Rides & Destinations: Hells Canyon National Recreation Area

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is 652,488 acres of stunning beauty in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

Photo courtesy Joe Berk

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What: Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. This magnificent region straddles the Snake River, taking in the best of western Idaho and eastern Oregon.
How to Get There:
Take the grand circle route from I-84, as described above.
Best Kept Secret:
The ride into Hells Canyon from Idaho. SR 71 between Cambridge and the Brownlee Dam is magnificent. Try La Laguna in Joseph, Oregon, for great Mexican food.
Avoid:
Entering the area without a full tank of fuel (it’s very remote out there). Check the weather and road conditions first. Forest Road 39 is closed in the winter months.
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A year ago, when organizing the Western America Adventure Ride for Zongshen (one of the largest motorcycle companies in China), the request from our friends in China was simple: Show us the best the U.S. has to offer. I had several destinations in mind. One I had always wanted to see but never had: Hells Canyon. Our route was a grand one, starting in Los Angeles, California, arcing diagonally northeast all the way to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and visiting every National Park along the way. We would then head west to the Pacific and follow the coast highway back down to Los Angeles. We visited Hells Canyon on our trek west as we rode to the great Pacific Northwest.

Bisected by the wild Snake River and spanning Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the 652,488-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is stunning. The netherworld overtones notwithstanding, there’s no satanic or grammatical possession implied (it’s “Hells Canyon,” not “Hell’s Canyon”). Early explorers referred to the region as Box Canyon or simply the Snake River Canyon; the first known reference to “Hells Canyon” was in an 1895 article about a steamboat journey up the Snake River. The underworld moniker struck a nerve and it stuck. There’s nothing hellacious about Hells Canyon, though. The region is stunningly beautiful.

Hells Canyon formed as a combination of volcanic action, tectonic plate movement, and erosion by the Snake River. Although the Snake River carved much of Hells Canyon in the same manner as the Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon, the surrounding geology is not as stark as the Grand Canyon (that’s my opinion; your mileage may vary). Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, is deeper but not steeper than the Grand Canyon (Hells Canyon’s eastern rim is almost 8,000 feet above the Snake River; the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is 5,700 feet above the Colorado River). Hells Canyon’s mountains are not sheer cliffs as seen in the Grand Canyon, but the area is still dramatic.

First settled by humans 15,000 years ago, the earliest identifiable inhabitants were Nez Perce Native Americans. Other tribes in the area included the Shoshone, the northern Paiute and the Cayuse. The Snake River is believed to have taken its name from a simple misunderstanding. European explorers interpreted a swimming motion hand sign by the Shoshone people as a snake, when it instead referred to living near a river with many fish. Indians from several area tribes were consequently known as the “snake people.” The Lewis and Clark Expedition made a brief foray into the region in 1806. The discovery of gold in the 1860s led to more settlers, but other than a few ranchers, the area is still largely unsettled. Idaho Power built three large hydroelectric dams in the 1950s and 1960s. Other than that, only three roads enter the area and it remains largely unspoiled.

The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area boundaries start about 90 miles south of Lewiston and run south along the Snake River for 40 miles or so. Our ride was in Idaho and Oregon and it made for a full day. There are few roads through Hells Canyon; it is best accessed from I-84 in eastern Oregon. The grand loop we rode involved a counterclockwise circumnavigation from the south, picking up Idaho SR 95 to SR 71, taking SR 71 to Oregon SR 86 along the Snake River, riding Forest Road 39 north to SR 82 east, and riding SR 82 back to I-84. Fill up in Cambridge, Idaho; you won’t see another gas station for quite a while. — Joe Berk