Hells Canyon, a great gash in the earth’s surface, is created by the Snake River along the Idaho-Oregon border. The Snake in Hells is big, but there are only indications of what it was before the days of European expansion into the West. Between the Snake River’s headwaters in Yellowstone National Park and Hells Canyon, dozens of dams capture its waters and are used to create electricity, as well as to water crops in southern Idaho’s desert.
The Snake River in Hells Canyon does not have an abundance of difficult whitewater. What it does have is outstanding scenery, wilderness camping and, depending on who you ask and how they define it, the deepest canyon in North America. The river runs more than 8,000 feet below nearby He Devil Peak in Idaho and more than a mile below the canyon rim in Oregon. The Grand Canyon, though by most standards more stunning, has 4,000 and 6,000 foot walls on its south and north rims, respectively.
At 1,040 miles long, the Snake River is the largest and longest of the Columbia River’s tributaries, and it threads a diverse landscape including national parks, mountain resorts, working agricultural country, working cities, huge basalt canyons and the Palouse hills of eastern Washington state. Last weekend, looking for a graceful transition into summer activities, I loaded up with four friends for my first trip through Hells Canyon. In three days we covered 35 miles from Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburgh Landing. With medium-high flows, we probably could have done it in one long day, certainly in two.
For more on Hells Canyon and Snake River history, lore, geography and topography, read some of my prior posts:
Death Has Many Faces on the Snake River Plain (Astoria 1811) (Upper-Snake/Hells Canyon Historic Fiction)
The Seven Devils Mountains, a Nez Perce legend (Upper Snake/Hells Canyon Native American Fable and Perspective)
Yellowstone National Park by Boat (Upper Snake/Yellowstone National Park Nonfiction Feature)
Murtaugh reach of the Snake River flows at 17,000 cfs; rafter killed above Let’s Make a Deal (Upper Snake/Snake River Canyon Nonfiction Feature)