Updated August 22, 2016.
Road Tripping the Snake River Oregon through the spectacular Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is an unforgettable journey filled with outstanding adventure in one of USA’s wildest places!
Little did I know when we ventured forth, this road trip would lead us one of the most awesome places on Earth!
It started at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers in Pasco, Washington, where we began following the Snake River upstream, through Oregon and Idaho, across Wyoming’s State boundary line to its birthplace deep in Yellowstone National Park.
That’s when our road trip turned into an amazing once-in-a-lifetime adventure to one of our bucket-list destinations doing what we love most . . .
. . . venturing extreme (upstream) and off-freeway on a road less traveled!
You can learn more about our Snake River road trip in, The Snake River Series.
Did you know The Snake River Oregon shoots through Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America? That’s quite a claim, but the west is renowned for its larger-than-life declarations.
In this case, it’s true!
From its summit, He Devil Mountain in Idaho standing at an elevation of 9393 feet, Hells Canyon steeply plunges 7913 feet to its deepest depth at the bottom of the Snake River Oregon (deeper than the Grand Canyon). That drop is a 1 ½ mile of wilderness treachery, in some places 10 miles wide.
The perilous terrain is so impassable there is no crossing and only three roads lead near the canyon rim where spectacular views of this incredible abyss approach glorious grandeur.
Few visit this remote outback; it is difficult to access even in a 4-wheel drive rig. The best access to the Snake River Oregon inside Hells Canyon is by jet boat, and then by footpath. Many of these trails are of ancient origin with notable historical significance.
Yet, the Snake River Oregon is a waterway of immense importance, one of the nation’s top rivers, ranking sixth for the volume of life-giving water flowing through four states.
Evidence of Earth’s early history shows human inhabitation here. Native peoples depended on the Snake River Oregon for their survival in this arid landscape, as do current day populations.
To make the most of your visit to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, be informed and take along the best information we could find about accessing the canyon rim: Look into Hells Canyon (downloadable PDF with map).
We began this leg of our road trip on the shores of the Snake River at the Washington/Idaho state boundary line in Clarkston, Washington (Lewiston, Idaho is just across the river); so our directions begin from there.
From Clarkston, travel on WA-129 south through the town of Asotin and into the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington.
We recommend taking a rest stop at scenic Fields Spring State Park before navigating the miles and miles of white-knuckle switchbacks and sharp hairpin curves rivaling those of the Million Dollar Highway in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
At the Oregon border, WA-129 changes name to OR-3/Lewiston Highway (Hwy.) and the road begins to straighten out in most places.
Be sure to stop and enjoy the fantastic vista at Joseph Canyon Viewpoint (see below).
OR-3/Lewiston Highway ends at the junction of OR-82/Hells Canyon National Scenic Byway in Enterprise, Oregon, where we made our base camp at Log House RV Park & Campground for several days while we explored the Snake River Oregon and Hells Canyon. Other good places for a base camp are a short ways down the byway in quaint Joseph, Oregon or at beautiful Wallowa Lake.
Deep below the canyon rim, the Wallowa Band of the ancient Nez Perce nomadic people lead by Chief Joseph made their winter camps here to escape the harsh winter storms that scoured the high places. Large caches of camas roots stored in caves helped sustain them through the hard season. During their summer camps here, they harvested the camas roots and prepared other foods for winter survival.
From the arrival of the first white settlers, the squeeze was put on the Wallowa Band to abdicate their native lands. They were removed from their homeland following the Treaty of 1863.
Tensions between the groups escalated until in 1877, by order of the U.S. government, enforced by the Army, the Nez Perce were forced to confinement on a small reservation away from their territory . . . their way of life forever changed.
With their lives at stake by the wretched conditions they found themselves in, they had nothing to lose. Chief Joseph led them on a 1,107 mile journey to what he believed would be freedom for his persecuted people, their destination . . . across the border in a neighboring nation, Canada.
