"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hell's Canyon - Lewiston, ID

As I said in my last post, I chose Hell's Gate State Park for its access to Hell's Canyon, the deepest canyon in the US. (Bet you thought the Grand Canyon was. Me too!) There are several companies that offer raft and jet boat tours in or near Lewiston and they all like to say that they're "not all the same." Among the jet boat tours, they all use similar boats, which are aluminum boats that hold as many as 50 people (our trip had about 25), and are powered like jet skis, needing only a 9" draft underneath, to prevent mishaps with the rocks in the Snake River. They differ by how far they go into the canyon, but all are approximately the same length, with full and half-day options. They differ by where they stop for lunch, each contracting with different lodges or restaurants along the river.

We chose Riverquest Excursions and were very happy with them. We chose a half-day trip, which was really a pretty full day. We left at 10:00 am and returned at about 5:00.

We left from the marina right at the state park.

Captain Butch is Coast Guard Licensed and is the owner/operator of the company. He also leases and manages the ranch where we stopped for lunch. More about that soon.

Shortly after we embarked we passed cliffs of what are called basalt columns. Some of them are vertical, like columns, but others are in fan formations, or horizontal. The whole area was volcanic, with evidence of other geological forces, such as water erosion and massive flooding.

After jetting up the river (going south) for awhile we pulled over at the site of these ancient native American petroglyphs and pictographs. (Pictographs have color or paint in them as well as carving.) You can see how some near the top are colored red. The bright spot is a lazer flash light used to help point out figures on the rock. Some are unfortunately obscured by a small bush now.  

A little further on we passed the Earl Ranch (est. 1894), one the of the few working ranches on the river. Many have been started, but few last. This rancher has bought out many neighboring ranches, which seems to be common among those that succeed. This sculpture of a steer was created by the owner. To give you a sense of scale, see the old boat seat down in front of it? 

The water alternates between flat and class I and II rapids in this part of the river. The jet boat, ably navigated by Capt. Butch zipped right over the water.

The banks of the Snake River are typically either white and black rock, or sand. There are lots of really beautiful little sandy beaches along the way, often with kayakers, rafters or jet boater stopped to swim or picnic on them.

We stopped for lunch at Garden Creek, an old farm leased by Captain Butch and Riverquest Excursions from the Nature Conservancy. It is a cool and lush oasis surrounded by desert. We sat in the orchard and ate our provided box lunches. 

After lunch I strolled around the farm and visited with the resident wild turkeys

and deer who were enjoying the grass and the dropped apples.

Right outside of the orchard, you step into the desert.

The walkway to the farmhouse had an arched gate with this typical Western decor.

After lunch we took a quick dip in the very cold and fast moving river. It sure felt good to cool off. It was probably about 100 degrees in the sun.  We continued south, up the river, passing more scenery along the same themes of dry, striated rocky canyon walls, 

and this rough rock along the water. The white rock marks the typical high water mark, and the shiny black rock above it has been scoured by sand and debris from fast moving high water. 

We made one more stop before we reached the end of our journey up the river.  Unfortunately I can't recall the name of it, but it was part of the national forest system, an old farm, with an orchard and turkeys. This one also had a small historical and natural museum of the area.  Next to the house was this old root cellar/cool storage area, shown here inside and out. 

It's no longer in use. In fact the couple that was volunteering there for the month as caretakers were really struggling with the heat and with not having fresh water. Our captain dropped off several large jugs of drinking water for them. They are really isolated except for the tour boats that come by.

The view from the picnic area shows again the contrast between the oases that have some water source and dryness of the surrounding area. 

Back in the boat and on to our final destination, a place called Dug Bar.  All along the way our captain told us stories about the history of the river and the canyon, complete with gold miners, steam paddle boats wrecks, Native Americans pre and post encounters with white folks, and more. 

Once we started back down the river, or north, the going got a little rougher and the boat had to go faster to avoid getting caught up in the current in a dangerous way. We really whipped around some of the bends in the river and to avoid large rocks. 


This view is looking through one of the narrowest places in the river. 

About half way back, we were all pretty hot, so our captain was kind enough to stop at this waterfall and let us stand underneath it if we wanted to cool off.  

Of course we couldn't pass up an opportunity like that, and it was COLD!

Almost home, and we spotted our second group of longhorned sheep.  Both times they were right on the banks of the river, heading down to get a drink. This group were all ewes and kids of various ages who had to cross a large split in the rock to get to the water.  

This one had just successfully jumped across and was looking back at another, saying 
"Mind the gap!"

The next one was hesitant and decided to find another way down.

And this little guy jumped right across, following his mom.

This kid took his time down by the water. It was a thirsty day for all of us.

We were sure ready to be home by 5:00. I can't imagine what a "full" day would have been like. 

Thanks Captain Butch!


  1. Wow - great pictures of your trip upriver! The spot you reference above is the Cache Creek Ranch - it was originally a sheep ranch but is now staffed year-round by a USDA Forest Service host. It's great to hear you enjoyed the jet boat tour of Hells Canyon, come see us again!

  2. Thanks for the name of the USDA location. Yes, I'd recommend it to anyone, especially those who are not sure about rafting it.

  3. Nice photos. I live nearby & took a visiting friend on a geology-talk cruise about as far south as we could go. Once beyond the basalts around Lewiston, given the tilt of the landscape the canyon walls become older and older the farther up river we traveled. And there were some new native plants for me to find at one of the stops. Hard to spot birds (golden eagles?) with the boat's canopy.

  4. Thanks for your comment. Boy, we would have loved to see a golden eagle. It's still on our life wish list. We may have seen them, as we've seen plenty of large birds of prey throughout the country, but never could confirm for sure.


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