Blue Mountains (Pacific Northwest)

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Blue Mountains
Blue Mountians Baker City, Oregon.jpg
Baker City, Oregon with the Blue Mountains in the background, seen from the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center observatory
Highest point
Peak Sacajawea Peak Oregon [1]
Elevation 9,843 [2]  ft (3,000 m)
Area15,000 [3]  sq mi (39,000 km2)
Country United States
States Oregon, Washington

The Blue Mountains are a mountain range in the western United States, located largely in northeastern Oregon and stretching into extreme southeastern Washington. The range has an area of about 15,000 square miles (38,850 km2), stretching east and southeast of Pendleton, Oregon, to the Snake River along the Oregon-Idaho border. [4] The Blue Mountains cover eight counties across two states; they are Union, Umatilla, Grant, Baker, and Wallowa counties in Oregon, and Walla Walla, Columbia and Garfield counties in Washington. [5] They are home to the world's largest organism and fungal mycelial mat, the Armillaria ostoyae. [6] The Blue Mountains were so named due to the color of the mountains when seen from a distance. [7]



The Blues are uplift mountains [8] [9] [10] and contain some of the oldest rocks in Oregon. [11] [12] Rocks as old as 400 million years protrude through surrounding Columbia River Basalt flows of 52 million to 6 million years ago. [13]

Geologically, the Blue Mountains are part of the larger rugged Columbia River Plateau, located in the dry area of Oregon and Washington east of the Cascade Range. They are made up of several mountain ranges, from the Ochoco Mountains and Maury Mountains in the west near Prineville, Oregon, through the Greenhorn Mountains, the Aldrich Mountains, and the Strawberry Range, to the Elkhorn Mountains and Wallowa Mountains on the east and the Snake River in Hells Canyon. [14] [15] The tallest peaks are Sacajawea Peak at 9,843 feet (3,000 m) in the Wallowa Mountains, Rock Creek Butte at 9,106 feet (2,776 m) in the Elkhorn Mountains, and Strawberry Mountain at 9,042 feet (2,756 m) in the Strawberry Range. There are several more 9000'+ peaks in the Wallowas, but not elsewhere in the Blues. [16] [17]


Habitation by Native Americans

The river valleys and lower levels of the range were occupied by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Historic tribes of the region included the Walla Walla, Cayuse people and Umatilla, now acting together as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, located mostly in Umatilla County, Oregon. The southern portion of the Blue Mountains were inhabited by several different bands of the Northern Paiute, a Great Basin culture. Native American tribes originally migrated to the Blue Mountains for hunting and salmon runs. [18] The Natives used to purposefully burn small parts of the forest in order to create pastures to attract game for hunting. [7]

During westward expansion of the United States

A party descending the Blue Mountains in their journey along the Oregon Trail. Drawing from Eleven years in the Rocky Mountains and a life on the frontier by Frances Fuller Victor (1877). Descending the Blue Mountains.png
A party descending the Blue Mountains in their journey along the Oregon Trail. Drawing from Eleven years in the Rocky Mountains and a life on the frontier by Frances Fuller Victor (1877).

In the mid-1800s, the Blue Mountains were a formidable obstacle to settlers traveling on the Oregon Trail and were often the last mountain range American pioneers had to cross before either reaching southeast Washington near Walla Walla or passing down the Columbia River Gorge to the end of the Oregon Trail in the Willamette Valley near Oregon City.

Modern travel

The range is currently traversed by Interstate 84, which crosses the crest of the range at a 4,193 feet (1,278 m) summit, from south-southeast to north-northwest between La Grande and Pendleton. The community of Baker City is located along the south-eastern flank of the range. U.S. Route 26 crosses the southern portion of the range, traversing the Blue Mountain Summit and reaching an elevation of 5,098 feet (1,554 m).

It is also crossed by the Union Pacific Railroad's mainline between Portland, Oregon and Pocatello, Idaho, which crests the summit at Kamela, Oregon. The summit lies on Union Pacific's La Grande Subdivision, which runs between La Grande and Hinkle, the latter of which is the site of a major UP yard.


Birds of the area include bald eagle, northern spotted owl, Lewis's woodpecker, Williamson's sapsucker, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet and many migratory species, with the riverbanks important habitat for this birdlife. Mammals that move through the mountain grasslands include Rocky Mountain elk (including the largest herd in North America at Hells Canyon), bighorn sheep and mule deer. Native fish include Chinook Salmon, Steelhead, Redband Trout, Coho Salmon, Bull Trout, and Pacific Lamprey.

