Updated July 18, 2016.
Road tripping the historic Snake River Idaho is an off-freeway journey through a merciless terrain leading to surprising discoveries!
Following a river from end to end and experiencing everything along the way makes for a grand adventure.
Never ones to shy from taking a road less traveled, we forged our way upstream following the watery Washington/Oregon/Idaho border, which is the Snake River.
That’s when our road trip became exciting . . .
. . . read about how our road trip began at the confluence of the Snake River with the Columbia River in, The Snake River Washington--Road Tripping Up-streme!
Border to border the Snake River coils its way, flowing from its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and cutting a wide swath called the Snake River Plain through south-central Idaho.
Defining Idaho’s western border, the Snake River Idaho divides it from Oregon and Washington, the highlight of which is Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
From there the Snake River courses across Washington’s scenic Palouse region to its confluence with the mighty Columbia River in Tri-Cities, Washington.
Considered one of America’s major rivers, the Snake has sustained life in Idaho since ancient times.
Early Native Americans depended upon the River and all it gave, including Salmon, an integral part of their culture and diet.
As the waters rolled on, so did history and the shaping of it by the Snake River.
Explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, led by their Shoshone guide, Sacajawea, traversed the Snake River Plain on their way to the Pacific Ocean.
Close behind followed the era of fur trading and mountain men who capitalized on the resources of the wide Snake River Plain.
“Go West Young Man” was the mantra of the times, when the great American expansion took hold. Emigrants courageously forged the Oregon Trail in their quest for the “American Dream”.
The Snake River sustained them, giving them much needed water and food while they crossed the most severe land they’d encountered thus far on their journey west.
Little did these pioneers know that their trek created a new economy, agriculture . . .
. . . and commerce ate their trail dust.
The Snake River Idaho watered the settlers’ crops and fed their livestock. Farms and ranches grew.
Transportation of goods to and from the region morphed from pack trains and Conestoga freight wagons to steamboats.
It didn’t take long before the industrial revolution laid iron and the railroad transformed the movement of freight and people, carrying high quality agriculture products to a hungry east coast, and world news, currency and immigrants back to the west.
Then, industry swooped in, put a bit in the Snake’s mouth and tamed it’s wildness by saddling it with dams . . .
. . . Hydroelectric power ushered in the modern age.
World Wars left their lasting mark; you might say the atomic age was born here. The first city in the world, Arco, Idaho, was lit by atomic power. The nuclear industry remains a major player in the Snake River Plain’s economy.
Not to be out done by the atom splitting sector, the current Technology Revolution is taking Idaho’s largest city by storm; centralizing Boise, Idaho and surrounding areas. . .
. . . and the Snake River Idaho lackadaisically rolls through it all. There is a lot to see and do on a Snake River road trip.
Consider adding Craters of the Moon National Monument to your itinerary when you plan your travels to Idaho.
Lewiston, Idaho is named after Meriwether Lewis, whom with William Clark lead the great Lewis and Clark Expedition.
This is a place where the history of the American West still lives on!
Plan an extra day trip into your itinerary to visit the Lewis and Clark, and the Nez Perce commemorative sites in the Clearwater and Snake River Valley; these sites are scattered throughout Clarkston, Washington and Lewiston, Idaho.
For me, what defines Lewiston, are the family roots forged here. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s knee listening to tales of her childhood on the family farm. She was born on the eve of the agricultural revolution in a time when the land was managed with horse-drawn implements and most work was still done by hand.
My great grandfather, though not wealthy, was better off than most other farmers through the fruits of his labor. He and his team of horses had a thriving business at planting and harvest times.
But, all that changed when mechanized devices replaced old-time farm labor. Farming as he knew it seemingly changed overnight, and for whatever reasons, he was unable to prosper as he once had.
The family hung on as long as they could . . . the children growing up, marrying and moving away.
Eventually, the family farm was sold and my grandmother’s folks moved into town (Lewiston) where they spent the rest of their days.
Today, there are no traces left of that well-loved family farm. The land sits fallow, just golden grasses waving as the prevailing winds blow across the prairie.
