Sinking nearly 2,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon, Hells Canyon is North America’s deepest river gorge. Striking limestone cliffs give way to the rushing white waters of the Snake River, making this untamed landscape one of the most heart-poundingly, breathtakingly beautiful destinations in the United States. Without the cost and crowds often associated with the Grand Canyon, Hells Canyon is a traveler’s dream come true.
After driving through miles of amber wheat fields as far as the eye can see, I arrived at Hells Gate State Park, a campsite located just eight miles west of Clarkston, Washington. Known as the gateway to the Hells Canyon Recreation Area, Hells Gate State Park offers stunning views of the Snake River and is a perfect spot to stretch your legs, have a picnic, or sink your toes in the sand at the swimming beach.
With my car parked, I ventured to the marina and took my first steps aboard the jet boat. I found my seat and enjoyed the view of the glistening river while other guests came aboard.
The aluminum vessel provided comfortable seating, with awnings to protect us from the sun. Designed to navigate the rapids and harsh terrain of the canyon, the boat was built light and nimble, to take on any obstacles the river threw at it. Guests of all ages filled the rows of seats, as excited chatter began to fill the boat. The captain took to the loud speaker to give us a rundown of the afternoon ahead.
“The trip is mostly a smooth ride and runs slower at the beginning of the trip to allow for narration from yours truly, and a chance to slow down and experience firsthand, some of the pretty special Indigenous historical sites,” he said. “The return trip will be much faster with an occasional rapid.”
We started slow and steady. Following the natural bends of the river, we passed through the towns of Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington. I admired my new perspective of the waterfront towns as we jetted by. The captain’s voice crackled across the loud speakers, sharing the history of jet boats in the area.
"Since 1919, Hells Canyon ranchers and residents alike have been receiving their mail once a week by, you guessed it, jet boat,” he said. “Jet boat is now a great way to explore isolated ranches in the region, in addition to the Hells Canyon’s historical sites and experiences.”
Gradually, civilization began to fade into the distance and the canyon banks changed from rolling hills to steep, rocky walls. In some places, the water began to churn with small rapids, but it was nothing the jet couldn’t handle. Every now and then, the jet boat passed by an inviting white sandy beach, with the dramatic scenery of Hells Canyon right at the edge of our boat. Talking slowed to a minimum as everyone onboard soaked in the views. Our captain offered a wealth of knowledge about the history, geography, and native Nez Perce people who inhabited the canyon.
Along both sides of the Snake River were two groups of rock outcroppings with clusters of Nez Perce petroglyphs and pictographs, known locally as Buffalo Eddy. It’s estimated that the carved images date from as early as 4,500 years ago. Our captain made sure to maneuver the boat so everyone could take a photo.
“There are petroglyphs on the Washington side of the eddy near Asotin and you can drive to the trailhead,” said the captain. “There is a small hiking trail with interpretive signs that explain the symbolism of the Nez Perce people for those interested in learning more after our ride.”
As we continued deep into Hells Canyon, I was fascinated by the ruins and evidence of those who lived in these areas before us. The captain explained the history of the Nimiipuu people of the present-day Nez Perce Reservation and the Chinese immigrants who came to North America during the 1800s Gold Rush. As we forged onward, everyone onboard chattered quietly with one another about the impressive history and beauty surrounding them. A quiet reverence settled amongst the crowd.
As the canyon narrowed, the jet boat splashed against peaks of white water. It was time for our return trip. This is no leisurely float. Our group was directed by the captain to put away our cameras and other personal items into the dry bags, so they wouldn’t get wet. The jet boat soared across the top of the water. A couple of quick maneuvers gave us a cool, refreshing splash that quenched the summer sun’s heat.
I took in the beauty surrounding me. The sun had passed its peak, casting warm, golden rays across the canyon. And as the light danced along the water, I was flooded with a sensation of utter contentment. The sheer depth of this canyon – both literally and figuratively – blew me away. Experiencing the natural and cultural beauty of the river gorge was an experience I would not soon forget.
As we docked and the adrenaline of the ride began to subside, the captain’s voice crackled over the intercom once more.
"Thanks for a great tip today, y’all,” he said. “Before leaving our beautiful hamlet, I would advise you check out some local wine. In this area, we specialize in scenic beauty and fine wines. Don’t miss out on the latter.”
Having never been led astray by our captain, I took his advice and found nearby wineries to round off the trip. It turns out, Lewis-Clark Valley became an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2016. There are now 16 vineyards growing 20 unique varietals and 10 wineries.
As I sipped my glass of tempranillo, I felt utter contentment wash over me once more. I would soon return here, but next time with friends and family in tow.
Paid for in part by a grant from Idaho Tourism.To begin planning your Hells Canyon jet boat experience, check out these tours. Ship ahoy!