A Letterbox Quest through the Backroads of the American West
17-Nov-1999

Imagine a 700+ mile drive through spectacular, undiscovered countryside, with no interstate highways, no McDonalds, no chain motels, no crowds, no traffic jams, towns few and far between, but the ones you find are small and friendly, reminding you of a time forgotten. Is such a drive possible in the USA? Here I was in Spokane, Washington for the Western States Orienteering Champs at Fishtrap Lake, needing to get to Lake Tahoe Nevada for the US Champs the next weekend. What an opportunity to look for such a drive! Here is the cool drive I found that comes damn close, with some letterboxes placed along the way.

Day 1, 93 miles:

The drive starts in Asotin, WA, and winds and twists along the Nez Perce trail (route 129) south, though stunning canyons, prairies, and the occasional high pine forest. Stop to take a hike in Fields Spring State Park, or just take in the breathtaking scenery of the undeveloped and uninhabited countryside as you cruise the narrow road into Oregon, were you pick up route 3, for more of the same. As the prairie gives way to the pines of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, be alert for the lookout named for a chief, which offers not only the most stunning view so far, but a chance to bag the first letterbox of the drive, the Nez Perce Trail Letterbox.

After stamping up, continue south where eventually the 10,000 foot granite peaks of the Wallowa Mountains will rise out of the deserted prairie to guide you to the beautiful and fortunately not-too-developed Lake Wallowa, nestled at their base in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. At the southern tip of the lake, find camping in Wallowa Lake State Park, or kitchy "lodge" lodging nearby. Wildlife viewing includes monster-sized elk and morons dressed like tourists hand feeding them salty cheese-like snack food product.

Day 2, 215 miles:

Head east out of Joseph, where after a few miles you can pick up FR 39 and head into Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Keep the stunning peaks of the Wallowa Range in view as you cruise into the rugged mountain forests of Hells Canyon. Stay on FR 39 and be alert for the turnoff for the Hells Canyon Lookout, where you can gaze across the gorge into Idaho, or take a hike or trail run through the mountains.

Follow FR 39 south along a mountain stream, where the forest eventually gives way to more subtly beautiful uninhabited prairie, where you can pick up route 86 and head into Halfway. Here you can get groceries, a greasy spoon lunch, or book all manner of rafting, aircraft, or other sorts of tours into Hells Canyon. You could also head north to the ghost town of Cornucopia at the base of the pink and white Cornucopia Peak and look for the Cornucopia Peak Letterbox, unless of course you're tired of looking at beautiful mountains.

From Halfway, follow 86 west along the Powder River as it cuts its way thought more open prairie and range land, where you'll see zero locals, and less tourists. Cross over where the old path of the Oregon Trail can be found (now replaced by I84), and into Baker City, where you should stock up with a few days worth of groceries, because the second half of the drive gets really off the beaten path.

Pick up route 7 west into the pines of Malheur National Forest, where you'll pass the ghost town of Whitney, and pick up more mountains rising out of the prairie; this time the 9038 foot Strawberry Mountain dominates the landscape as you drive into Prairie City for an excellent dinner at Ferdinand's Historic Dinner House. Lodging can be found at the turn-of-the-century Strawberry Mountain Inn, which offers a view of the mountain. Camping and hiking, including a trail to the summit, can be found in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness -- just follow the dirt road south of town towards the mountain. The hiking here is unbelievable, unspoiled remote mountain lakes nestled in granite bowls, and if you're lucky, you might just stumble over the Strawberry Mountain Letterbox by the shores of one of these lakes.

Day 3, 143 miles:

Possible morning excursions including hunting for the ghost town of Susanville in the backroads of the national forest, or heading over to the Blue Mountain Hot Springs, or you can continue on by picking up route 395 south in John Day and cruise into Harney County, which is truly an amazing place. At over 10000 square miles, its bigger than New Hampshire, yet has only 6900 people and about 12 towns that made the map.

