The Hell's Canyon reach of the Snake River was made part of the National Wild and
Scenic Rivers system in 1974 as a trade off in the construction of Hell's Canyon Dam.
The dam flooded significant whitewater reaches upstream of the dam site,
while 32.5 miles below the dam were given "protection" under the Wild and Scenic Rivers act.
Looking at the river in its current state, it's difficult to understand by what criteria it qualifies as Wild. It is not free flowing and it experiences nearly constant, unrestricted jet boat traffic most of the year. The human footprint in the canyon is also heavy, with several modern developments dotting the length of the canyon, especially in the lower reaches. Hydropower has severely altered aquatic habitat, and historic grazing of domestic livestock - through the spread of disease - resulted in the near extinction of the canyon's iconic Big Horn sheep.
Despite it's severely compromised state, Hell's Canyon is one of the few reaches of the 1,078 mile long Snake that provide a glimpse of what the river system may have looked like in its wild, primevial state. And, even though the river is abused in so many ways, there are a few reasons to remain hopeful about its future.
Domestic sheep grazing allotments were abolished in 1993, which dramatically improved the likelihood that the canyon's iconic Big Horn sheep might survive and even flourish some day. After a huge battle in the mid-1990's, the first meaningful restrictions on Jet boat traffic were implemented in 1997. During permit season, 18 days are now reserved for non-motorized use above Kirkwood Ranch, though outside of this window, motorized traffic is still extremely heavy.
Unfortunately, the outlook for the river's wild Salmonids is not so hopeful. Water temps are now so high from the many impoundments that these species can barely survive. Dams on the lower Snake and Columbia also block migration routes. I regret to think that I'll probably see the complete extinction of these magnificent fish during my lifetime.
The run from Hell's Canyon Dam to Pittsburg Landing is 33 miles in length, and can
be easily be done as an overnight trip, especially with high flows.
Unfortunately, the shuttle is 206 miles (one-way), and the put in and take outs are
in extremely remote locations, a full day's drive from anywhere. This makes for a
lot of driving and shuttling for a relatively short float trip.
Given the long logistics, many people either stretch the trip out to three days, or extend it by floating all the way to Heller Bar near Asotin Washington. Between Pittsburg and Asotin, the gradient backs off to almost nothing, and punishing afternoon winds are frequent. Many people chose to bring motors. Jet boat traffic below Pittsburg is completely unrestricted (and prolific), and the scenery includes more human development and cow pastures. Significant mileage and cost are also added to the shuttle by floating to Heller.
Another logistical challenge on Hell's Canyon is camping. Unfortunately, the dam has effectively cut off the river's natural flow of beach building sediments. With this, the constantly fluctuating discharge for power generation, and the highly erosive actions of jet boat wakes have consumed almost all the last remaining natural beaches. With no natural beaches or bars, nearly every campsite involves carrying gear up steep, rocky banks to find a mediocre spot. Wild fluctions in daily flows usually mean waking up to boats sitting high and dry. Tie up your boat very carefully to accomodate high and low water marks.
Note that all camps are first come, first served, and the best spots fill in quickly.
Plan ahead and have a plan B. During summer, also give serious consideration to where you will find shade. It's not
uncommon for July and August temps to break 110 degrees. I've had to stop mid-day and hunker down
under low willow bushes and mahogony to get respite from the heat. A shade shelter of some sort is
highly recommended. Given the hot, dry conditions, campfires are prohibited in the canyon most of the year.
Be vigilant for posion ivy and rattlesnakes when in camp and scouting. Both thrive in the riparian zone.
As with any river in Idaho, never attempt to share a campsite with another group. It is considered a serious breach
of river etiquette.
From the launch site down to Sheep Creek, the river moves at a fast pace through a vertically walled gorge with several nice rapids. The two stand out drops are Wild Sheep and Granite (class III/IV). At low to medium flows, both are fairly straight forward, but definitely require a plan and some moves. Scout river left. Most of the other drops are read and run (for skilled boaters), but there are a few must make moves thrown in, so don't be too nonchalant. The section jumps a notch in difficulty above 25,000 CFS.
There is an historic ranch at Sheep Creek, which is now owned by the US Forest Service, and operated under lease to a private outfitter (Hells' Canyon Adventures). There is a full-time caretaker on site, and large commercial groups frequently camp and lunch there. You can stop and tour the site and get some wonderful shade if it is not occupied by commericial groups.
It is possible to reserve rustic accomodations in the old ranch house, though it requires booking far in advance. Reservations are made through the outfitter, not through Recreation.gov. See link under planning tools. Note that there is a first come, first served campsite on a small bench just below the ranch at the mouth of Sheep Creek, but camping on the actual ranch grounds is not allowed without booking through the outfitter.
Below Sheep Creek, the canyon starts to open up into wide grassy valleys, and the gradient starts
to slowly dimish. Fortunately, the current still moves at a fairly good pace, and there are quite a few
long class II+ / -III rapids to keep things interesting. The Wild section of Hell's Canyon
ends at the historic Kirkwood Ranch, which is also now owned by the US Forest Service.
