Snake River, Idaho, Oregon
U.S. Forest Service, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest
December 1, 1975. The segment from Hells Canyon Dam downstream to an eastward extension of the north boundary of section 1, T5N, R47E, Willamette meridian.
Wild — 32.5 miles; Scenic — 34.4 miles; Total — 66.9 miles.
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Hells Canyon of the Snake River
The Snake River likely got its name from the first white explorers who misinterpreted the sign made by the Shoshone people—who identified themselves in sign language by moving the hand in a swimming motion—which appeared to these explorers to be a "snake;" it actually signified that they lived near the river with many fish. In the 1950's the name "Hells Canyon" was borrowed from Hells Canyon Creek, which enters the river near what is now Hells Canyon Dam. In the old days, Hells Canyon was known as Snake River Canyon or Box Canyon, though a few locals called it the "Grand Canyon of the Snake."
The Hells Canyon area was once home to Shoshone and Nez Perce Tribes. According to the Nez Perce tribe, Coyote dug the Snake River Canyon in a day to protect the people on the west side of the river from the Seven Devils, a band of evil spirits living in the mountain range to the east. In the late nineteenth century, the military drove the Native Americans out and settlers began ranching and mining in the canyon. Today, boaters can explore archaeological sites and old homesteads, all part of the canyon's rich, colorful history.
Hells Canyon is one of the most imposing river gorges in the West. Until a million years ago, the Owyhee Mountains acted as a dam between the Snake River and its current confluence with the Columbia River, creating a vast lake in what is now southwestern Idaho. When the mountains were finally breached, the Snake roared northward, cutting a giant chasm through the volcanic rock. The resulting canyon, roughly ten miles across, is not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon. However, when the surrounding peaks are visible from the river, the sense of depth is tremendous. The adjacent ridges average 5,500' above the river. He Devil Mountain, tallest of the Seven Devils (9,393') towers almost 8,000' above the river, creating the deepest gorge in the United States.
The river is as big as the landscape. Below Hells Canyon Dam, the Snake usually carries more water than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Below the confluence with the Salmon River, flows average 35,000 cfs and often peak over 100,000 when the Salmon is high. Further downstream, the Clearwater and other rivers dump their flows into the Snake River, creating the Columbia River's largest tributary. (The total drainage area is approximately the size of Oregon.)
The Canyon: The Canyon is mostly public land, much of which is designated wilderness. The Canyon is massive, arid, and provides extremely stark, spectacular scenery. Solitude can be hard to find at peak use times; there are numerous jet boats, especially below Rush Creek. The lower river is often crowded on summer weekends. Few roads enter the Canyon, and those that do exist usually require 4-wheel drive.
Drainage Area and Average Annual Discharge: 92,960 square miles and 27,500,000 acre-feet.
Peak Recorded Flow: 195,000 cfs (June 18, 1974) at Heller Bar.
Fishing: Fishing is good for trout, bass and catfish. Occasionally, steelhead and salmon are caught, although the fishing for these species is best described as 'fair.' Fishing for the legendary Hells Canyon white sturgeon (up to 15 feet in length) is catch-and-release.
Wildlife: Odds are good that you'll see bighorn sheep, ospreys, eagles, chukar partridge and deer on your trip. You also might see turkeys, elk, bears and otters.
Boating Difficulty: III-IV. Most of the difficult rapids are at the beginning, then the pace of the trip slows considerably. The two major rapids, Wild Sheep and Granite Creek, should be treated with respect, especially at high flows. At high flows these rapids can easily flip the largest rafts (just ask the U.S. Forest Service ranger in the photo above). Those with kayaks and other small boats can portage these rapids. The remainder of the trip, while still offering some exciting rapids, is mostly serene. To avoid the slower water in the lower Canyon, many boaters take out at Pittsburg Landing (mile 32); roughly half of all trips end there.
Trip Length: Variable depending on your taste and choice of shuttles. Pittsburgh Landing is 32 miles, Heller Bar is 79 miles; both have road access. Other length trips (60 miles to the confluence of the Salmon River, 72 miles to Cache Creek) are possible with a jet boat shuttle.
Boating Season: April - November. Since the dams were built, flows are usually highest in March and April, with the levels gradually dropping into late summer. However, releases fluctuate in order to assist salmon runs. For current information, contact the U.S. Forest Service, or you can call an Idaho Power recording that gives the release from Hells Canyon Dam: (800) 521-9102; in Idaho (800) 422-3143. Releases from Hells Canyon Dam often fluctuate widely, so camp well above river level and tie your boat securely.
Recommended Boating Levels: 5,000 - 40,000 cfs. High water begins around 30,000. Skilled boaters can run at higher levels, but the danger increases. Flows at the put-in vary from 5,000 to over 50,000 and average roughly 8,000 to 35,000. At mile 60, the Salmon adds a significant volume: 50,000 cfs or more in late spring and early summer. Be warned that strong eddies occur at all flow levels.
Boats: Rafts — Large boats (16' and up) at high flows; afternoon upstream winds can be a problem in the flat lower sections. Open Canoes — Anyone, including experts, should think twice before attempting the big rapids at the start of the run; scouting is a must. The river below Pittsburg Landing is good canoeing water, and no advance permit reservations are required.