Grandma told stories about watching movies at a theater in town. We found that old movie house.
While visiting the historic buildings of Lewiston I could almost feel my Grandmother’s presence in the places where she had trod as a girl so long ago.
By the way . . . did you know the Snake River Idaho in Lewiston is the race boat capital of the world?
Race boat stars from around the globe flock here to compete in qualifying events and in the world championship marathon. During the off-season racers practice on the Snake River Idaho.
It’s a thrill to watch these sleek boats skim the surface of the Snake as they blast by.
Where a Nez Perce village once stood, Hells Gate State Park now is. Considered the gateway to the deepest river gorge in the North America known as Hells Canyon, the park is a lovely base camp for visitors to the area.
We stayed two nights at this handicap accessible park. The shady greenspace was a welcome respite from summer’s blistering heat.
This family friendly campground is immaculate with wide open spaces accommodating tents, trailers requiring full hook ups and dump stations, and equestrian campers. Those who prefer a more substantial dwelling can rent a cabin. Restroom/shower facilities are available.
Little ones will love the playground and riding their wheelies on the paved drive.
A lovely picnic grounds offers a sandy beach on the shores of the Snake River Idaho and is perfect for those who want a brief getaway or who are just passing through.
Consider visiting the Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage Center, the Lewis & Clark Discovery Center and various archaeological sites during your stay.
Other activities onsite include, birding, water sports of all kinds, archery, volleyball, geological exploration, bicycling and photography.
One of my favorite activities is wildlife viewing! Watching these swallows swoop in and daub in the mud was very entertaining.
We spotted other wildlife here: flocks of American Goldfinches, Red-winged Blackbirds, American Robins, Osprey, Canada Geese, California Quail, and squirrels.
Consider setting aside time to hike one of the many trails in the park. We enjoyed walking the scenic Clearwater and Snake River National Recreational Trail—Hells Gate State Park/Lewiston Levee Parkway.
Hells Canyon is the deepest gorge in North America . . .
. . . deeper than the Grand Canyon or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison!
The vast vistas and scenery rival those of Grand Canyon and Canyonlands National Parks.
Amidst an awesome backdrop of snow-capped peaks of the Eagle Cap and Seven Devils mountain ranges, the Snake River Idaho, a designated Wild and Scenic River, crashes through a gorge walled in by great volcanic cones (lesser volcanic mountains) that touch the sky.
The seasons are as harsh as the landscape . . . long, frigid winters with substantial snow flying from early September to the end of May, and sizzling summers so hot and dry . . .
. . . it’s a wonder anything can thrive here. Yet, the scenery and wildlife viewing are amazing!
Road tripping this extreme outback is a rollicking high adventure. Access is limited by season, weather, road conditions, wilderness savvy and off-road-ability of your vehicle. We recommend reliable, high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles with back-country tires only.
There are few, barely passable gravel/dirt roads leading to the shores of the Snake River Idaho. Narrow one lane roads with rare turnouts are hung on vertical mountainsides and wind across rugged terrain before plunging steeply to the canyon floor below.
Talk about the road less traveled!
We raised many an eyebrow as we ventured deep into this inhospitable wilderness, a place few tourists dare to explore with wheels under them.
Some locals expressed their concern we might never find our way out before nightfall, if ever, and cautioned us against going . . . and rightly so!
Weather is unpredictable here and suddenly changes, usually without warning. A little rain turns the dirt back-roads into deathtraps of slick slaloms on mountain precipices and huge mires that swallow vehicles whole.
Most visitors take a helicopter tour or hire outfitters/guide services to jet boat the Snake River Idaho into the heart of Hells Canyon, venues I highly recommend for those who have no wilderness survival skills.
We are seasoned trekkers possessing the skills and equipment we need to survive and rescue ourselves from the unforeseen in remote wildernesses.
Please exercise caution when exploring this wilderness. Hazards, such as poison ivy, black widow spiders and rattlesnakes are common. Black bears, cougars and several packs of wolves make their home here. Hells Canyon is grounds for world class hunting. So, be aware of the various hunting seasons, especially in spring and autumn.