Their flight was fraught with peril and human atrocities. The U.S. government had declared war on the Nez Perce; the band fought for their lives.
Joseph Canyon Viewpoint is one of many interpretive sites in Nez Perce Historic Park, managed by the National Park Service, commemorating the history of this courageous people. These sites follow the historic exodus of the Nez Perce through four fascinating states, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
This exodus, now known as the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, encompasses legendary sites where the Lewis and Clark Expedition encountered the Nez Perce and other places of historical significance, including battlefields, burial grounds and historic villages.
While visiting we heard the calls of various wildlife wafting from the canyon below, though we could not spot them. Distances are deceiving to the eye and appear much closer than they really are.
We enjoyed the company of feathered friends, who were very curious about our presence.
Expansive geologic and human history comes together at this superb viewpoint where visitors enjoy a disabled accessible interpretive site with vault toilets, and RV and truck trailer parking.
In a harsh land known for severe seasons, The Imnaha Canyon (part of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area) provides shelter from extreme summer temperatures and frigid winter storms. The more temperate conditions are a sanctuary to all life, wild and human.
The Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce knew this. They thrived in this valley along the shores of the Imnaha River’s pristine waters, hunting, fishing and gathering edible vegetation during the cold season . . .
. . . until the Nez Perce War of 1877.
Today, the valley is sparsely inhabited by the descendants of early settlers, sheep and cattle ranchers who irrigate their lands, gardens and orchards with water from the Imnaha River.
When we drove through the valley toward the town of Imnaha, Oregon late in May (only a week after snow melt) on our way to Hat Point in hopes of seeing the Snake River Oregon, we happened upon ranchers driving their cattle to summer pasture.
As the road follows alongside the Imnaha River deep in a steep-walled canyon, it is the only passage for these cattle, so all traffic pulled to a stop on the shoulder of the road.
The cattle were strung out for over three miles. It was a long wait, but we enjoyed the unexpected adventure!
Only 3 narrow (one-lane), barely passable gravel/dirt roads lead into Hells Canyon where views of the Snake River Oregon can be had.
These roads have few turnouts, which are hung on vertical mountainsides, and they wind across rugged terrain before plunging steeply into deep canyons and valleys below.
Talk about roads less traveled!
Hat Point Road/NF-4240 is one of these roads.
This trip takes a full day to complete. Come prepared with a full take of gas, a good spare tire and pack plenty of food and water to take with you when visiting here, at least enough for lunch and dinner plus snacks. We always take extra, along with our survival gear when venturing into any remote wilderness area, like this one.
To access Hat Point Road/NF-4240 from Enterprise, Oregon, travel on OR-82 south to Joseph, Oregon.
At the junction turn onto OR-350 east and travel through gorgeous ranchlands, Imnaha Valley and Imnaha Canyon to Imnaha Oregon.
Pass the historic Imnaha Store and Tavern. Watch for faded signage on the right indicating your next turn, Hat Point Road/NF-4240. Turn right on to Hat Point Road/NF-4240.
The first few miles of Hat Point Road/NF-4240 can be terribly frightening for some visitors. Other adventurers will be thrilled by the ride across a steep, narrow one-lane road with sharp drop-offs and no turn-outs . . .
. . . yikes!
My fingers were buried deep in our truck’s dash as I clung to keep from crying out every time our tires skirted the edge of the road . . . I couldn’t see the bottom of the steep ravine and there was nothing on the mountainside to catch us if we slipped off the slick road.
At one point, I decided engaging in fear was useless and would ruin the trip. To distract myself, I whipped out my camera and recorded the leg of our journey after the most dangerous section was behind us and filmed our arrival at Five Mile Overlook.
Aptly named, this viewpoint is the first stop on the long trip to Hat Point, five miles from Imnaha. Located at the tip of a hairpin curve, the overlook hangs out in space giving visitors an astounding view of Imnaha River Canyon.
We arrived early in the morning on a rainy day late in May, just after snow melt, and enjoyed a visit with a family group of hunters . . . it was open season on bears. We discovered the campgrounds ahead were filled with other hunters and we met no other would-be explorers the rest of the day.