Kirkwood Ranch is staffed by a full-time care taker, and there is a small museum on site and also restrooms with flush toilets. Five designated, developed campsites are strung out along the high bench below the ranch. Unfortunatley, none of them have good river access, and poison ivy is prolific along the banks. The entire camp section is sort of like one big a cow pasture. Below Kirkwood, gradient continues to diminish, and the current slows up a notch or two. Expect to slog some flatwater between here and Pittsburg. Campsites below Kirkwood are sparse, and tend to be full of jet boaters during motorized periods.
The shuttle from the put in at Hell's Canyon Dam, to the take out at Pittsburg
Landing is 206 miles one-way. From within Idaho, best access to Hell's Canyon
Dam is from Cambridge, Idaho. From Cambridge, take Highway 77 West for
62 miles. Be sure to top off your fuel tank in Cambridge.
To get to the take out, return to Cambridge and take highway 95 North for 108 miles towards the town of Whitebird. Just before Whitebird, watch for signs on the left for Old Highway 95 / Hammer Creek Recreation Area. Turn off here and follow the Salmon river for a short distance to Dumec Road / FR 493. Cross the bridge and go West on 493 for 18 miles to Pittsburgh Landing. Note that there is significant elevation gain and loss between Pittsburg Landing and Whitebird, so keep an eye on the air pressure in your inflatable boats.
Given the length of the shuttle, most people choose to hire a shuttle service, with prices starting in the range of $250 per vehicle (as of 2018). Some services will charge a significant premium for non-cash payments so bring cash, including extra for a fuel deposit and tip. Hell's Canyon Shuttle Service operates out of Scotty's Service Station near Oxbow Dam on the Oregon side. Scotty's sells fuel, ice and propane, but closes at 8:00 PM Pacific time. Whichever service you use, be sure to reserve in advance. See link under planning tools for shuttle provider contact details.
If using a boat trailer, be extra careful on the boat ramp at Pittsburg Landing. It is covered in extremely slippery slime below the water line. Do not back the rear wheels of your vehicle into the water onto the slime (especially with 2 wheel drive) as you will not be able to get traction to get out. Also be extremely careful if wading into the water here. The ramp slime is literall slippery as ice. I've seen bears at Pittsburh landing on more than one occasion, practice bear safety measures if camping there.
Please observe Idaho etiquete standards at the boat ramps. Rig your boat before backing down the ramp, get in and out as quickly as possible, and never block access for other boaters. Never clutter up the ramp with gear, boats or people. Move your boat well out of the way if you need to rig or de-rig at the put in or take out. There is a very nice concrete de-rigging area on the upstream side of the ramp at Pittsburg. Space at the put in ramp is very limited so be mindful of making room for other groups. Always offer to lend a hand to anyone who needs it.
Given the remoteness of the put in, most people camp between Cambridge
and the launch site the night before their trip. There are several developed and
undeveloped camping options to choose from.
The developed sites are all owned and operated by the Idaho Power Company, and are not very comfortable for boaters. Most tent sites do not provide nearby parking, and those that do only have room for one vehicle without a boat trailer. The RV sites provide better access and parking, but require you to set up your tent on pavement. Generally, these campgrounds tend to be noisy with lots of annoying electric lighting. See the link under planning tools to make reservations, which are recommended. Note that Idaho Power's online reservations system does not always show accurate availability information. Chances are they have at least one site left, even if they indicate full, but proceed with caution.
The closest developed site is Hell's Canyon Campground, near Oxbow Dam, which is 16 miles above the put in. The next closest (and the better of the two) is Copperfield, which is 42 miles above the put in, but closer to the shuttle keydrop at Scotty's. The closest undeveloped site is at Big Bar campground, located 17 miles above the put in. Advanced reservations are not possible at Big Bar. Between Oxbow dam and the put in there are a variety of undesignaged, undeveloped camp sites but none have potable water, and many do not have shade. Camping at the put in is techically not allowed, and the rangers often arrive early. Though, you'll probably here stories of people trying to do it.
There is plenty of developed camping at Pittsburg Landing for a fee of $8.00, but advanced reservations are not available (though they are mostly not needed). There is a rock art interpretive site just upriver of the boat ramp. The nearest places to Pittsburg to get hotel rooms are in Riggins or Grangeville, but both fill far in advance during peak season, especially on weekends. Salmon Rapids Lodge is the best option in Riggins (a very nice place). The Super 8 is the best option in Grangeville. See links under planning tools.
Peak flows on the Snake through Hell's Canyon can exceed 90,000 cfs. Most of the summer season it runs in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 15,000 cfs, with significant fluctuations throughout the day due to hydro power generation. It is runnable year round. During summer, temps often climb to over 100 degrees, and shade can be difficult to find. Strong upstream, afternoon winds are frequent in the lower reaches of the canyon.
Permits are required from May 24 to September 10, and are issued via the Four Rivers lottery, which includes the
Selway, Main Salmon, Middle Fork Salmon and Hell's Canyon (Snake River). The lottery is open from December 1 to
January 31, with results announced on February 14. Of the four rivers, the Snake is by far the least
desirable, and as such has the best drawing odds and best cancellation availability. Enter the lottery
or check for cancellations at Recreation.gov, see link under planning tools.