Kick back in your favorite easy chair and enjoy a vintage film about Hells Canyon below.
From Lewiston, we traveled about 2 hours on US-95 South through beautiful plateau lands to White Bird, Idaho where we set up camp at Killgore Adventures (motel, RV park, campground).
We planned a number of nearby day trips from this base camp; one such trip was to Pittsburg Landing on the Snake River Idaho, located in the heart of Hells Canyon.
To get to Pittsburg Landing from White Bird, we continued south on US-95 for about ½ mile where we turned right/west onto Old Highway 95 at milepost 222 following signage to Pittsburg Landing and Hammer Creek Recreation Area. After traveling about 1 mile, we crossed the bridge over the Salmon River and took an immediate left onto Deer Creek Road/ NF-493, and then trekked on about 17 miles of difficult gravel/dirt road to the shores of the Snake River Idaho at Pittsburg Landing.
Of all the places we’ve visited along the Snake River Idaho, this is probably the most astounding. Past and present come together and each new discovery is like turning a page in a story book.
Shaped by repeated cataclysmic geological events, the story of Hells Canyon’s formation goes back to Earth’s beginning. The great flood, the ice age, massive volcanic flow after massive volcanic flow, uplifting, earthquakes, landslides, erosion . . . you name it, it’s here.
Some rocks and boulders tell another kind of story, one of native tribes and their lives, as depicted in petroglyphs, pictographs and scratchings. Over 200 outstanding specimens have been discovered in the Pittsburg Landing area.
I enjoyed a stroll through a unique collection of them on a nearby grassy plain set against a stunning backdrop of furrowed mountains, a fascinating rock garden.
Perhaps the most fascinating specimen is this specially hewn boulder. What its purpose might have been, we can only guess. The pictographs decorating this structure make it a wondrous marvel.
Despite the setbacks of early homesteaders, the human story continued. Farmers and ranchers attempted to tame the rough wilds of the Snake River Idaho.
Getting around Pittsburg Landing is fairly easy, although I would not recommend the area as disabled accessible.
The Snake River National Recreation Trail #102 (Snake River Trailhead) begins at Pittsburg Landing parking lot. The trail serves day hikers, backpackers and equestrian enthusiasts.
When hiking we sometimes are blessed to happen upon some of nature’s most beautiful gardens.
We often stumble across evidence of wildlife.
After spotting this crawdad carcass, we also saw a huge turkey vulture gliding on the updrafts and several ground squirrels hurriedly scurrying about.
Other wildlife living here include, mule deer, mountain goat, peregrine falcon (endangered), Chinook salmon (endangered) and white sturgeon.
In the midst of an amazing large-than-life landscape like this, the photographic opportunities our boundless!
There is much to see at this location on the Snake River Idaho. Consider spending a night or two at Pittsburgh Campground.
While Pittsburg Campground accommodates smaller RVs, boat and tent trailers, along with tents and large group campers, the road to Pittsburg Landing is an extremely steep, narrow one lane road with few turnouts and lots of hairpin curves, definitely not a trailer friendly road! Bring your own water as potable water is not always available. Activities include fishing, boating (boat launch access to the Snake River Idaho is available), hiking, photography, historical interpretation, birding, and wildlife viewing.
Because we visited the Hells Canyon area early in the season, we were unable to access Heaven’s Gate, the highest viewpoint in the Hells Canyon Recreation Area; it was still buried deep in snow and the road was impassable.
Instead, we sought lower elevation viewpoints. We struck out south on US-95 and turned right/west on Race Creek Road/NF-241, just north of Riggins, Idaho.
The well-maintained gravel road coursed about 11 miles over draws, through scenic gullies and around lesser mountains, quickly gaining in elevation.
On a heavily forested ridge we crossed through Iron Phone Junction and enjoyed a brief break at Iron Phone Junction Campground before resuming our journey.
It's a pack everything in and out campground.
"This area has four campsites with fire rings, hitching rails, and no feed bunks provided." --FS.USDA.gov
At Iron Phone Junction we turned left onto NF-2060.