The Blue Mountains in Washington are home to one of 10 identified elk herds in the state, with a population of approximately 4,500 Rocky Mountain elk as of 2018 across the region. [19] In 1989, in response to a decline in the elk population and a heavy female-biased population, the Washington Fish & Wildlife Department regulated elk hunting in the Washington Blue Mountains with a "spike-only" general hunting season, permitting hunting of only male elk with at least one visible non-branched antler. [19] By the mid 1990s the area then became known for its mature males and trophy hunting. [20] In 2018, Washington State proposed an updated elk management plan intended to improve the health of elk populations and habitats, reduce human conflict and agricultural damage, and managing elk populations for recreational, educational, scientific, and ceremonial purposes. [19]

During winter months elk will prefer to use "moderately steep south slopes" rather than northern slopes because of the southern slopes being warmer and containing less snow. [21]

Land management

The public lands in the Blue Mountains are managed not only by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, but also by land owners and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.


Much of the range is included in the Malheur National Forest, Umatilla National Forest, and Wallowa–Whitman National Forest. Several wilderness areas encompass remote parts of the range, including the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness, the North Fork John Day Wilderness, the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, and the Monument Rock Wilderness, all of which are in Oregon. The Wenaha–Tucannon Wilderness sits astride the Oregon–Washington border.


The range is drained by several rivers, including the Grande Ronde and Tucannon, tributaries of the Snake, as well as the forks of the John Day, Umatilla and Walla Walla rivers, tributaries of the Columbia. The southernmost portion of the Blue Mountains is drained by the Silvies River, in the endorheic Harney Basin.

Related Research Articles

Columbia County, Washington U.S. county in Washington

Columbia County is a county located in the U.S. state of Washington. As of the 2010 census, the population was 4,078, making it the third-least populous county in Washington. The county seat and largest city is Dayton. The county was created out of Walla Walla County on November 11, 1875 and is named after the Columbia River.

Umatilla County, Oregon U.S. county in Oregon

Umatilla County is a county located in the U.S. state of Oregon. As of the 2010 census, the population was 75,889. The county seat is Pendleton, but the largest city is Hermiston. The county is named for the Umatilla River.

Walla Walla people

Walla Walla, sometimes Waluulapam, are a Sahaptin indigenous people of the Northwest Plateau. The duplication in their name expresses the diminutive form. The name Walla Walla is translated several ways but most often as "many waters."

Cayuse people

The Cayuse are a Native American tribe in what is now the state of Oregon in the United States. The Cayuse tribe shares a reservation and government in northeastern Oregon with the Umatilla and the Walla Walla tribes as part of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The reservation is located near Pendleton, Oregon, at the base of the Blue Mountains.

Inland Northwest Area in the Northwest United States

The Inland Northwest, historically and alternatively known as the Inland Empire, is a region of the American Northwest centered on the Greater Spokane Area, that includes all of Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Northeastern Oregon and Western Montana are also sometimes considered part of the Inland Northwest, but Western Montana generally is not considered part of the Inland Empire. Under some definitions, the Inland Empire also excludes Central Washington or Idaho County, Idaho.

Eastern Oregon part of Oregon, USA

Eastern Oregon is the eastern part of the U.S. state of Oregon. It is not an officially recognized geographic entity; thus, the boundaries of the region vary according to context. It is sometimes understood to include only the eight easternmost counties in the state; in other contexts, it includes the entire area east of the Cascade Range. Cities in the basic eight-county definition include Baker City, Burns, Hermiston, Pendleton, John Day, La Grande, and Ontario. Umatilla County is home to the largest population base in Eastern Oregon; accounting for 74% of the region's population in 2016. Hermiston, located in Umatilla County, is the largest city in the region. Major industries include transportation/warehousing, timber, agriculture and tourism. The main transportation corridors are I-84, U.S. Route 395, U.S. Route 97, U.S. Route 26, U.S. Route 30, and U.S. Route 20.

Grande Ronde River

The Grande Ronde River is a tributary of the Snake River, 182 miles (293 km) long, in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington in the United States. It drains an area southeast of the Blue Mountains and northwest of the Wallowa Mountains, on the Columbia Plateau. It flows through the agricultural Grande Ronde Valley in its middle course and through a series of scenic canyons in its lower course.

Wallowa Mountains mountain range

The Wallowa Mountains are a mountain range located in the Columbia Plateau of northeastern Oregon in the United States. The range runs approximately 40 miles (64 km) northwest to southeast in southwestern Wallowa County and eastern Union County between the Blue Mountains to the west and the Snake River to the east. The range is sometimes considered to be an eastern spur of the Blue Mountains, and it is known as the "Alps of Oregon". Much of the range is designated as the Eagle Cap Wilderness, part of the Wallowa–Whitman National Forest.

