Hells Canyon -- a scenic wonder without the crowds

Lesser known canyon wows with stunning scenery and lots of wildlife

By Marguerite Cleveland on August 22, 2019

Two quaint little towns, Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, are nestled on the banks of the Snake River and serve as the gateway to Hells Canyon. Lesser known than its more famous cousin, the Grand Canyon, it is stunning in its natural beauty. And because access is by boat only, there are smaller crowds. Hells Canyon is about a six-hour scenic drive from Joint Base Lewis-McChord taking you through miles and miles of grain fields before you reach your destination.

Located within walking distance of the Lewis and Clark Valley Visitor's Center, among other amenities, the Quality Inn and Suites Conference Center overlooking the Snake River in Clarkston is the perfect base for your trip. There are lovely views of the river and garden while you enjoy breakfast at the Quay restaurant. They offer a full "cooked-to-order," piping hot meals with lots of options.

To explore Hells Canyon, take a jet boat tour which will take you into the heart of North America's deepest river gorge. You will traverse remote terrain as the jet boat travels further into the narrowing canyon which reaches more than a mile deep. Snake Dancer Excursions runs a five-and-a-half-hour Dug Bar trip which departs at 10 a.m. and explores 120 miles roundtrip. Along the way, you'll see Native American petroglyphs pointed out by your guide, and enjoy a lunch stop at the Cache Creek Ranch. This lush green oasis is a sharp contrast to the harsh terrain surrounding it. Sit at a shaded picnic table and nosh on the old-fashioned picnic of fried chicken and all the fixings.

Once you reach the turnaround point and start your return trip, keep your eyes on the lookout for wildlife, which in the heat of the day, makes their way down to the river to drink the water. Big Horn Sheep are plentiful so you are likely to see them. The guides are conscious of the need for pictures and line the boats up for the perfect photo op. Other sightings include bear, river otters, bobcats, and the occasional cougar or wolf, but these are rarer. On hot days, there are options to stop and swim. Make sure to wear sunscreen as temperatures in the canyon can soar to over 100 degrees in the summer.

A fun post-tour restaurant is Roosters Landing, which overlooks the Snake River with gorgeous views from the outdoor deck. The food is plentiful and the menu extensive with something for everyone including seafood, steaks, pasta, burgers, sandwiches and salads. Pair your meal with one of their 18 micro brews or the 15 wines available by the glass.

Lewiston, Idaho, located across the Snake River, is a quaint historic town with lots of shops and dining. Check out the art installations on the one-and-a-half-mile Public Art Walk. Newberry Square is a repurposed five and dime store which is now a vibrant space with a wine tasting room, restaurant, bakery and vintage stores. The owners are twin sisters, Vikky Ross and Nikky Hites. The two are passionate preservationists who love to breathe new life into old buildings and furniture. The Idaho Memories Gift and Souvenir Shop is their brainchild, which offers gifts and local products that tourists love.

There is so much to see and do in the area including exploring a variety of parks, the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center, wineries, hiking, etc. For more information, visit: VisitLCValley.com.