As we neared the summit, road conditions deteriorated. We cautiously traversed the narrow one lane road with very few turnouts. To make matters worse, the dirt road was greasy slick following a brief rain shower.
A while later, we rounded a hairpin turn, dove into an inside switchback and slid to a stop.
We were enthralled by the most enchanting woodland adorned with a crystalline waterfall, its mist flocking hundreds upon hundreds of fragrant wildflowers in brilliant rainbow colors.
Dewy Trilliums blanketed the mountainside . . . they were everywhere!
With every curve in the road there was something new and wonderful to see!
Then, we rounded a grassy bluff and the whole world opened up to reveal Hells Canyon in all her glory . . .
. . . jaw-dropping vistas!
This is one of many indescribable views of the monumental mountains in Hells Canyon.
Wildflowers enhanced the majestic experience.
The afternoon was quickly waning. Thus, we didn’t have enough time to see everything before sunset. Because I really wanted to see the Kirkwood Historic Ranch, we skipped Low Saddle Viewpoint and retraced our route back to Iron Phone Junction.
To get directions to Kirkwood Ranch, we had stopped at the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area office in Riggins (1339 Highway 95 South, Riggins, Idaho 83549, 208-628-3916) prior to entering the wilderness. The staff had warned us the road to Kirkwood Ranch might not be passable for us because it was rarely used and usually only accessible by quads (ATV/OHV).
Undaunted and always up for a new adventure, we set out to conquer some back-country.
At Iron Phone Junction we turned left/north onto NF-420 to Cow Creek Saddle Junction where we stayed to the left and continued on NF-420. At the next fork in the road, we stayed to the left, venturing off NF-420 on a gravel road that leads to Kirkwood Historic Ranch.
Shortly thereafter, we encountered signs of civilization, a cattle grate.
That’s when we knew we were in ranch country! Down the road quite a ways, we stopped at a rustic gate across the road.
This was a very curious development. So, we parked the truck on the side of the road and decided to scout on foot what lay ahead. After checking for trespassing signs (there were none), we went through the gate and secured it behind us.
The sign for Kirkwood Ranch was encouraging, but doubt about road conditions placed there by the Forest Service staff in Riggins, niggled. We hiked around the point to take a closer look.
The road quickly became impassable for larger automobiles, but was a good ride for quads (ATV/OHV).
Since it was late in the day we abandoned our plans to see Kirkwood Historic Ranch. However, we were blessed with some incredible views of the Seven Devils Mountains on our return trip back to camp.
Consider visiting the south end of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area at Hells Canyon Dam. Travel south from White Bird, Idaho on US-95. Turn onto the Brownlee Oxbow Highway/71 North in Cambridge, Idaho. The highway meets up with the Snake River Idaho near Brownlee Dam. Continue north, passing through Copperfield and Homestead to Hells Canyon Dam.
At the dam Hells Canyon Adventures features jet boat tours for visitors who wish to see this part of the canyon and beyond.
To continue touring the Snake River Idaho upstream, return to Cambridge, Idaho and travel south on US-95 to Fruitland, Idaho and tour the wonderfully scenic Snake River Canyon Byway.
With its origins in Nyssa, Oregon, we missed a few miles of the first leg of the Snake River Canyon Byway, but we took in the places to see and things to do along the way.
I was struck by the miles upon miles of beautiful green hops fields, an oasis in the hot and dry high-dessert.
Another surprise was to discover Idaho had some wine country! Amazing vineyards softened the harsh landscape. How life-giving the Snake River Idaho is!
The byway ends at Walters Ferry, ID.
We continued east on Owyhee Hwy/US-78, following along the Snake River Idaho’s shores for a time.
Here we bumped into an unexpected sight, Bruneau Dunes State Park.
South-central Idaho is very arid. The desolation of Bruneau Dunes left me so stunned I didn’t think to photograph it. The massive dunes surrounding me, dull-grey mountains of blowing sand, were more than I could comprehend.
Our picnic lunch would have been quickly gobbled up by swarms of flies if we hadn’t made a dive for our vehicle.
