If you know one fact about Hells Canyon, you probably know that it’s the deepest gorge in the United States. But most likely, you didn’t even know that. I understand completely. I didn’t know anything about it, either. But that’s a big part of the reason I made Hells Canyon one of my destinations.
Hells Canyon is one of those ridiculously remote areas of our country that’s easy to ignore, mostly because it’s so difficult to explore. The nearest interstate is at least two hours away. Only two paved roads lead into the canyon (one from Idaho, the other from Oregon). Just one paved road leads up into the canyon, and to explore it thoroughly means rounding dozens of curves and dodging plenty of fallen rock. Then, once you reach the end, you have to turn around and go back the way you came. Not many people would go to this much trouble, to see a place they scarcely knew existed.
The Snake River lies at the bottom of Hells Canyon, and so does the Idaho/Oregon state line. If you’re entering from Idaho, ID Rte. 71 will drop you down into the canyon, hug the Idaho edge of the river for several miles, before crossing into Oregon. The route then becomes OR Rte. 71, and continues on the west bank of the river for a few more miles to the intersection with OR Rte. 86. This road will take you out of the canyon and into the vast Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. You can choose, however, to cross back into Idaho and follow the river for 22 more miles, to the end of the road and the Hells Canyon Dam. Keep in mind, this will require a 22 mile return trip, on the same road.
The first water you see as you drop down into Hells Canyon is merely an outstretched finger, extending from the Hells Canyon Reservoir (the Snake River). For a few moments, the road is high above the water, then drops down closer.
You’ll pass three dams along this section of the Snake River. The first (southernmost) is the Brownlee Dam.
As you pass by the Brownlee Dam, the road narrows, with barely enough room for two lanes. Thoughtful road crews have placed a fence here, to keep you from plunging into the water.
Just above the Brownlee Dam, the road crosses over into Oregon, but it stays the same: narrow, curvy, hugging every contour of the river.
I’m sure before the dams were constructed, the Snake River was much wilder and rougher. Nowadays, if it’s not too windy in the gorge, the river’s surface is perfectly flat and glassy, reflecting the sky…
… and the mountains.
The presence of more power lines is a sure sign that another electricity-generating dam is near. But unfortunately, unless you go in search of it, you won’t be able to see the Oxbow Dam. Just as the name suggests, the Snake River makes a huge u-turn at this point, around a hill that stands in the way of the river’s most direct route. The dam is on the far side of this oxbow, completely unseen from the road.
It’s after you pass Oxbow Dam, and wonder briefly how you could miss such a large thing, that Rte. 71 ends. Here you must make a decision: follow OR Rte. 86 out of the canyon, or commit yourself to 22 miles (one way) of driving, which will lead you deep into the least-visited reaches of Hells Canyon.
I’m not quite sure why I chose the latter. It was already the middle of the day, and I had a long way to go before reaching the next sizeable town, with a selection of decent motels. Yet suddenly, I was telling myself the usual road-trip lies that usually precede a bad decision, such as “I’ll only go a little way, to see what it’s like,” and “22 miles isn’t very far, you can get there in 30 minutes.” Before I knew it, I was back on the other side of the river, pressing further into the gorge.
Not long after embarking on the 22 mile journey to an unknown destination, I spotted an electrical line crossing the road. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with the insulating balls they place on high-tension wires. Most of the time they were far away, strung over a highway or between two mountains. Here, though, they were just above the road, still a safe distance away, but it seemed almost within reach.
My excitement was rather pathetic, for a grown-up. I hopped from the car for a closer look. Decades ago, I had seen these colorful spheres, and imagined they were made of foam–the kind you were allowed to throw around inside the house. But at this distance, as I examined them, my joy quickly turned to disappointment. They all appeared to be made of metal, and not a single one said “Nerf” on the side. At least they were really, really big–a fact that made me feel a little better.
But I digress.
After examining the giant power line balls, I continued deeper into the canyon. After the turnoff to Rte. 86, the road’s quality had decreased dramatically. It had the feel of a surface that had been last paved, perhaps, in 1972. Also on this end of the road, it seemed no one was bothering to sweep off the chunks of rock that routinely fell from the blasted-out walls at the side of the road. This actually provided me with some satisfaction. For most of my life, I’ve seen “Watch for Falling Rock” signs, but never actually seen any rock that had fallen. But here, the signs didn’t promise something they didn’t deliver.
This little inlet must be a popular fishing spot. After miles of seeing almost no one by the side of the road, there were several fishermen here.
Fishing and boating are just about the only reasons anyone drives up into Hells Canyon. Perhaps a little hunting too. Every couple of miles, I’d see a car parked at the side of the road. There are a couple of parks that also accept RV’s. Everyone seemed focused on fishing, which made me feel a bit out of place, as a mere sightseer.
Just as you begin to wonder if 22 miles could possibly go by slower, you climb up to a high bluff over a high summit, which provides a great view up and down the river. This is Black Point. A sign explains that before the dams, there was another road that ran up the side of the river. That road passed through a tunnel, rather than climbing up to this point. The old road and tunnel are now both underwater, directly below your feet.
Here’s a promising sign. The Hells Canyon Dam is near!
See that mountain looming above the dam? I believe that mountain is Barton Heights. It stands at an elevation of 5,743 feet, which puts it about 4,200 feet above the river.
At long last, you finally reach the Hells Canyon Dam. The road travels over the dam, then a short distance further up the canyon. I only drove far enough past the van to take this picture, but after returning home and doing a little more research, I discovered that there’s a visitor’s center about 1/4 mile on up the road. I didn’t see any signs for it, so I missed it.
Remember what I said about rocks in the road? This one’s big enough to make a frightful scraping noise, as it grinds along your oil pan.
Back on the dam now, I couldn’t help but notice this cluster of warning signs near the entrance to a long metal catwalk. Anything with this many safety warnings must be fun!
The narrow metal walkway is officially known as Deep Creek Trail. If my memory is correct, there are 263 steps which take you down, up, and down again, to the bottom of the canyon. The trail was designed and installed in 1989 to give fishermen access to the Snake River.
All along the trail, you can enjoy views like this one. This would have been a spectacular picture, had it been a little less cloudy.
At the bottom of the trail, you’re just a few hundred feet from the base of the dam. Once the catwalk ends, there are no paved walkways. You’ll find yourself climbing over rocks and following very rough trails, so be careful.
Hike away from the dam, and you’ll need to climb up and over this old concrete structure. Most of it appears unused now…
… but part of it is clearly the old bypass, used to divert the river during construction. These areas are fenced, but you still need to be surefooted and keep an eye on your children in this area.
Beyond the bypass tunnel is another rocky area. A smaller stream comes tumbling down the mountainside here, and joins the Snake River. I found several people fishing here.
After you’ve done some fishing, taken some pictures, or relaxed at the side of the river, tackle the stairs again to climb back to the top of the dam. Then, drive back the way you came — it’s your only choice — until you reach Oxbow, and the bridge that takes you back into Oregon.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006. Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.