During permit season, three private launches and two commercial launches are allowed each day. Outside of permit season, unlimited launches are allowed, but the availability of camping in the canyon can be a limiting factor. During permit season, 18 days are reserved for non-motorized use upriver of the Kirkwood Ranch. These generally occur in three day blocks, allocated every other week. Check the Wallowa-Whiteman National Forest website for details, as non-motorized dates are not indicated on the recreation.gov website.
Your actual permit will be issued the morning of your launch at Hell's Canyon Creek visitors center. Be sure to bring a paper copy of your confirmation letter, and an official ID. Also be ready to be inspected for mandatory equipment, though inspections are performed on a more random basis than on other permit rivers. Note that either an Idaho or Oregon invasive species permit is required. Idaho permits are not always easy to find, while Oregon permits can be purchased online. Either an Oregon or Idaho fishing license is valid for fishing on the border reaches of the Snake river. Check all applicable regulations regarding methods of take, possession limits, game species, etc. before your trip.
|Time:||2 or 3 Days|
|Permit:||4 Rivers Lottery|
|Quality Rating:||3.5/5 Stars|
Prior to European settlement, Big Horn Sheep were one of the most abundant ungulate species
in the Mountain West, with significant populations in Idaho (Mack et al).
Hell's Canyon in particular supported prolific Big Horn heards. Pictograph and petrogliphs
of Bighorns - dating to as old as 10,000 year ago - can be found along the canyons of the Snake.
Native American tribes of Idaho used the horns from wild sheep to fashion bows. They are a truly
iconic Idaho species.
Unfortunately, with the introduction of domestic sheep into wild sheep habitat in the late 1800's, Big Horn herds plumutted across the West due to disease transmission between the the two species. Domestic sheep carry a respiratory disease that Big Horns have no immunity to. Wherever the two species intermingle, mass Big Horn die offs occur. By 1910, Big Horn sheep were extirpated from Hell's Canyon, and only a small remnant population survived in Idaho. Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimate that between 1920 and 1940 only about 1,000 sheep survived in the most remote reaches of the Salmon River.
While Big Horns have been successfully reintroduced to Hell's Canyon, they survive at a fraction of historic numbers across the west and within Idaho. Wild sheep range has been significant reduced leaving highly fragmented habitat. Large periodic die offs still occur, and domestic sheep grazing on public lands still abutts wild sheep habitat in some locations. More than 70 peer-reviewed scientific publications have documented disease transmission between domestic sheep and wild sheep, yet the grazing lobby refuse to accept the evidence.
Small Mouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu) were introduced into the Snake River by
the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and have quickly taken over as
the predominent fish species. If you enjoy fishing, they will hit on any shiny thing
that moves, and sometimes on flies. You will quickly grow tired of catching them on
nearly every single cast. I recommend barbless hooks, though not required, just to make them
easier to land and unhook. Practice catch and kill fishing guilt free here, as removing this
invasive species helps provide habitat for our wild, native fish.
Chukar partiridge (Alectoris chukar), a game bird native to Eurasia, are also a prolific invasive species in the canyon. In the Fall, Chukar are an extremely popular quarry of upland bird hunters. It used to be legal to shoot chukars from your boat, as long as you were not under motor power. This practice is now strictly prohibited. Despite the ban, Chukar hunting is still extremely popular in the Canyon, and Fall season is a literal shit show of Chukar hunters in jet boats. To pursue the birds a good bird dog is essential. Chukar can be identified at a distance by their distinctive clucking sound, and can be seen scurrying around boulders and scree along the banks. Unlike fishing licenses, Idaho and Oregon hunting licenses are not reciprocal in the border reaches. You can only hunt one side or the other.
Hatchery Steelhead and Salmon, both popular sportfishing quarry, are also found in the river. While they technically carry some distant genetic relationship to native, wild slamonids, they are essentially a trash fish that compete with endangered, wild fish for habitat. Hatchery fish can be identified by their clipped adipose fins, and by how unhealthy looking they are. Again, practice catch and kill fishing guilt free here as removing hatchery fish helps our endangered, wild, native fish survive. Follow all applicable regulations when fishing. Note that seasons dates and bag limits vary from year to year.
The waters of the Snake are saturated with every imaginable
form of polution. This includes run off (shit) from thousands of acres of dairy feedlots,
nitrate and pesticide run off from tens of thousands of acres of irrigated potato crops,
leaching liquid nuclear waste from disposals wells at the Idaho National Labratory, and urban
efluents from tens of thousands flushing toilets from Wyoming to Oregon. The Snake is a literal
sewer compared to the other rivers in the Four Rivers system. Enter at your own risk.
in a larger window.
Mack, C. M., M. R. Kasprzak, and K. Luiz. 2017.Salmon River bighorn sheep project final report 2007–2015.
Nez Perce Tribe, Lapwai, ID, USA.
Murkowski. 1997.Senate Report 105-78 - Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area.
U.S. Government Publishing Office, USA.
Copyright Todd Hoffman 2009 - All Rights Reserved