Flicking on the air conditioning, we quickly ate and made haste down the road, which soon turned north and joined up with I-84 East on the other side of the town of Hammett.
I’m an Oregon Trail history buff; it’s part of my heritage.
As a young girl of 7 years old, my great, great grandmother walked the Oregon Trail through Idaho.
When we discovered this scenic byway, I was delighted to have the opportunity to stand on the Oregon Trail once tread by her little feet. I say “feet” because her shoes had long since worn out and she made a good part of the trek barefoot.
For me, the best part of traveling the Oregon Trail Scenic Byway was visiting historic Three Island Crossing State Park.
More than my photos were able to convey, the above video best captures what I pictured in my mind’s-eye and what I felt that day. This was as near as I could be to my great, great grandmother . . . a very special moment.
Yes, a tear slipped down my cheek; I was deeply moved by the experience.
We jumped off the freeway again a short time later at Bliss, Idaho and took to the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway. There is so much to do and see along this route!
Our first stop was at the Malad Gorge Unit of the Thousand Springs State Park Complex, just outside of Hagerman, ID.
The Snake River Idaho crashes down a waterfall into Devil’s Washbowl, cutting through a narrow cleft between craggy canyon cliffs.
Hiking Kelton trail led to historic views of the remnants of Kelton Stage Stop, wagon ruts and crystalline springs.
At this point my camera battery ran down and I missed photographing the scenery.
The whole park complex is a remarkable sight.
Driving this Byway is truly a classical road trip experience.
After a very, very long day on the road we interrupted our trip for some much needed rest and respite. We stopped for the night in Twin Falls.
There’s a reason we return here for overnight stop-overs on road trips. The accommodations are very good. We’ve tried a new place each time we’ve stayed and they have all been excellent, Super 8, Holiday Inn Express and the Red Lion Inn.
The next morning we picked up where we left off and explored the area.
My favorite stop was the viewpoint of the Snake River Canyon from picturesque Perrine Memorial Bridge.
Here we learned from a local resident that Twin Falls is considered the base jumping capital of the United States. I can see why. With the lofty air currents, the cliffs and deep canyon, and shore along the river’s edge, this area is a mecca for outdoor sports of all kinds.
Did I mention how stunning the scenery is?
My photos give some idea of what we saw, but do not communicate the vastness and distances of the canyon, nor my breathlessness when I first stood at the edge of the plunging depths.
Later, I learned from another local resident that the legendary Evel Kenieval made his world renowned jump across the Snake River Canyon here in Twin Falls.
A stroll along the Snake River Canyon Rim Trail extends the edgy experience. Consider renting a kayak from Pryor Paddle and put in at Centennial Waterfront Park to create a deep canyon experience while traveling upstream. Enjoy Pillar Falls, rapids cascading over monumental rocks, and then continue upstream to Shoshone Falls.
West of the Perrine Memorial Bridge, the Snake River Canyon is boxed by stunning cascades and Shoshone Falls.
We drove down a twisting road in Shoshone Falls Park to view the magnificent falls rushing into the canyon. These falls are best seen during the spring season as they are little more than a drizzle by late fall due to the dry climate and the draw-off for agricultural irrigation.
From here we continued our road trip east on the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway to Hanson Bridge, Idaho on US-50.
After consulting our map, we decided to make up our own scenic byway as we traveled along. So we kept to an off-freeway route as close to the Snake River Idaho as possible. We tracked back to US-30 and journeyed east to the junction at I-84 just north of Burley, Idaho.
Crossing the freeway, we headed north on SR-24 and turned east on Minidoka Dam Rd/E 400 N. to Lake Walcott State Park located in the Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge, through which the Snake River Idaho flows.
Tracking back, we drove south on SR-24 and turned east on SR-25/E. Baseline Road until it joined up with I-86/US-30 at Exit 15 and continue our way east.
We made a “reminiscent” stop at Massacre Rocks State Park on the shores of the Snake River Idaho.
When our kids were young, we pitched a tent in the campground for an overnight stay on our way to visit Yellowstone National Park. The history here is as fascinating as the rocks.
