in the road to let us by.

"It's great. It's a nice road with good dropoffs," said Vince Langely of Meyers Chuck, Alaska. He was riding with his wife, Cherri, in the side car.

I guess when you put it in Alaska standards, it's a great road.

One thing about the Kleinschmidt Grade, you've got to keep looking uphill in anticipation of other rigs while looking for turnouts.

That's not easy, as the road winds in hairpin turns and climbs about 2,200 feet in less than 5 miles.

But one thing about it, the drive is a pretty quick way to get out of the heat of the canyon and reach the cool mountain meadows and creeks, and see panoramic views of the western Idaho mountains and the Seven Devils Mountains.

The Kleinschmidt Grade fascinates history buffs and backroads explorers, too.

Just the name makes you wonder. In the late 1880s, entrepreneur Albert Kleinschmidt built the road to haul copper and gold from the Seven Devils area to the Snake River.

He wanted to haul the ore by boat upriver to Huntington, Ore. That never worked because the Snake River had big rapids, which are now drowned by three Hells Canyon reservoirs.

The road, which some say is an engineering wonder, is still around and driven by explorers in Subaru Outbacks, Ford Escapes, ATVs, motorcycles and four-wheel drive trucks.

It takes adventurers to hunting, fishing and camping areas at the base of the Seven Devils Mountains.

As you make your way up the grade, you wonder what it would be like driving a wagon load of ore down to the Snake River.

It would probably freak out the best mule skinner.

But it's worth the scenic drive. It's a piece of history with great scenery.

There are several ways to access it, so check your map, but here's the way we drove the grade:

We drove Idaho 71 and crossed the Snake River into Oregon at Brownlee Dam, then drove north on the Oregon side of Oxbow Reservoir.

Once you reach Oxbow, Ore., you'll cross back into Idaho and continue north. Just past Hells Canyon Park, you'll come to the base of the Kleinschmidt Grade (Forest Road 050). Depending on the time of the day you started your trip, you might think about using Hells Canyon Park for your first night's camp. You've come about another 22 miles from Woodhead Park at Brownlee Reservoir.

The first part of the grade is really steep and narrow, and it's like you're driving in a hallway. The road is not recommended for large RVs or vehicles pulling trailers. Dual-sport motorcyclists will find it a snap.

It's about 43 miles to Council from the base of the road, but you're going to have the opportunity to take a lot of side trips that will add more miles.

The road keeps climbing, and in the summer it will be very dusty.

The views just keep getting better as you climb. Take time to park in a pulloff and look around and take photos.

The road eventually levels out when you hit timber at about 5 miles.

From here on out most of the roads are well signed and offer opportunities for a lot of exploring.

When you reach the town of Cuprum, you've gone about 10 miles from the bottom of the canyon and gained about 2,600 feet. You're in forested terrain with meadows and creeks.

The Payette National Forest has done a great job explaining the history of the area with signs along many of the roads. Stop, read and learn.

Head toward Cuprum on the Council-Cuprum Road. You kind of just run into it, but it's signed.

Continue north out of Cuprum and look for the road to Horse Mountain Lookout (Road No. 106). It will take you through timbered lands all the way up to the lookout at 6,890 feet in elevation.

It's a magnificent lookout with views of Hells Canyon and Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. It's about 13 miles from the junction with the road out of Cuprum.

If you backtrack from Horse Mountain, stay on the Forest Road 106 north because it goes to Kinney Point and Sheep Rock, two excellent overlooks.

Sheep Rock (6,886 feet in elevation), which was designated a national landmark by the U.S. Park Service in 1978, has an interpretive trail that is very well done. In late June, the area is full of wildflowers.

As you leave Sheep Rock, you will backtrack down Forest Road 106 to the road (Forest Road 105), that came out of Cuprum.

Continue north on Road 105 and northeast and the road will go over a summit and then drop down into Bear Creek and the town of Bear. Read the historic signs about the old mining towns of Decorah and Landore.

Back at the summit is the turnoff for Black Lake, which we didn't take because it was still blocked by snow.

ATV riders enjoy the ride to Black Lake, which is at the southern point of the Seven Devils Wilderness.

There's also a historic site at the summit.

Before you get to Bear, you can take a junction north to Huckleberry Campground on the banks of Bear Creek. It's an excellent place to camp.

As you leave Bear, you'll get back on the Cuprum-Council Road and continue through forests, meadows and creek bottomlands.

From the junction at Cuprum, it's 26 miles to pavement toward Council.

There'll be a lot of memories after driving the Kleinschmidt Grade.



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