Despite the gray weather and lowering skies the views were worth the stop here.
Human history comes to life . . . even here.
I particularly enjoyed the wildflowers.
About 11 miles from Imnaha (about 6 miles from Five Mile Overlook), Horse Creek Vista Point is a small historical site on the left-hand side of the road.
Though the weather became progressively foggier as we climbed in elevation, obscuring any views of Hells Canyon, the Snake River Oregon and of Monument Ridge, I’m glad we stopped.
Horse Creek Vista Point rests on top of a forested ridge, 5920 feet above sea level.
From here, we continued our journey toward Hat Point and the Snake River Oregon. The weather closed in and snow melt coupled with rain made for slick road conditions.
Crossings between mountain tops over razor-back ridges with plunging ravines on each side were challenging on the narrow one-lane road. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see past the hood end of our pickup truck.
At times we crept along at a mere two miles per hour in some places and were lucky no other traffic traveled the road that day, neither coming nor going, since we’d left Five Mile Overlook.
The slow-going made for a very long day trip!
Hat Point makes it home on a ridgeline overlooking Hells Canyon and the Wild and Scenic Snake River Oregon. Rivaling its sister viewpoint, Heaven’s Gate, on the Idaho side, Hat Point is the highest viewpoint in Oregon, renowned for its spectacular views of the extraordinary Hells Canyon.
Frequented by ancient native peoples, settlers and modern day visitors, Hat Point has been on the map for eons.
In spite of the fog, we found relics of more recent history.
We wondered what the story was behind this jawbone. We were reminded of the Biblical tale of the mighty Samson brandishing a donkey’s jawbone, killing a thousand men.
This vintage outhouse, now abandoned, once served the needs of the men who were posted at the fire lookout. With a tile floor, white washed interior, and a good door, this was a luxury accommodation for its era, an unusual find in this remote location.
Consider exploring the area by hiking Hat Point Trail 1752, six miles into the canyon to the shores of the Snake River Oregon. This is a great backpacking trail and junctions with High Trail three miles out.
Better views of this fantastic wilderness area can be had from atop the fire lookout tower (lost in the fog on the day we visited, thus no photos).
Though gray mist blanketed Hat Point in a reverent stillness, the scene was far from colorless.
Everywhere flora was springing to life following snow-melt.
At Hells Canyon Overlook, the splendor never quits! For us, it was the climax point of our whole Snake River Oregon road trip.
To get here, we traversed the Hells Canyon All-American Road Scenic Byway from our campground in Enterprise, Oregon.
We hit the byway, OR-82 south to Joseph, Oregon where we turned east onto OR-350. The byway drops into Imnaha Canyon. We turned right onto National Forest Development Road/NF-39 following the signage indicating Halfway, Oregon, and traveled a little over 59 miles about 2¾ hours. Somewhere during that time, the road changed name to NF-39/Wallowa Mountain Loop.
National Forest signage indicated the turnoff to Hells Canyon Overlook. We turned left onto NF-490, which dead-ends at Hells Canyon Overlook.
From Hells Canyon, rim elevations dive over 7000 feet to the gushing rapids of the Snake River Oregon below; so deep is the canyon, the river cannot be seen from the overlook.
My eyes swept from canyon bottom to mountain tops, an elevation gain of 9393 feet, as I took in the breathtaking scene.
The vast vistas yield a magnificent view of the Seven Devils Mountains, about 10 miles way across the Snake River Oregon (the state border), on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
Towering rock walls jutting into the sky . . .
. . . windswept trees framing unforgettable scenery . . .
. . . and evidence of nature’s fury showcases the striking contrasts of this place known for its serene tranquility and its terrible treachery.
We heard the bugle of elk, the tumble of rocks as hooves skirted a precipice somewhere below . . .
