The 6,000-foot Hells Canyon is not only the deepest river gorge in North America, but it’s also a part of a huge recreation area that includes over 650,000 acres of wilderness, three Wild and Scenic rivers, and 900 miles of hiking trails.
The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area sits along the border of Oregon and Idaho. It’s extremely remote, and mostly roadless. I’ve been wanting to get a look at the canyon for twenty years, so I was as excited as anyone to board the Beamers Tours jet boat in Lewiston, Idaho, where Captain Dan waited to guide us down the Snake River and into this rugged land that has remained mostly untouched for thousands of years.
Right from the start we spotted osprey, eagles, antelope, bighorn sheep, and even some old guy panning for gold. The kids had a blast with Captain Dan swerving back and forth along the river at an exhilirating 45mph. Along the way he pointed out unusual geological formations and a few pioneer homesteads, and even stopped to let us all get a close-up view of ancient petroglyphs that dated back at least 2,500 years.
The turnaround point for the half-day tour we took is Cache Creek Ranch, where we had an hour to eat, lay in the grass, and watch the kids play. The Forest Service runs the ranch now as an interpretive center. While we lazed around, Captain Dan was down at the river catching smallmouth bass right and left. The river is a fisherman’s paradise.
Even though this trip was just a taste of what the canyon has to offer, the kids absolutely loved it. They had no idea that just a few hours south of where they live is such a massive, and totally unique, wilderness area. There’s so much more to see and explore.
You can choose to see the canyon in several different ways. Traveling by jet boat is the easiest, and quickest. Most tour operators offer half-day, all-day, or multi-day tours. Hiking in is another option, with three major trails designated as National Recreation Trails.
If you’re looking for a rugged and remote wilderness that doesn’t feel overcrowded like some of our national parks, look into spending some time in Hells Canyon. It’s a surprisingly short and easy drive from the large population centers of Portland, Seattle, and Salt Lake City.
All photos by Phil Corless