- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2004

The 650,000-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area on the border of northeastern Oregon and western Idaho is home to the deepest canyon in North America — 2,000 feet deeper at He Devil Peak than the drop at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The canyon area remains an unknown treasure for most travelers, but it is an incredible locale for an adventurous vacation or even a brief visit.

There is no actual canyon that is Hells Canyon, but it is the name for the entire recreation area with more than 215,000 acres of wilderness.

From the depths of the area’s sculpted valleys to the snow-dappled mountain ranges on the horizon, plenty of pleasures await the lucky adventurer, tourist or photographer who comes this way. The skies are deep blue, the air is crisp, and the rivers — the Snake, Imnaha and Rapid — are wild and scenic.

The many activities available include white-water rafting, river touring, scenic drives, four-wheel drives, fishing, hunting — for big and small game — hiking, backpacking, camping, horse trails, white-water kayaking, rock climbing, and historic sites.

Hells Canyon was so named by the settlers who tried to cross this formidable barrier to the West in the 19th century. When you tour the area, try to imagine passing across the huge mountain ranges and fording the white-water rivers with a horse and wagon and you will quickly appreciate why the settlers came up with their name for the canyon.

The river- and wind-carved canyon is the tallest and deepest river gorge in North America. Yes, much deeper and taller than the Grand Canyon. The Snake River cuts the gorge deeply, and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area’s section of the river stretches from southeastern Washington State and roars south, splitting Idaho from Oregon for more than 70 miles. Immense gorges and powerful white-water rivers dominate the entire area. Yet, there are quiet sections of the river to enjoy swimming, floating and peaceful fishing in boats.

The Hells Canyon area runs almost straight south from the southern Washington state border. Idaho and Oregon have most of the scenic, aquatic, historic, and geological wonders. The Snake’s winding path through the deep canyons is the area’s focal point for recreation. The surrounding three national forests provide additional recreational opportunities well worth exploring in conjunction with a visit to Hells Canyon. But it is Hells Canyon and the Snake River’s power that dominate the area.

BOATING ON THE SNAKE

The best way to find out more about Hells Canyon boating or rafting is to decide what your water recreation interests are for your visit. The recreation area’s Web site, www.fs.fed.us/hellscanyon/overview/index.shtml, gives an excellent look at the choices.

The Web site alphabetically lists outfitters for fishing, hunting, rafting, boating and horseback trips. These outfitters have the experience and knowledge to take you out for an afternoon or a week on the Snake River and other rivers and on lakes.

Several rafting outfitters offer trips on roiling rapids on specialized riverboats, kayaks or large pontoon rafts if you are looking for wet action. If your tastes are a bit tamer, Snake River boat tour operators offer calmer travel through majestic scenery.

If fishing is your passion, this is the place. In nearby lakes and rivers, you can fish for salmon, bass, trout, crappie, even the huge saltwater sturgeon, and much more. You can fish from the bank or have one of the many fishing outfitters take you to their secret fishing spots.

While I lazily floated in an inner tube on the Snake near a fishing hole, two different outfitters pulled up and dropped anchor. In no time, their smiling, bathing suit-clad clients began to haul in small-mouth bass and crappie with little effort.

While driving in the area, I saw numerous trout fishermen catching that night’s dinner, either on their own or as part of a group guided by an experienced outfitter.

No matter what your experience level, no matter what kind of fish you want to hook, the Snake and other rivers in the vicinity will provide the opportunity and means to fill your creel. Be sure to check the list of fishing outfitters on the Hells Canyon-area Web site.

HUNTING

The recreation area and surrounding national forests offer rich opportunities to pursue big and smaller game; elk hunting is very popular in the area. Consult the area Web site for an alphabetical listing of hunting outfitters.

I talked with a packer-tracker with more than 30 years’ experience in hunting and tracking across North America, including elk, bear, mountain lion, mule deer and other animals in Hells Canyon. This veteran tracker could walk you into the wilderness for a day of hunting, or on horseback to a camp for a multi-day hunting excursion. Rifle, shotgun, pistol, bow — he has done it all in Hells Canyon.

He also said his fastest growing category of clients are folks who want to shoot animals and big game with cameras rather than firearms. He and the other outfitters of the area have the skill and knowledge to give you the opportunity to get those trophies for your wall or picture frame.

HIKING AND CAMPING

There are more than enough hiking trails within the recreation area and national forests. The 45-mile Snake River Trail on the Oregon side stretches nearly the entire length of the river inside the recreation area.

If you want an up-close view of majestic Hells Canyon and the twisting Snake River, doing all or parts of this trek will give an excellent perspective. On the Idaho side, try the shorter but still challenging Seven Devils Trail. It provides outstanding panoramic views of Hells Canyon, the Seven Devils Mountains, and Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.

I hiked a section of this trail for a long afternoon trek, and when I reached the summit of She-Devil Mountain, I was treated to a magnificent view. July snow still sat in crags and crevices surrounding me. At more than 8,000 feet, I could easily look in Oregon and Washington.

