Hells Canyon straddles the Oregon and Idaho border, sinking 7,913 from rim to deepest point—2,000 feet lower than the Grand Canyon. The Snake River flows through at a peak rate of 45,000 cubic feet per second, making for some of the biggest whitewater in the northwest. On a June day, our crew of nine people and three rafts assemble in Oxbow, Oregon. We drive about 20 miles to the Hells Canyon Dam to rig boats and put in. Our permit is for five days and we'll travel 81 miles to Heller Bar.
As we put in, the ranger informs us the Snake is flowing at 16,500 cfs, rivaling the flows of the mighty Colorado through Grand Canyon and making for big waves. We set off under clearing skies and an 80-degree day into the dramatic, semi-arid landscape.
The two most difficult rapids in Hells Canyon are Wild Sheep Rapid and Granite Rapid, both Class IV and both within six miles of the Hells Canyon Dam. We use the first few miles of the river to brush off the cobwebs, preparing for the big water.
We pull in to scout as another group runs Wild Sheep. From this distance it's hard to tell how big the waves and holes really are. Then a 16-foot raft disappears from view in the trough of a wave, making it apparent that we're looking at water that will flip a raft like a coin. We reload and push off, floating into the roiling whitewater downstream. A massive golden eagle flies overhead, keeping watch as our group greases the longest rapid on the river.
After Wild Sheep and Granite, the whitewater takes a backseat to casual floating and scenery. Over the next four days, we splash through Class II and III waves, stopping to enjoy historic sites and eat ripe cherries off trees. At camps, we find arrowheads and rattlesnakes. We party by moonlight and bask in the early summer sun.
Hells canyon is not nearly as hellish as it sounds. —Jeremy Benson
If you go: Local outfitters Hells Canyon Raft, OARS, and Winding Waters River Expeditions run trips on through Hells Canyon. For self-guided trips, permits are required: Learn more at recreation.gov. Stock up at Scotty's Hells Canyon Outdoor Supply, and call Hells Canyon Shuttle Service to handle car logistics.