Palouse people

The Palouse are a Sahaptin tribe recognized in the Treaty of 1855 with the United States along with the Yakama. It was negotiated at the 1855 Walla Walla Council. A variant spelling is Palus. Today they are enrolled in the federally recognized Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and some are also represented by the Colville Confederated Tribes.

Umatilla people

The Umatilla are a Sahaptin-speaking Native American tribe who traditionally inhabited the Columbia Plateau region of the northwestern United States, along the Umatilla and Columbia rivers.

Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are the federally recognized confederations of three Sahaptin-speaking Native American tribes who traditionally inhabited the Columbia River Plateau region: the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.

Tucannon River river in the United States of America

The Tucannon River is a tributary of the Snake River in the U.S. state of Washington. It flows generally northwest from headwaters in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington to meet the Snake 4 miles (6 km) upstream from Lyons Ferry Park and the mouth of the Palouse River. The Tucannon is about 62 miles (100 km) long. Part of the upper river flows through the Wenaha–Tucannon Wilderness.

Wallowa–Whitman National Forest United States national forest in Oregon

The Wallowa–Whitman National Forest is a United States National Forest in the U.S. states of Oregon and Idaho. Formed upon the merger of the Wallowa and Whitman national forests in 1954, it is located in the northeastern corner of the state, in Wallowa, Baker, Union, Grant, and Umatilla counties in Oregon, and includes small areas in Nez Perce and Idaho counties in Idaho. The forest is named for the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce people, who originally lived in the area, and Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, Presbyterian missionaries who settled just to the north in 1836. Forest headquarters are located in Baker City, Oregon with ranger districts in La Grande, Joseph and Baker City.

Umatilla National Forest

The Umatilla National Forest, in the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon and southeast Washington, covers an area of 1.4 million acres (5,700 km2). In descending order of land area the forest is located in parts of Umatilla, Grant, Columbia, Morrow, Wallowa, Union, Garfield, Asotin, Wheeler, and Walla Walla counties. More than three-quarters of the forest lies in the state of Oregon. Forest headquarters are located in Pendleton, Oregon. There are local ranger district offices in Heppner and Ukiah in Oregon, and in Pomeroy and Walla Walla in Washington.

North Fork John Day Wilderness

The North Fork John Day Wilderness is a wilderness area within the Umatilla and Wallowa–Whitman National Forests in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon.

North Fork Umatilla Wilderness

The North Fork Umatilla Wilderness is a wilderness area located inside the Umatilla National Forest, in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. It is the smallest wilderness in northeast Oregon, encompassing only 20,144 acres (8,152 ha) in Umatilla and Union counties.

Eagle Cap Wilderness

Eagle Cap Wilderness is a wilderness area located in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon, within the Wallowa–Whitman National Forest. The wilderness was established in 1940. In 1964, it was included in the National Wilderness Preservation System. A boundary revision in 1972 added 73,000 acres (30,000 ha) and the Wilderness Act of 1984 added 66,100 acres (26,700 ha) resulting in a current total of 361,446 acres, making Eagle Cap by far Oregon's largest wilderness area.

Wenaha–Tucannon Wilderness

The Wenaha–Tucannon Wilderness is a federally designated wilderness area in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington, United States. It was created by the Endangered American Wilderness Act of 1978 and encompasses 177,423 acres (71,801 ha) in the Umatilla National Forest — 66,375 acres (26,861 ha) in Oregon and 111,048 acres (44,940 ha) in Washington.

Blue Mountains (ecoregion)

The Blue Mountains ecoregion is a Level III ecoregion designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Pacific Northwest, mainly in the state of Oregon, with small areas over the state border in Idaho and southeastern Washington. It is also contiguous with the World Wildlife Fund's Blue Mountain forests ecoregion.

Sacajawea Peak

Sacajawea Peak is a peak in the Wallowa Mountains, in the U.S. state of Oregon. It is in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Wallowa–Whitman National Forest.


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  17. Retrieved 24 Apr 2020.
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  19. 1 2 3 "Washington State Elk Herd Plan: Blue Mountains Elk Herd | Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife". Retrieved 2019-12-15.
  20. McCorquodale, Scott; Wik, Paul (2011). "Elk Survival and Mortality Causes in the Blue Mountains of Washington". The Journal of Wildlife Management. 75 (4): 897. doi:10.1002/jwmg.121. S2CID   85919171.
  21. Thomas, Jack (1979). Wildlife Habitats in Managed Forests: The Blue Mountains of Oregon and Washington. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Services. p. 107.

Coordinates: 45°30′00″N118°00′05″W / 45.50000°N 118.00139°W / 45.50000; -118.00139