Great landscape and wildlife photographers venture out at sunrise and sunset, enjoying nature basking in “artists’ light.”
I am out at midday shooting snapshots in harsh light. But even then, Summit Road offers beauty in abundance and people in scarcity — perfect for keeping social distance in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The weather is ideal. The occasional cumulus cloud sails across the hazy sky as I take Oregon’s Highway 204 east up the Blue Mountains to Tollgate.
I drive past Spout Springs and Andies Prairie and turn west on Summit Road. Also known as Road 31, it’s paved with the occasional pothole for the first 10 miles or so until just past Ruckel Junction.
Mostly I drive slow, go with the flow. The paved road splits basalt outcroppings where blue grouse frolic, then meanders along Nine Mile and High Ridge with access to the Umatilla Rim and Lake Creek trailheads.
In early July, brilliant yellow arrowleaf balsamroot are past their prime, but other delicate wildflowers add a palette of color.
The gravel starts as two-lane and soon narrows. As roads go, it’s pleasant as long as you stay alert for rocks and potholes to dodge and stretches of washboard to endure.
The reward could be seeing Rocky Mountain elk and mule deer, which are in abundance here but smart enough to take naps and avoid the midday sun.
Because I am nearly a mile high in elevation, the temperature is about 12 degrees cooler than in the Walla Walla Valley, which is a bonus on a hot day.
Along Ruckel Ridge, Summit Road teeters on the brink. The drive offers breathtaking views over the deep Blues canyons, the Grande Ronde Valley and the Eagle Caps and Elkhorn mountain ranges swimming in the haze beyond.
A few miles past Big Spring, the road turns from south to west. Here adventurous drivers can take a side trip to Indian Rock viewpoint and Grandview campground near local landmark Mount Emily.
Wanting to preserve the Prius Snow Leopard, having the goal of reaching 300,000 miles, I turn west and meander past Weed, Yarn and Indian springs.
Being in the midst of what a friend calls the Land of Huckle, I watch for huckleberries that are ripening — and black bears that might want to share the patch as they fatten up for hibernation.
Instead, what I mostly see are grassland ridges and heavily timbered, berry- and bear-free slopes.
The road widens again by Sugarloaf Mountain. A short side trip leads to the Whitman Route Overlook by Spring Mountain, which provides a fine view of the rugged Meacham Creek canyon-scape and a lesson in Blue Mountains history.
I continue west past Owsley Ridgeback, a fine place to take a hike, and Fox Prairie and Packrat Spring. Vast stretches of ponderosa pine must be negotiated, yet with so much more ease than the pioneers faced, before the road intersects with Interstate 84 not far east of Meacham. I return home by way of the always captivating Cabbage Hill and the Wildhorse Resort turnoff.
Perhaps because of the time of day, I’ve seen only a rabbit and a chipmunk, a few songbirds, a grouse and butterflies. A couple days later a friend sees a bobcat scoot across Summit Road, but then they are a wildlife magnet.
Next time I will increase my odds of seeing critters and go toward sundown.