Trip Out: MERA (Mount Emily Recreation Area)

Seattle has the Space Needle, New York City has The Statue of Liberty, the German town of Flensburg has the world’s biggest hot dog, Bermuda has the triangle, and La Grande has Mount Emily.

That omniscient patron saint of the valley, and her lumpy, skate-ramp silhouette serve as the town’s most signature logo; emblazoned on many a t-shirt, beer mug, real estate sign and help clinic. Long before the first human wandered into the area, there she stood, silent and motionless, patient and inviting. I especially love (after a while away) winding down Ladd Canyon and entering the valley from the south– yes the long, easy, straight-line homestretch– the point where you can almost smell your pillow and hear the record you’ll be putting on. Emily presents herself center stage and as if under lights… smack dab in your weary crosshairs, welcoming you back, and ever reminding you that, while the world may change terribly from one moment to the next, she will remain… unfettered and unharmed… like some fairy godmother mascot with enough stamina to keep cartwheeling and high-kicking long after the teams and crowd have gone home.

Photo by Molly Paugels

Up until 2008, the bulk of Emily was facing a series of amputations– and stood at the precipice of becoming subdivided into privately owned, limited public-access plots– destined for the swift and lucrative campaign of logging. It was in that year– thanks to various grants and impassioned community advocacy, Emily officially became the Mount Emily Recreation Area, or MERA– the current result of which is 3,6oo+ acres of unpaved roads and trails intersecting about one another through several thousand feet of elevation change. No matter your mode of transportation (truck, ATV, horse, bicycle, foot) there is a path for you– constantly improved and evolved not only by a steady flow of volunteerism, but by MERA’s two committees (one centered around Motorized users, and the other non-Motorized users). Members in both committees offer their respective expertise– equestrians, hikers, archers, ATV enthusiasts, forestry specialists and Oregon Fish and Game employees– each gives insight on how to maximize the area’s potential, keep equal opportunities for all recreational fields of endeavor, and restore the habitat at every turn. On any given day at MERA, you may see someone up there spraying invasive plant species, operating a little backhoe to create another mountain biking jump or smooth out a sweet berm, someone taking a dirt sample, or a small crew replacing boards that traverse a creek. The stewardship of MERA is as beautiful as the mountain itself, and a keen reflection of how much the area means to us.

…while the world may change terribly from one moment to the next, she will remain… unfettered and unharmed…

Access to this wonderland of fun is three-fold: entry points being Fox Hill Rd., Owsley Canyon, and Igo Lane. For OHV activity, Fox Hill is the ticket. Trundle up the steep 17% grade, and, in minutes, you’ll be looking over the Grande Ronde Valley below. Right at the crest there is a little area to pull off to, and spend a short while in solitude pressing the reset button or with that special someone at one of the best unofficial make-out points in La Grande. Continue on and the OHV trailhead and parking lot will present itself, along with Fox Hill Campground– furnished with several sites that offer free camping for up to two weeks! Beyond that, the road continues for miles and miles, eventually joining with the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest to the north. From here you can get to Indian Rock– the granddaddy of Emily’s scenic bluffs, and the most optimal place to catch a sunrise from behind the Eagle Caps if you’re up for it. For the foragers, Mt. Emily teems with the coveted Morel mushroom in the Spring and early Summer, then, as August approaches, the mountain offers my personal favorite of all berries… the huckleberry. For almost a solid month the woods provide this luscious fruit, and in such abundance that I’m pretty sure every valley resident could pick their fill and barely put a dent in the supply. Of course, bears love huckleberries as much as we do, so always be aware. In the Winter, Fox Hill is a prime destination for those with snow mobiles, as the accumulation gets so substantial up there that such a machine becomes your sole accessibility. Or you could take your 1990 Ford Ranger up there in January and get it stuck for two weeks. Up to you.

Owsley Canyon and Igo Lane are your trailheads for anything non-motorized, and any given day of any given season you’ll find me up there– running her trails, looking for a new plant to identify, picking a bouquet of wildflowers, on a lazy family walkabout, or fending off the doldrums of the cold and barren Winter by snowshoeing, snowshoeing, snowshoeing. Few things center me and enliven my senses like shutting out all else and disappearing into the quiet white woods to slough off my blues and cabin fever. It is written that there is 20 or 25 miles of trail, but when all the trails loop, intersect, and conjoin, you can’t really quantify its length– just go as long as you want, and it’s all good stuff. Cross-country skiing is a popular Winter pastime up there, and depending on what you prefer to strap to your feet, I try not to mangle the well-worn skiers path with my snowshoes. While it may look inviting, it’s bad form, so don’t do it. At the top of the don’t-do list though, is dog shit. I love dogs as much as anyone, and I especially love taking dogs into wide open spaces where they can have some semblance of their ancestral ways, running amok and being constantly bamboozled by scents galore. But a trailside dog turd squeezed out in late November is likely to stay immortalized and stinky until Springtime and beyond. One dog turd gives way to two, five, eight, and by April the once pristine trails can run the risk of being transformed into a nasty little albino troll, all covered in crappy, putrid warts. Be a good person. Take responsibility for your pet, and pack out that dog shit. Please and thank you.

One outdoor activity that has seen immense strides on MERA is mountain biking. The diligence and dedication of a small handful of volunteers and clubs has created trails for both moderate cruising and climbing, as well as super downhill bombs that will get your adrenaline pumping and excitement meter spiking. Such efforts have created quite a buzz among mountain bikers far and wide, and this is nothing short of a boon for our area’s allure and economic growth. Hats way off to those folks. 

Photo by Molly Paugels

Lastly, no write up on MERA is complete without listing the bounty of wildflowers you will find come Summertime. Red Columbine, Indian Paintbrush, Lupine, Calypso Orchid, Lady’s slipper, wild rose, and Elegant Cat’s Ears are among the array of beautiful and odorific plants to admire and enjoy. Between the plants, the berries, the many species of wildlife commonly seen, along with recreational opportunities to fit virtually any interest, it’s no surprise that the Mount Emily Recreation Area is as close to our hearts as it is. For, without all its amenities and characteristics, La Grande simply wouldn’t be the same. No matter your ideologies, social status or political bent, MERA is a great unifier among the people of the valley. It is a place we seek for a thrill, a memory, a discovery, an experience– and we take it with us back down the mountain and pass the good word on. To our friends, visitors, and the generations of those bound to enjoy what we have, long after we are gone.

This concludes chapter three of Trip Out! Roadmaps to Recreation, brought to you by La Grande Life and hq. Additional information on MERA can be found on the wonderful website:
Gregory Rawlins signing off– and remember… life’s a trip, so trip out!