Boating Permits: Permits are required from Hells Canyon Dam to Rush Creek from the Friday before Memorial Day through September 10. Application for permits runs from December 1 - January 31 (permit applications must be received by January 31); the lottery is in early February. You are most likely to draw a permit for May or September; the worst odds are for July and August. After the lottery, you can call for unassigned dates. Launch dates must be confirmed by March 15; call for uncomfirmed dates beginning March 16. Group limit 30. Advance permits are not required for trips starting at Pittsburg Landing (mile 32).
Water: Do not drink the water. The river gets warm (70 degrees) in summer. It is recommended that you purify water from side streams. There is no drinking water at the put-in!
Camping: The dams have trapped sediment and dam releases have eroded the beaches, so much of the camping is on grassy benches above the river. The Salmon River brings in large amounts of sand, beaches—especially beaches appropriate for large parties—reappear. There is no camping at the Hells Canyon put-in, and camping is restricted to one night at Granite and Saddle Creeks. Boaters must carry out human waste, and float boaters must show proof of approved receptical prior to launch. Campfires are prohibited year round. Because of fluctuating flows, camp high above the river.
Hiking: Several trails follow the river and climb side creeks (Granite Creek is a favorite).
Hells Canyon Trivia
WHERE IS HELLS CANYON?: There is no recognized geographic place called "Hells Canyon." According to R.G. Bailey's book, Hells Canyon, it starts 90 miles south of Lewiston, Idaho, and extends 40 miles further south to a point near Oxbow, Oregon. This is, of course, debatable.
HOW DID IT GET ITS NAME?: According to Carrey, Conley and Barton in their book, Snake River of Hells Canyon, most of the early explorers referred to the gorge as Box Canyon or Snake River Canyon. The first reference to Hells Canyon appears in a 1895 edition of McCurdy's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. In discussing the voyage of the steamboat Norma, the author writes: "She then bounded off, swinging into midstream and, like a racehorse, shot into the Hell Canyon . . .." The name was used by the Mazama Hiking Club in their 1931 bulletin. Bailey's book, Hells Canyon, was published in 1943. Senator Neuberger of Oregon used it in several publications in the 1950's.
HOW DEEP IS THE CANYON?: He Devil Mountain is 9,393 feet above sea level. The canyon plunges 7,913 feet (over 1-1/2 miles) from its summit to the mouth of Granite Creek, 6 miles away, at 1,480 feet.
HOW LONG IS THE SNAKE RIVER?: The Snake River originates in Yellowstone National Park at 9,500 feet and winds through southern Idaho before turning north to form the boundary between Idaho and Oregon. It finally joins the Columbia River near Pasco, Washington, at 340 feet in elevation, 1,036 miles from its source. According to Bill Gulic in his book, Snake River Country, the Snake drains 109,000 square miles and contributes 36 million acre-feet of water to the Columbia, ranking 6th in volume among the nation's rivers.
HOW DID IT GET ITS NAME?: To identify themselves, Indians living along the river in southern Idaho used a hand sign that resembled the movement of a snake. Although it didn't mean "Snake," that name was given to this group of people, now known as Shoshone. The river flowing through the Snake Indian lands was given the tribal name.
HOW DEEP IS THE RIVER?: It varies from two to three feet in some runs to 105 feet near Cache and Deep Creeks.
HOW MUCH DOES THE RIVER DROP?: The average fall per mile from Hells Canyon Dam to the Oregon state line is 8.7 feet.
HOW MUCH OF THE RIVER IS DESIGNATED WILDERNESS?: The 1/2-mile wide designated river corridor is adjacent to the 215,000 acre Hells Canyon Wilderness over much of its length, but none of the corridor is wilderness.
IS THE RIVER PROTECTED UNDER THE WILD AND SCENIC RIVERS ACT?: The 31.5 miles of river from Hells Canyon Dam to Upper Pittsburg Landing is designated "Wild." The river is designated "Scenic" for 36 miles below Pittsburg. The balance of the river is not designated, although dams are prohibited.
HOW WAS HELLS CANYON FORMED?: Most of the older rocks we see in the canyon came from underwater volcanoes when Hells Canyon's terrains were part of an island arc in the mid-Pacific Ocean. These complex terrains glued themselves to North America about 150 million years ago as a result of tectonic plate movement. Vast areas were later covered with successive lava flows as recently as 6 million years ago. Uplifting from deep in the earth's core formed the Seven Devils and Eagle Cap Mountains, a process that continues today. The canyon itself is a result of both uplifting and erosion. On your trip you will see recent basalt flows, limestone formed on the ocean floor, ancient lavas, alluvial deposits, and the remains of primeval swamps that grew on the island surfaces.
DISTANCES: Starting at Hells Gate State Park (just outside of Lewiston, Idaho), it is 3 miles to Asotin, 17 miles to Buffalo Eddy, 26 miles to the Grande Ronde River, 33 miles to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area boundary and the Oregon state line, 45 miles to the Salmon River, 48 miles to the Imnaha River, 53 miles to Dug Bar, 72 miles to Pittsburg Landing, 77 miles to the Kirkwood Historic Ranch, 86 miles to Sheep Creek Ranch, 88 miles to Rush Creek Rapids, and 104 miles to Hells Canyon Dam.