Every mountain range is different: looks different, feels different. It’s a complicated recipe, after all, to cook one up and there are a lot of ingredients: molten and solid rock, water in all its forms, sunlight, wind, plants and more. And a dizzyingly long cooking time, mind you.

An interesting recipe gives Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington’s Northern Blue Mountains — that vaguely defined northwestern, windward range of the broader Blues — an interesting topographic presentation. They’re less a conventional mountain range and more a great tableland (the “Blue Tablelands”). A dissected tableland, gnawed at and drilled into, leaving mesas and buttes and knife ridges overlooking breaks and canyons. Rugged, knee-buckling, axle-busting country, but possessed for the most part of a remarkably even skyline.

It’s that roughly level, conifer-ruffled skyline, belying the tumbledown terrain below, that defines the range. Under twilight or starlight, this is land that can masquerade as a rolling, easy-to-walk plain. Try to walk it, though, straight out to that invitingly flattish horizon, and you’ll quickly be disabused of the notion.

That’s what you get with almost unbelievable quantities of basalt spewed out like molasses nearby, flood after flood of it, then upraised as a layer cake and exposed to the relentless, no-hurry demolition work of weathering and erosion.

Up here, the Northern Blues climax into what (to my eye, anyhow) is spectacular tableland scenery, dominated by the big Meacham-Umatilla breaks and the bigger Wenaha-Tucannon canyonlands, culmination of the range’s relief and ruggedness. (These canyonland sections aren’t unrelated to the fact that this stretch of the Northern Blues, downwind of the Columbia Gorge, gets a lot more precipitation than more southwesterly reaches, ramping up stream-cutting muscle.)

These Blue Tablelands are their own kingdom, but also a kind of topographic segue: bridging the lower, softer basalt country of the Mid-Columbia Basin (whose bleak Yakima Fold Belt ridges mirror the upwarp of the Northern Blues) and the epic plunge of Hells Canyon as well as the higher subalpine and alpine ranges of the Blues to their south.

Folks from, say, the Colorado or the Canadian Rockies crossing I-84 might sneer at the Northern Blues (though, let’s hope, not at the high Wallowas or Elkhorns). Or maybe they just scratch their heads: “What exactly are these? Mountains? Plateaus? Pumped-up, mostly timbered badlands?”

Well, they are what they are: broken tableland, raked-open canyonland, black-timbered humpback summit, sunny ponderosa bench, long balsamroot ridge, Douglas-fir stringer draw, deadwood shrub-jungle gulch, golden ribbed hillslope, basalt-scarred breaks, dark woods and bright grassland, parched grassy flanks and lush canyon deeps and back-in-the-timber springs — and elk pasture, hunting ground, sheep driveway, skid road, and everywhere the ghost of fire.

Not everybody’s idea of a mountainscape, sure. But, as Hemingway might say, “good country.”


Ethan Shaw is a naturalist and freelance outdoors/nature writer who lives in Cove and spends as much time as possible in the backcountry.

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