The name "Hells Canyon" just wreaks of adventure and excitement, and a jet boat ride through the Idaho river canyon, often associated with daredevil Evel Knievel's famous motorcycle jump over the Snake River, should be on everyone's Western U.S. travel itinerary.
But don't start out asking people about Evel Knievel. It really irritates the locals because, even though his jump was indeed on the Snake River, it was about 350 miles southeast of the actual canyon. Plus, Knievel was not successful in his attempt to jump the river and it was more than 40 years ago. Get over it.
There's simply so much more to this beautiful region that encompasses North America's deepest river gorge. It's a geological wonder filled with history, wildlife and yes, some exciting adventures.
A Protected National River
Hells Canyon covers about 75 miles of the more than 1,000 miles of the Snake River that winds itself around from Yellowstone National Park through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington on its way to the Columbia River. Most of the river through the canyon is protected by the Wild and Scenic River Act of 1975.
Base yourself in Lewiston, Idaho, an unassuming little community on the Snake River and an important stop on the Lewis & Clark Trail. The Lewis & Clark Discovery Center at Hells Gate State Park tells the story of the expedition in this region as well as the heritage of the Nez Perce who call this region home. Enjoy the fishing, hiking, and swim beach at the park, even if you don't camp overnight.
A number of tour companies offer excursions along the Snake River, everything from kayaks and rubber rafts to jet boats and fishing boats. The fishing is for steelhead trout and the famous giant white sturgeon in the river, a pre-historic looking fish that is for catch/release only. Seriously, who would want to eat that ugly thing!
We chose a jet boat ride, zipping along just inches above the water at 35 mph with the canyon walls rising steeply above us. In some places in the southern end of the canyon, the surrounding mountains are almost 8,000 feet high. But down on the water in the bottom of the canyon at just 730 feet above sea level, it never snows and rarely freezes, so you can do these boat tours almost all year long.
Wildlife in Hells Canyon
The canyon is surrounded by the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area with few roads and even fewer people. But what the region has plenty of is wildlife and magnificent scenery. An estimated 800 Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep live in the mountains, but of course, most of them don't come down to the river for pictures. However, Butch Odegaard has led tours along the Snake River here for more than 20 years, and on almost every trip he sees a couple of sheep and their ewes.
We saw a few big horn sheep as well as plenty of mule deer, but a recent wildfire in the area made much of the wildlife scarce. Not quite as common are mountain lions, cougar, bobcats, and bear. We were not so fortunate to spot any, but we watched for nearly 30 minutes as a boatload of fishermen took turns reeling in a white sturgeon about 20 feet long.
At about mile 19 on our 50-plus mile outing, we slowed to take a look at pictographs on the wall, ancient drawings by the Nez Perce whose homelands the Snake River traverses. Researchers from the Smithsonian and other notable institutions have studied the drawings, but no definitive meaning has been determined. The Nez Perce believe it has great spiritual purposes, but otherwise choose not to discuss it.
The Snake River ranges in depth from just a few inches in some of the Class I and II rapids to nearly 150 feet at Deep Creek. There are plenty of places to pull up on a sandbar and wiggle your toes in the cool, clean, fresh water. You might consider swimming for a little bit, but the water rarely warms up above 70 degrees or so in the summer, so you probably won't stay in there too long.
As we zipped along, we learned about the significant steamboat traffic along the river in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that helped bring settlers and tourists to the canyon. That was back before the dams upstream regulated the flow and the river was really wild and crazy. Boats sank, fortunes washed away, and most development on the river simply didn't survive Mother Nature's antics in these parts.
In fact, it was a writer on one of those perilous rides that first called this area, previously called the Box Canyon, Hells Canyon. The name stuck, most appropriately.
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