The Undiscovered Blue Mountains of Washington and Oregon

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By Adam Sawyer

The Blue Mountains, or simply “the Blues,” occupy more than 4,000 square miles of eastern Oregon and Washington. Named by early settlers for the blue hue of their pine- and fir-lined ridges, they sprawl out southeast of Pendleton, Oregon, over to the Snake River along the border with Idaho, and up into Washington, where they occupy much of the land east of Walla Walla. The Blues are magical and, for the most part, undiscovered by Northwesterners. If you haven’t experienced them, you’re missing one of the Northwest’s best-kept secrets.

Residing among all those peaks and valleys is a staggeringly diverse array of flora and fauna. The Blues are home to one of the largest herds of Rocky Mountain Elk in the country, as well as mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep and the only moose in Oregon; and, in recent years, wolves have returned. The skies above the mountains entertain more species of birds than you can count, including owls and raptors. In fact, birds make up nearly half of the wildlife population in the Blues. And butterflies comprise about a quarter of the Blues’ animal kingdom. The forests and meadows explode with colorful and rare wildflowers, interspersed with wooded congregations of ponderosa pine, juniper, Douglas fir and western larch.

Perhaps the most intriguing inhabitant on the southern edge of the Blues belongs to the world’s largest organism. Deep in the heart of the Malheur National Forest resides the king of all fungi. It occupies approximately 3.5 square miles and weighs, by some estimates, upwards of 35,000 tons. The humongous fungus, scientifically known as Armillaria, is believed to be as old as 8,000 years, which puts it in the running for the earth’s oldest living organism. Numbers with commas are great. But in quantifiable terms, how big is that? You would need 250 semi-truck trailers to haul it, and it would weigh more than 200 gray whales. Existing beneath the forest floor and feeding on trees, it’s hardly going to qualify as a tourist attraction, but it’s there, potentially contemplating world domination.

An observable and unique combination of uplift and erosion tell the tale of a fascinating geological backstory. The basement of the range consists of a mix of sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rock as old as 145 million years. Just above, metamorphic layers of rock around 65 million years old can be seen in the deep canyons carved by the area’s larger rivers. Topping that are flows of Columbia River Basalts, predominantly Grande Ronde, from around 15 million years ago. The heavy basalt flows caused the earth’s crust to flex upward, birthing the Blue Mountains. Later flows flanked around the new mountains, leaving them exposed. The cherry on top of this geological sundae is the exotic terranes found throughout the area. Exotic terranes are essentially rock groups created somewhere else and moved to a new location. In this case, picked up by shifting tectonic plates and ushered westward. Because of these terranes, 10 to 15 percent of the rocks in the Blues are not your standard regional fare and include limestone, sandstone and diorite from the east.

The human history of the mountains captivates as well. Native tribes, including the Umatilla, Cayuse and Walla Walla, utilized the rivers and fertile lands in and around the Blues for thousands of years. In the mid-1800s they were the last formidable obstacle faced by Oregon Trail emigrants before arriving in Washington or continuing through the Columbia River Gorge to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. This dynamic geology produced veins of gold that are responsible for two-thirds of all the minerals found in the state of Oregon. This discovery caused a boom in Baker and Grant counties in the mid- to late-1800s. Some mining and panning for gold go on to this day.

In recent years, much of the surrounding area has come into its own. Walla Walla is a destination for food and wine lovers; La Grande is home to a thriving arts community and a handful of museums that thoroughly document the area’s enthralling past; Pendleton and Baker City each combine an Old West vibe, layers of history and a vibrant, contemporary community. Yet, somehow, the plentiful recreational opportunities in the Blues remain largely undiscovered. The peaks might not be as lofty as those in the Cascades, with the tallest climbing just over 9,000 feet. But an extraordinary mix of history, geology, natural resources and relatively untapped recreational opportunities help make the Blues one of the great mountain ranges of the Northwest.

For lodging in and around the Blues, head to Walla Walla (wallawalla.org) in Washington, or Pendleton (travelpendleton.com), La Grande (visitunioncounty.org) or Baker City (basecampbaker.com) in Oregon

Skiing the Blues
Some of the Northwest’s best-kept secrets for skiers are hiding in plain sight on the slopes of the Blue Mountains. The Bluewood Ski Area (bluewood.com) offers some of the best tree skiing and powder in the state of Washington at a wallet-friendly price point. At 7,100 feet, Anthony Lakes (anthonylakes.com) has the highest base elevation of any ski area in Oregon. They offer great powder, groomed Nordic skiing, cat trips, yurts and a full-service lodge.

Hiking the Blues
There are hundreds of miles of maintained trails in both the Washington and Oregon sections of the Blues. Even the most popular paths generally carry less traffic than those in the Cascade Range. In Washington, try the six-mile out and back to Oregon Butte, a day hike with sweeping views and prime campsites, should you choose to extend the outing into a backpacking trip across a network of trails.

On the Oregon side of the border, the South Fork Wenaha River Trail is a 6.5-mile out and back hike entirely within the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. The hike visits untouched stands of grand fir and provides breathtaking canyon views perfect for observing wildlife.

There are a great number of day hiking, backpacking and camping options throughout the Blues. Visit the Umatilla National Forest webpage for more information and ideas (fs.usda.gov/activity/umatilla/recreation/hiking).

Paddling the Blues
You’ll find some of the most inspiring scenery in Oregon on a trip down the Grand Ronde River. Winding Waters River Expeditions (windingwatersrafting.com) specializes in a variety of adventure options that explore the river as it passes the Elk Horn, Wallowa and Blue Mountains.