If you like your hikes easier, there are dozens of choices by either hiking shorter or less difficult sections of the long hikes, or pick less challenging hikes in either state. From short day hikes through mountain meadows to multi-day backpack excursions, hikers at all levels of experience can find something to enjoy.

Make sure you are prepared wherever you decide to hike. Strong, broken-in boots, sunblock, dependable equipment, insect repellent, maps and a compass will help ensure an enjoyable adventure and a safe return to the trail head.

In checking the trail listings in Oregon and Idaho on the recreation area’s Web site, be sure to include the three national forests. Each has many trails of various lengths and degrees of difficulty.

Calling the ranger station closest to your hike and speaking to a ranger will give you the latest information on road and trail conditions. A visitor could easily spend two weeks hiking and backpacking the many trails of the area.

Camping opportunities in the area are virtually endless. I chose campgrounds based on other activities I wanted to do, such as visiting the remote Dug Bar campgrounds for solitude, recreational opportunities on water and a historic hiking trail. The semi-primitive campground there is 20 yards from the Snake River and has a boat ramp and clean cement toilets.

If popular, less rustic campgrounds are your interest, they are easy to find in literature from the recreation area and forests. How much of a crowd you will find at the campsites will depend on time of the year, day of the week, remoteness and services offered at the site.

There are also private campgrounds in the area, but they tend to be the more expensive and often more crowded. During my stay in the area, none of the public campgrounds I stayed in charged a fee, none was crowded and one was deserted except for me. Another campsite was 50 steps from a mountain lake.

You are able to camp in most of the recreation area and forests and not necessarily in a designated campground in all areas. You can set up camp off the beaten path you wish. Make sure you contact the headquarters of the recreation area or national forests for rules, restrictions and campfire regulations.

BY HORSE

The Hells Canyon area has many opportunities for travel by horse and multi-day horse-pack trips. Consult the outfitter list on the recreation area’s Web site, or have information mailed to you from the outfitters.

During my most recent trip to the area, I found this recreation opportunity possibly the most fun of all my experiences in Hells Canyon. I could have selected an overnight or multi-day pack trip through different sections of Oregon or Idaho, and I chose a highly capable Idaho outfit that treated me very well.

I was given an experienced horse with spirit. I was asked about my experience level, how long I wanted to ride, and provided coaching before we saddled up. Safety was a priority. The eight-hour trip I chose was memorable and provided an excellent view of the surrounding mountains and valleys we traveled through.

The trail boss entertained me with wonderful stories from his many years in the saddle. Clearly, he was a man of experience and horse sense. I was also thoroughly impressed with the shiny Ruger six-shooter strapped on his saddle. After all, we were in the Idaho mountain wilderness.

Riding a horse through a shady mountain meadow with the breeze in your face is an adventure to experience at least once in a lifetime. At one point, we dismounted and walked to a pristine mountain spring surrounded by hundreds of wildflowers. Water never tasted so good.

SCENIC DRIVES

Most of the area can be reached with a standard automobile, but I recommend a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach the less accessible places. The Hells Canyon area contains an official scenic byway system that winds throughout the area and is well worth exploring.

Most of the roads are paved or graded gravel, but some scenic areas can be viewed only by traveling on less than standard dirt roads. To appreciate a large portion of the region’s beauty, you will have to do some driving.

The Oregon side is different from the Idaho side, and the more remote northern area is different from the busier south. Along the roads are fruit stands, cafes and saloons. Small towns, usually separated by several miles, dot the map as you travel the area.

Great views of mountain ranges are available from the Heavens Gate overlook in Idaho and at the Hat Point Fire Tower in Oregon. Roadside berry picking in season is common; I picked a hatful of wild blackberries from a large patch beside a deserted dirt road.

Be sure to spend time driving throughout the region to take in the sights, sounds and even the smells. Whether you are stopping at the numerous historic markers throughout the recreation area, there are many choices along the roads, such as visiting microbreweries in Oregon and the historic Kirkwood Ranch, driving to remote Dug Bar campgrounds next to the Snake River, or seeing Hells Canyon’s many sights on the south end of the recreation area.

Don’t miss the miles of astounding mountains, valleys, rivers and stunning horizons. You will use a lot of film, so be prepared.

PLANNING A TRIP

With so much to see and do in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, a little homework is required before traveling there. Definitely visit the recreation area’s Web site, contact people at the national forests and the outfitters you are interested in using. Decide if you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to some of the more remote locations.

There is no substitute for phone contact with the national forest headquarters and ranger districts.

If you seek unbelievable views, as much adventure as you can handle, and want to see a part of this country unknown to most Americans, visit magnificent Hells Canyon — truly a piece of heaven.

• • •

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Web site: www.fs.fed.us/hellscanyon/overview/index.shtml; the headquarters phone is 541/426-4978.

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Web site is www.fs.fed.us/r6/w-w; the phone is 541/523-1405.

Payette National Forest: www.fs.fed.us/r4/payette/contact or 208/634-0700.

Nez Perce National Forest: www.fs.fed.us/r1/nezperce; 208/983-1950.

Steven Hoffman is a free-lance writer living in Northern Virginia

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