I remember an adventurous encounter with an exceptionally large scorpion that held siege on the women’s restroom. It kept attacking my foot and trying to crawl up my leg.
It was quite vicious!
During the course of the afternoon women and girls ran, screaming, from the restroom.
As the campground filled for the night, the men came together and decided for the women’s safety they could share with them the men’s room.
The outcome was a wonderful camaraderie among campers. Some interesting stories passed around the campfires that night!
Fast-forward to our road trip . . .
In Pocatello, we turned north on I-15 where we followed the Snake River to Idaho Falls. There we jumped freeways and traveled east on US-26.
The Snake River Idaho courses a long, loopy diversion to the northwest, so we headed cross country to meet with it upstream.
We took a break at the Clark Hill Rest Area at mile post 357. The views of the Snake River Idaho were among some of the most picturesque, making this a great place for a road-side picnic lunch.
Tripping down US-26/Swan Valley Hwy., the Snake River Idaho was our close companion until it disappeared into Palisades Reservoir.
US-26 skirts the shores of the lake and border of the most incredible mountainous wilderness, home to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
We closed in on the Wyoming border at the southeast end of Palisades Reservoir, where the Snake River Idaho ends . . .
. . . our adventure continues in, The Snake River Wyoming--Road Tripping Up-streme!
It is fitting the Lewis-Clark Center for Arts & History has made it's home in the Vollmer Great Bargain Store, located in downtown Lewiston. Built in 1884, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The center features exhibits and events capturing the essence of the history and art of the region.
"Registered with the National Wildlife Federation as a “Backyard Wildlife Habitat Area,” the five-acre area provides an excellent way to observe wild birds, mammals and aquatic creatures. A paved path meanders through meadows and a small forest planted with a variety of trees and shrubs. Deer, coyote, raccoon, rabbit, skunks, amphibians, reptiles and over 115 bird species have been observed here."
"This Black Lake Campground is a rustic facility with only 4 designated tent sites. Located on the edge of Black Lake and adjacent to the Hells Canyon Wilderness, the site is popular for visitors wanting an truly 'off-the-beaten-path' recreational experience. The access road to the campground is steep and rough, and is not recommended for RVs, trailers or low clearance vehicles."
"We invite you to experience it for yourselves. Bring your ATV, motorcycle, tent, big rig, vintage trailer, 5th wheel, travel trailer, or bicycle....and don't forget fido! We're definitely a pet-friendly campground."
"Located on Windy Saddle above the Hells Canyon Wilderness, the Windy Saddle Horse Camp is a small campground with 4 campsites. The campground has long camp spurs for trailers, an overflow parking area for stock trailers or day use, hitching rails and a loading ramp." Access the Windy Saddle Trailhead here.
"From Riggins, Idaho travel south on Highway 95 for 1.3 miles to Seven Devils Road (becomes Forest Road 517); Turn right on Seven Devils Road and go 17 miles to trailhead and horse camp road junction; Take a right at the road junction and continue on towards the Heaven's Gate Lookout for about 0.1 miles to the horse camp entrance road (one way traffic); Follow this road around to the horse camp."
". . . guides will dazzle you with their storytelling, their knowledge of canyon history and flora and fauna as well as their culinary prowess as riverside chefs."
"If you’re looking for an adventure, the best guides in the region are here to give you just that! Whether it’s Spring or Fall Chinook, Steelhead, Sturgeon or Walleye – we can hook you up with that trophy catch you’ve always dreamed of. Our fleet of boats are specially designed to handle the demands of our area rivers (including the Snake River of Hells Canyon) and our lodge is a warm and friendly retreat for aching muscles after a long day of hauling in fish after fish!"
World class fishing, jet boat tours of Hells Canyon, overnight excursions and more. Snake River Adventures has it all!
"The Windy Saddle Trailhead is the main access point into the Hells Canyon Wilderness from Idaho. Located on the saddle going to Seven Devils basin or up to Heaven's Gate Lookout the area offers a great view of the Seven Devil mountain range and Hells Canyon area."
Learn about the history and culture of the Nez Perce Indians, and about the on-going impact of the Lewis and Clark Expedition on the areas history.