Come discover a place where time stands still as you descend into Hells Canyon carved by the great Snake River. As you drive down into the canyon, quiet and beauty surround you. Here is the deepest river gorge in North America with heights of up to 9000 feet surrounding you. It can be approached from either the Idaho or Oregon side, but this day the approach was from Idaho Highway 86. You will eventually find yourself driving on the famous Canyon Scenic Byway, “Devil’s Tail”, also known as National Forest Road #454, leading to Hells Canyon Dam at the end of the road.
Scenery was awesome and it seemed impossible to capture the towering feeling that surrounded you as you drove along the Snake River in the bottom of the canyon. This canyon separates Idaho from Oregon in a most spectacular way.
The forest road along the top of Hells Canyon was a one-lane dirt road, which was rugged and steep and took several hours to ascend. Towards the top, the road was covered with a light coat of snow. The last 350 yards had to be traveled on foot in order to arrive at Heavens Gate where the altitude was 8,690 feet and the scent of pine hung thick in the mountain air. The foot path was rough, but the view from the top was breathtaking, my favorite view of the canyon.
From this point, you could see the snow covered Seven Devils Range and the Snake River. There are actually twenty peaks in this range with He Devil and She Devil being the highest, both at about 9400′. At one angle you could see four states: Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Wyoming.
Back in 1955. Idaho Power Company began construction of a three dam project in Hells Canyon. First a road had to be constructed and even then couldn’t bring in all the needed supplies. Helicopters were used to bring in tools and equipment as well as help with erecting the transmission towers that carry the power out of the canyon to the Oregon side. Finally, we reach the end of the 22 mile road and cross over the dam to the Oregon side where the Visitors Center is located.
On close observation, the rugged rock walls of the canyon are like a museum with pictographs and petroglyphs left over from the time when Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce Indians lived there. Some say part of the petroglyphs date back possibly 15,000 years. Nez Perce Indians enjoyed the mild winters here as well as the lush foliage and plentiful wildlife. The Snake River provided abundant fish as well as goods they would be able to trade.
Later, in 1895,a cargo ship captain, named Haller, met with rapids more dangerous than expected. Either because of people discussing his adventure in Haller’s Canyon, or perhaps what the captain said when he got in this dangerous situation, the name Hells Canyon stuck. The precipitous mountain sides and the wild rapids seem to reinforce the idea that the name chosen was very fitting.
There is only one way back out of the canyon from the dam, and that is back the same 22 mile road that was originally used to enter. But now it is dusk and the drive out will be a careful one, driving slowly because of the sharp curves and always being aware of dodging fallen rocks either in the air or on the rugged highway. Be sure to keep your eyes on the road and stop when you want to really enjoy the scenery.
Today this magical place is great for whitewater rafting, jet boating as well as fishing excursions. Just being here makes you look at the world with a different perspective. Great spot to relax and leave your worries behind. See you in Hell’s Canyon!
Hells Canyon can be reached from I 84 in Idaho at Exit 304 Hells Canyon/Weiser Road. Follow the signs for the Canyon Scenic Byway and enjoy the adventure.