Hit the Highway to Hells Canyon
Some facts about Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s the deepest river gorge in North America; it’s 8,000 vertical feet in the deepest portions; it includes more than 215,000 acres of wilderness; and it’s not for sissies. One of Oregon’s most wildly beautiful places, Hells Canyon is also one of the most remote. Go with a plan and give yourself plenty of time for the exploration of a lifetime in this gorgeous corner of northeast Oregon. Here are a few ideas for exploring Hells Canyon by car, by boat and by trail.
Check out Hells Canyon Lookout for the most accessible view of the gorge from above (though you won’t be able to see the river from here). The lookout is about 33 miles north of the town of Halfway and is the only paved viewpoint into the canyon. For a thrilling, vertigo-inspiring view of the Snake River and the gorge, take a rustic road 23 miles north of the remote town of Imnaha to Hat Point Lookout. Get down to the river itself and pay a visit to Hells Canyon Dam, reached by traveling through the town of Halfway, then 18 miles to the Oxbow Dam and 22 miles further north on the Idaho side of the river (and the start of the Wild and Scenic portion of the river).
Trip tip: Top off your fuel tank before you leave town, check for road conditions and seasonal closures, pack some water and snacks for the car and take a map.
A rafting trip on the Wild and Scenic section of the Snake River through Hells Canyon is one for the bucket list. The most popular trip, 34 miles between Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburgh Landing in Idaho, includes 34 named rapids rated class II-IV and usually takes two to three days. Longer trips — 51, 70 and 104 miles — can be taken. Winding Waters and other guide companies offer all-inclusive floats or you can get a permit and go on your own. For a faster (and louder) ride, jump into a jet boat with Hells Canyon Adventures. They offer 2- and 6-hour trips through the white water and leave from Hells Canyon Dam. Canyon Outfitters and others offer multi-day fishing floats in drift boats.
Trip tip: Whichever route you choose, be on the lookout for bear, elk, mule deer, big horn sheep and eagles as well as wild flowers, ancient pictographs and log cabins left by prospectors, miners and 19th century settlers.
The wilderness area includes more than 900 trails for hiking and backpacking. The much-loved Snake River Trail begins at Dug Bar (about 27 miles from Imnaha). This 45.5-mile trail offers great wildlife and wildflower viewing and riverside camping. The Western Rim National Recreation Trail starts at the P.O. Saddle Trailhead and follows the ridgeline for 43 miles to Dug Bar. This route has spectacular views and shady forests. The region offers dozens of other popular day hikes, picnic spots and backpacking routes. For something different, book a trip with Wallowa Llamas; their furry camelides will pack your gear while you enjoy the scenery.
Trip tips: Don’t be scared off, but be prepared for wilderness elements like ticks, rattlesnakes, poison oak and black widows. Be prepared for high and low temperatures and limited water sources. Make sure you gas up before you leave town, know where you are going and take a map.
about author Eileen Garvin
Eileen Garvin is the editor of Travel Oregon’s Seasonal Features, enewsletters and annual visitor guide. When she’s not cooking up trip ideas, Oregon Dreamer profiles and outdoor adventures to write about, she’s out exploring Oregon.
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These maps and directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, or other events may cause road conditions to differ from the map results. For travel options, weather and road conditions, visit tripcheck.com, call 511 (in Oregon only), 800.977.6368 or 503.588.2941.