As the boat idled out of the marina in Clarkston, Washington, within view of our RV site, my wife, Jennifer, my mother, Betty, and I began to sense the power of this 30-foot welded-aluminum craft. Two 400-hp engines rumbled impatiently beneath our feet and created a series of harmonic vibrations, making the boat seem to quiver in anticipation.
Once out in the Snake River the captain glanced over his shoulder to make sure everybody was seated, then shoved the throttles forward. The boat leaped up on step and all on board grabbed for handholds as the acceleration briefly pinned us down. Headed for the deepest river gorge in North America, we instantly knew that this 10-hour, 200-mile voyage was going to be different from any other excursion boat we had ever ridden.
Hells Canyon For RVers
Clarkston, a great entry point to Hells Canyon, isn’t someplace you’re likely to drive past on one of your regular excursions. It’s a little off the beaten path for most of us and you pretty much have to want to go there. Although good two-lane roads are plentiful in the region, the nearest interstate is 100 miles away. We purposely headed south for Clarkston from Interstate 90 in Spokane, Washington, via U.S. highways 195 and 95, because we wanted to experience a Hells Canyon tour.
Approaching Lewiston, Idaho, across the Snake River from Clarkston, U.S. 95 plunges more than 1,000 vertical feet in a series of steep switchbacks from a plateau above the river valley. The views into the valley are spectacular and it was a thrilling couple of miles that tested the brakes on both our motorhome and our dinghy. Once the road leveled out in Lewiston, we turned east on U.S. Highway 12 and drove across the Snake River into Clarkston.
If you approach the Clarkston-Lewiston area from the west or east, U.S. 12 offers a somewhat more sedate means of reaching this corner of southeast Washington, though the views aren’t as impressive. Only the Snake River, the border between Washington and Idaho, separates Clarkston and Lewiston. We chose to stay in Clarkston because it offered the best combination of tours and RV space.
Once we set up camp and made arrangements on-site for a tour the next day, a good night’s sleep, an early breakfast in the motorhome and a short stroll to the dock completed our preparations for a 7am departure. We were staying at Hells Canyon Resort, the perfect base camp for RVers who want to explore Hells Canyon. Built right on the river’s edge with the marina as part of the complex, the park is a first-class facility.
As a nice touch, every pull-through space offers two sets of full hookups (one on each side) so you can decide which way you want your rig to face. We chose to point the front of our motorhome southwest to avoid the early morning sun streaming through the windshield. If possible, try to claim a site fairly close to the marina; there’s less highway noise close to the water.
Be sure to allow time to explore the resort. The owners have done a splendid job decorating the walls with historical photos and sketches along with short descriptions of local history, much of which relates to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
This region, known as the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA), straddles the Oregon-Idaho border. It is, for the most part, relatively tough to operate big rigs in the recreation area, partly because there are few roads and those that do exist are best described in an atlas as either “other paved roads” or “unpaved roads.” None of these roads actually reach down to the bottom of the canyon, so if you want to see the river up close you’ll have to take a boat tour.
On the River Heading south (upstream), Washington is on your right and Idaho is to the left. Some 35 miles later the river becomes the border between Oregon and Idaho. The HCNRA begins after leaving Washington. Scenery and wildlife, though, recognize no boundaries. We saw bighorn sheep, various other critters and spectacular vistas in all three states.
After a two-hour run on relatively smooth water, our boat coasted to a stop at the Cache Creek dock. Cache Creek, the northern gateway to HCNRA, is open and staffed year-round with volunteers to assist visitors and explain the local history.
Heading upstream from Cache Creek, the ride gets a bit more exciting. Class III rapids, generally the upper limit for very experienced canoeists, are plentiful with occasional stretches of Class IV water. The big jet boat shoulders its way through these with relative ease, though much of that is probably due to the skill of the operator.
Deep in the canyon at lunchtime, our boat, The Jewel, nuzzles up to the Idaho shore and we disembark at the historic Kirkwood Ranch. This facility has been restored by the U.S. Forest Service and is staffed by volunteers during the summer months. The restoration did not, however, include a boat dock, and we clamor over a ramp unfolded from the bow of the boat to stand on the rocky shore.
