Saturday, April 14, 2012

Rattlesnake Grade: A Road to Remember

Oregon Highway 3 on its descent to the Grande Ronde River
On the map, Oregon Highway 3 and its continuation, Washington Highway 129, appear to be a direct shot across the upper right-hand corner of the state, connecting Enterprise, Ore. and Clarkston, Wash.  However, the reality of this road is quite different. Why else would the American Motorcycle Association designate it as one of the top 15 motorcycle rides in America? The 80-mile trip offers an enormous variety of scenery from snow-capped peaks, expansive canyons, pine forests, wide open wheat fields, a narrow river valley, ghost town, and enough twists and turns and plunging drop-offs to make a person dizzy. Fortunately, there is very little traffic.

Joseph Canyon Overlook
Traveling from south to north, the drive begins in Enterprise, the county seat of Wallowa County and, more important, home to the last gas stations for the next 65 miles. The road heads north through rolling prairie and ranch land with spectacular views of the Wallowa Mountains receding in the rearview mirror. Elevation gain transforms the scenery to pine forests, and around 30 miles from Enterprise is the Joseph Canyon Overlook. From here, the view spreads out forever across a network of steep canyons. The Nez Perce called the area Saqanma, meaning long, rough canyon, and made their winter camp here at the confluence of Joseph Creek and the Grande Ronde River in the protected canyon’s bottom.

To savor this remarkable panorama, continue a few miles north to the Rim Rock Inn, a restaurant offering indoor and outdoor dining with a million dollar view. Who would expect to find a turkey panini sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes here in the absolute middle of nowhere! A former stagecoach stop, the inn now has four tepees available for rent for adventurous types wanting to spend the night right on the canyon edge.
Flora Methodist Church

Beyond the inn is a road turning west marked “Flora” and well worth the six mile, roundtrip detour to this once thriving farming and ranch community.  Platted in 1897, the town was named for the daughter of the first postmaster and grew to a population of 320 by 1910 with a bank, general store, and newspaper. The Methodist Episcopal Church was constructed in 1898 and an impressive, 8-room school house added to serve the rural community in 1915. However, the area’s isolation and the economic realities of the family farm contributed to the town’s demise and by 1966 the post office closed, followed by the school in 1977.  Today, the town (population 7) consists of a dozen or so abandoned houses and buildings, an overgrown cemetery, and an endless supply of photo opportunities. The church and school with its striking bell tower stand next to each other on the north side of town, dominating the landscape. The school has recently been restored with the idea of converting it to a center for pioneer arts and crafts.

Flora School
Back on Oregon 3, just beyond Buford Ridge Road, look for a pull-off on the left side of the road.  Here is the first, and probably the best, glimpse of the road ahead and explains why it is so popular with motorcyclists. Layer after layer of barren canyon opens up exposing the highway as it snakes its way down to the Grande Ronde River. About half way down, a sign proclaims, Welcome to Washington, The Evergreen State. Of course, in the late summer and early fall the scenery is shades of brown without a tree in sight. At the bridge over the river is a welcome token of civilization, Boggan’s Oasis.  Along the banks of the river, it promises the world’s best milk shakes, tasty burgers, overnight cabins, good fishing, and a swimming hole. It’s an excellent place to freshen up before tackling the next challenge, the ten mile, twisty ascent to the top of Rattlesnake Pass. This is a workout for a car and it seems almost unbelievable that several thousand participants in the 2010 Cycle Oregon tour made this trek on bicycles!

Beyond the pass, the route opens up into a broad plateau, skirts the small farming community of Anatone before one last thrilling corkscrew descent into the town of Asotin on the banks of the mighty Snake River. If the drive was not sufficiently thrilling, consider continuing on across the river to Clarkston. Here, several outfitters offer trips down the scenic Snake River through Hell’s Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. A smorgasbord of options including full day trips, half days, overnight stays deep in the canyon, and wine and dinner cruises. 

More photos:

Boggan's Oasis, a popular stop for cyclists


  1. Thank you for your excellent description of this wonderful road which we have recently driven on with our travel trailer (

  2. thank you, helped me remember where this road is so I don't take my 41 ft, motorhome down it!!!