. . . and spotted a Columbian Ground Squirrel tucked in a rocky shelter behind shrubby camouflage; it was spying on us. After I snapped a shot of it, the squirrel gave us a good scolding!
I immersed myself in color, soaking up the fragrance of the myriads of wildflowers and blooming shrubs perfuming the bluff.
Altogether, these wonderful elements made this particular viewpoint the “gem” of the Snake River Oregon, for us.
One of the best places outside of Yellowstone National Park to view wildlife in the USA is the Snake River Oregon and the Hells Canyon National Recreation area.
Coupled with the iconic vistas in an untouched wilderness, wildlife enthusiast’s love the stunning photographic venues.
I know I do!
There’s something about the “wild” that continues to draw me back to areas like the Snake River Oregon, time and time again. I relish living side-by-side with the wildlife in the forest where our cabin is, and I enjoy vacationing with them, too.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are native to the Snake River Oregon in Hells Canyon. However, exploitation and poor habit management led to their demise in this wilderness. Today, thanks to the Hells Canyon Initiative, a restoration plan is helping to “restore bighorn sheep to self-sustaining population levels" (Reestablishment of Big Horn Sheep to Hells Canyon). These animals are incredible to behold in their natural surroundings.
Birdwatchers flock to the Snake River Oregon because of the numerous species spotted here.
The US Forest Service publishes an excellent free downloadable brochure, Hells Canyon Bird Checklist. Print one out and bring it along when you visit the Snake River Oregon so you can identify and track the birds you see.
The best road trips result in memories lasting a lifetime. Experiencing the Snake River Oregon in Hells Canyon is deeply etched in my life, and it will be in yours too, once you visit here.
Consider extending your road trip to see more excellent destinations in eastern Oregon.
Travel the Elkhorn Drive Scenic Byway, a remarkable gateway back in time . . . it’s a Wild West gold rush! No wonder it has received national recognition as one of America’s Scenic Byways.
You can read more about our Hells Canyon and Snake River adventures in, The Snake River Idaho—Road Tripping Up-streme!
<==Click on these links for more information about these backpacking trails.
Backpacking is a great way to get up close and personal with Hells Canyon and the Snake River Oregon, and to experience what cannot be seen from the few roads that penetrate this in-hospitable wilderness. Not recommended for beginning backpackers; advanced hikers need to be prepared to meet up with large predators, such as bear and cougar, and smaller ones, such as rattlesnakes and other venomous species. Pack for survival in some of the most hostile conditions in one of the remotest regions in the west. Click on the links for trail information.
"Situated along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway and Wild and Scenic Imnaha River, the Blackhorse Campground offers campsites for both tents and trailers/RVs. Popular activities include; fishing in the river, picnicking, exploring along the byway, visiting interpretive and historic sites in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, and hunting during the fall big game."
"The Coverdale Campground is situated along the Wild and Scenic Imnaha River in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. This small rustic campground with 7 sites offers both tent and trailer sites near the river in an open ponderosa pine and fir setting. Popular activities include; fishing, day hikes, relaxing, picnicking and photography."
"Copperfield Park is downstream of Oxbow Dam on the Oregon side of the Snake River. The park was built in 1965 on the old town site of Copperfield, Oregon. Copperfield was a mining town known as 'the rowdiest town in Oregon' in the early 1900s. Fire destroyed the town in August 1915. The park was renovated in 1989." Activities include, camping, picnicking, boating and fishing on the Snake River Oregon, horseshoe pits, birding and wildlife watching. The campground has 62 RV sites and 10 tent sites.
"Located at the 'end of the road', this small campground allows visitors to explore the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Wild and Scenic Imnaha River from one location. Campsites are near the river with large pine and fir trees overhead. Popular activities include: fishing, hiking, and horseback riding. Located nearby is Indian Crossing Trailhead."
"The Ollokot Campground is located in an old growth ponderosa pine forest along the Wild and Scenic Imnaha River. As a favorite weekend 'get away' or summer destination site, the area remains popular for those wanting to fish, pick berries, take day hikes, or explore along the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. The campground has accessible campsites, a well for drinking water and vault toilets."