Several ranch buildings are open to the public and include displays of artifacts and photographs reflecting the history of the area. After a few minutes exploring, we sit down to a picnic spread out on tables shaded by a grove of pines. Munching fried chicken and potato salad, we’re entertained by a herd of mule deer so tame that they can be approached for up-close photos.
Heading upstream again, the river gets narrower and faster. Class IV rapids become almost routine with brief bursts of Class V water. There is now nothing easy about battering our way upstream; it takes all of the 800 hp on board to tame this river. The gentle rumbling of the engines in the marina is all but forgotten as they roar in defiance of the rushing water. It is white-knuckle time aboard The Jewel as the boat alternately leaps rapids and then almost disappears into a froth of white water when it crashes down. Only raw power, deftly applied, keeps this big riverboat from being tossed about like a bathtub toy in the hands of an exuberant child.
We are simultaneously awed and unnerved by nature. Shouting to make ourselves heard over the engines and the rushing water, we excitedly point out — using one hand — wildlife, rock formations and more to our fellow passengers, all the while clutching tightly to any available grab rail or other solid object with our other hand. By this time we are convinced that everybody should ride this boat at least once. Nothing, anywhere, compares.
Reading the Rocks
As the canyon narrows, its geology becomes more easily discernable. Dense, black layers of lava from exploding Pacific islands eons ago are interspersed with layers of light-colored limestone created when the lands were underwater.
Later, as tectonic plates collided, the land was thrust upward, forming mountain ranges. Repeated flows of lava from volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest then created a nearly level plateau. All this took about 300 million years.
The canyon itself was cut through the various layers of rock by stream erosion from the Snake River, which began about 6 million years ago, with the last 2 million years being the most active. When a huge, prehistoric body of water — what archaeologists now call Bonneville Lake — burst out of its banks some 15,000 years ago at the site of today’s American Falls, Idaho, the water flow for a short time was at least 1,000 times greater than spring water flows today. Although this short-term surge of water did not deepen the canyon to any great extent, it did widen it.
Heading Back All too soon it’s time to turn around. Making a U-turn in this big boat in this kind of roaring water calls for a nifty bit of seamanship, but our skipper makes it look easy.
Headed downstream, though, I suddenly realize that going upstream was the easy part. The speed of the current added to the speed of the boat means things happen almost twice as fast, leaving even less time to make decisions. If the very last part of the upstream ride was a white-knuckle adventure, most of the downstream ride qualifies. We spent more than six hours going upstream. We’ll get back to the marina in about three hours after turning around.
Headed downstream, bighorn sheep are suddenly visible. We’d seen a couple high on the canyon walls earlier in the day, but in late afternoon it seemed they were everywhere. The boat does not bother them at all. We eased to within a few yards of a big ram grazing along the river’s edge and stayed there long enough for the 13 people on board to get all the pictures they wanted.
By the time we pass the Oregon-Washington border and glide onto the relatively smooth water, passengers are pretty quiet. Most of us are physically, mentally and emotionally drained. Adrenaline has been pumping since we boarded nearly nine hours earlier and it has only subsided as we relaxed into our seats for the last hour or so. We’re tired, but knowing that our motorhome waits a few steps from the harbor makes the last few miles pass more easily.
Thankfully we have nothing to do but walk the 100 yards or so to our rig after the boat ties up in the marina. And once in the motorhome, we’re too tired to cook. Takeout is ordered and quickly eaten. Then a dip in the indoor pool followed by a long soak in the resort’s hot tub helps put a spectacular day in perspective. Lewis and Clark never had it so good.
For More Information
Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, (509) 758-0616.
Hells Canyon RV Resort and Marina, (509) 758-6963.
Hells Canyon Visitor Bureau, (877) 774-7248.
Idaho Travel Council, (800) VISIT-ID.
Snake Dancer Excursions, (800) 234-1941.
Travel Oregon, (800) 547-7842.
Washington State Tourism, (800) 544-1800.