Pick up route 205 in Burns and head down through Lake Malheur and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Even though there is very little rain out here, these large but shallow wetlands exist by virtue of being at the bottom of the Great Basin. This area in the middle of nowhere is a birders' paradise, so bring your life list.

Continue through the vast expanses of emptiness to the Jackass Mountains and the tiny town of Frenchglen, where the Frenchglen Hotel offers tiny rooms but a delicious and filling dinner served family-style with the other guests, who will be talking bird watching, bird watching, and most likely bird watching. This place, even though it is 200 miles from nowhere, was fully booked, so be careful. Given the beauty and attractions of the area, though, this is no surprise. There is also camping on the public lands out on Steens Mountain, and gas is available in town.

The highlight of the trip will be driving out to The Steens. Imagine a place as spectacular as the Grand Canyon, that you can have all to yourself, and that few people have discovered. Take the winding dirt road out to the edge, where you'll find not a visitor's center, but bowl-shaped gorges, lakes trapped in time, and the incredible view over the Alvoid Desert to the east. Be on the lookout for wildlife such as antelope and pikas. If you can tear yourself away from the views, you might make the short hike to the summit, where the Steens Mountain Letterbox awaits.

It is inevitable that this incredible area will be developed for easy access for mass tourism someday, like everywhere else. Fortunately, you can go now and experience it before that happens.

Day 4, 147 miles:

Continue south on route 205 through the emptiness, on what must truly be the loneliest stretch of highway in the country. Watch as the pinks, oranges, and reds of the Oregon Outback slowly transform into chocolate-colored mountains as you cross into Nevada at the tiny town of Denio.

At this point, unless you have good topo maps and a 4WD vehicle, take route 140 back to civilization. The roads through the Black Rock Range down to the Black Rock Desert just aren't on some standard issue maps, and aren't made for the standard issue rent-a-cars and standard issue tourists. Make sure you have appropriate provisions and preparation.

Just west of Denio Junction on route 140, past Continental Lake, look for Knott Creek Road, and head south into the desert, navigating by mountain, canyon, and water features towards Summit Lake. Keep McGee Mountain and associated peaks on your right, and Duffer Peak and the Pine Forest Range on your left. From there navigate south to Soldier Meadows, keeping the Black Rock Range on your left and carefully picking off contour features as you go. If you have seen such rugged remoteness and beauty as this before, good for you; otherwise, if you have a pulse, this leg of the trip will definitely leave a lasting impression.

Soldier Meadows consists of a dirt airstrip and a cattle ranch on 14000 acres in the middle of nowhere. The place dates back to mid 1800's and is steeped in old west history. Amazingly, it operates as a guest ranch, and I highly recommend staying over here. Book a suite with meals, explore the desert on horseback, or just relax after all that driving -- ask the owner for directions to one of their private hot springs to catch the desert sunset.

On the other side of the Black Rock Range lies the Black Rock Desert proper, a dried out lake bed called the playa. The desert gets its name from a prominent point that sticks out into the playa, which was used by pioneers of yesteryear as a navigation aid. The playa is known as the place where land speed records are now being set, and driving on the playa is not to be missed. Unless you're there during Burning Man, you should have the desert to yourself; ask the rancher at Soldier Meadows for directions and conditions, and you can drive the playa all the way down to Gerlach, conditions permitting.

Day 5, 131 miles:

Alternatively, if driving off-road on an old lake bed is not your cup of tea, you can take the county road south towards Gerlach. Look for a sphynx-like formation to come into view on your left. The sphynx of course guards the secret of the long lost Black Rock Letterbox.

After stamping up, cruise into Gerlach for provisions. From there, either explore the playa, or cruise down route 447 and grab route 446 northwest along Pyramid Lake, and you will not be disappointed. This undeveloped, alien landscape of improbable contrasting colors and forms is worth the trip itself -- if Mars had lakes, this is what the landscape would look like.

From there, south on route 445 into the sprawl of Reno.