A jet boating trip in Idaho’s Hells Canyon puts you right in the middle of one of the Northwest’s most remote areas. This awesome experience begins even before you get to the boat, though, because the route you travel to the south entrance from Oregon, the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, is listed as a Top Ten Scenic Drive in the Northern Rockies. Be sure to stop at the many viewpoints along the way to take in geologic formations and look for wildlife.
For the drive to the docks, start with a full tank of gas (a must!), pack some favorite snacks and drinks in the cooler, unplug from the electronic devices, and hit the road. Check with your jet boat operator for directions because GPS readings aren’t always reliable around here. Also, be aware that the departure times in the south canyon are Pacific Time.
At the south entrance, the canyon is over a mile and half deep—deeper than the Grand Canyon! Hells Canyon is a low-relief canyon, which means that you can’t see the deepest point at all times while navigating through it. As you head north, you’ll catch a glimpse of He Devil, the tallest peak in the Seven Devils range, rising 9,393 feet above sea level. Its terrain drops 7,913 feet to the mouth of Granite Creek, six miles away.
When you reach the dock below the visitor center at the base of Hells Canyon Dam, you’ll board your boat for a thrilling trip along the wild and scenic Snake River. Trips range from a few hours to several days. The boat’s enclosed sides make trips suitable for toddlers, grandmas, and everyone in between. Tours are typically narrated, with the crew sharing canyon lore about early homesteads and pointing out wildlife, significant historical sites, and pictographs along the way. Bring your binoculars and keep an eye out for elk, mule deer, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, cougars, and coyotes. Songbirds and many species of owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, waterfowl, and upland game birds are common sights. Trips usually include refreshments or lunch at a beach or historical site.
Of course, a jet boat trip is really all about the rapids! The Snake River is renowned for big waves and powerful whitewater, including the biggest rapids of them all, Wild Sheep, Granite, Waterspout and Rush Creek—which deliver thrills and fun. Warm water and weather make for perfect swimming conditions on hot summer afternoons June–August.
There are three lodging properties in the south canyon. The Hells Canyon Adventures Lodge is the closest to the launch site, a 30-minute drive. Idaho Power owns and maintains Woodhead Park, McCormick Park, Copperfield Park, and Hells Canyon Park. All offer full-service hookups, tent camping, restrooms and shower facilities as well as access to the Snake River for boating, fishing, swimming, or just relaxing.
There are three ways to travel to the south entrance of Hells Canyon: Highway 86 from Baker City, Oregon; Highway 71 from Cambridge, Idaho; or USFS Road #39 from Enterprise, Oregon. All three routes lead to the famed Devils Tail, the last 22 miles from Oxbow to the Hells Canyon Dam. All roads are paved.
Pay close attention to trip departure and return times, as the Snake River is the dividing line between Mountain and Pacific time zones.
Cell service is spotty in Hells Canyon and the surrounding area. Also, don’t trust your GPS for directions; follow written instructions from your outfitter.
Hells Canyon Adventures (www.hellscanyonadventures.com, 1-800-422-3568) is the only jet boat outfitter operating at the southern entrance to Hells Canyon, and they offer the closest lodging. Jet boats also operate from Pittsburg Landing and Lewiston to the north on different stretches of the Snake River.
Photography provided by Hells Canyon Adventures
Published on April 25, 2015