<==Click on these links for more information about horse camping at these trailheads.
One of the best ways to see the Snake River Oregon and Hells Canyon is from the back of a horse. Make a base camp at one of the equestrian campgrounds. Many of these sites have stock facilities including hitching rails, trailer parking, feed bunks and holding corrals. Then, head out for a terrific backcountry adventure on one of the following trails: Bucks Crossing, Chico, Cow Creek, Freezeout, Frog Pond, Hat Point, Lake Fork Creek, Lick Creek, Nez Perce National Historic Trail #1727, Snake River Trail #1726, Tenderfoot Trail, Twin Lakes HCNRA, Western Rim National Recreation Trail #1774.
"The most spectacular portion of Hells Canyon begins in the Wild River section of the Snake River, south entrance of Hells Canyon. Hells Canyon Adventures offers jet boat adventures that are fun, economical, and a convenient way to experience this remarkable remote location."
"We love to raft. We love to share this experience with our guests. And it shows. Winding Waters River Expeditions is a family owned and operated whitewater rafting outfitter based in Joseph, Oregon. As a company started by river guides in 2004, we love what we do and know what it takes to provide a quality rafting experience. Our guests return year after year due to our commitment to customer service, attention to detail, and our outstanding guide crew. “I love that land of winding waters more than all the rest of the world.” - Young Chief Joseph, Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce Tribe (referencing the watersheds of the rivers we float) - See more at:
<==Click on these links for more information about hiking at these trailheads.
Enjoy short hikes with family and friends in the mountains, along meandering streams or to pristine lakes.
"The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center offers living history demonstrations, interpretive programs, exhibits, multi-media presentations, special events, and more than four miles of interpretive trails. The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is located five miles east of Baker City, Oregon, at 22267 OR Highway 86, Baker City, OR 97814. Take Exit 302 from Interstate 84: 125 miles northwest of Boise, 95 miles southeast of Pendleton."
<==Click on these links for more information about OHV riding and camping at these trailheads.
Another great way to see Hells Canyon is by riding an OHV. Some of the OHV approved trails are shared with hikers and equestrian enthusiasts. Some trailheads have hitchracks and loading ramps.
"The Buckhorn Tower Viewpoint offers picturesque views of the dissected canyons and 'knife edge' ridges along the Imnaha River. This fully accessible site is a popular stopping point for visitors wanting to drive to a scenic viewpoint and sample the Hells Canyon and Imnaha River country." Buckhorn Campground is nearby.
"Historic Farewell Bend State Recreation Area . . . offers a beautiful desert experience on the banks of the Snake River's Brownlee Reservoir. Settlers traveling on the historic Oregon Trail once rested and enjoyed one last look at the river. Historic markers and interpretive displays provide visitors with information on Farewell Bend's significance on the Oregon Trail. The RV and tent campgrounds make excellent base camps as you explore the region. Oregon Trail wagon ruts are visible just up the road." Activities include boating, water sports, fishing, basketball, volleyball, horseshoe pits, birding and wildlife watching.
About 16 ½ miles from Imnaha, Oregon up Hat Point Road/NF-2640, turn right to Granny View Overlook. Views of the river bottom deep in the Imnaha River Canyon are enjoyed by visitors. Look for the interpretive signage to round out your experience.
"This western mining town was built in the 1800's close to Copperfield inside Hells Canyon, but they left in 1900's. This area was named simply because it was on the Pearce homestead. It was also the home of the Iron Dyke mine whose promoters had the town platted and incorporated for they planned a great future in copper production. A slump in the market of 1928 closed the mine and caused the railroad to pull their lines back to Robinette thus adding another ghost town to Baker County history."
"The Northwest Discovery Water Trail is a 367-mile recreational boating route on the region’s defining waterways. It begins at Canoe Camp on the Clearwater River in Idaho, follows the Snake River down to the Columbia River and ends at Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River Gorge."