Hells Canyon and the Wild and Scenic Snake River
History and natural beauty abound in the Lewis Clark Valley
By Marguerite Cleveland
“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain” can’t help but ring in your head as you traverse miles of the grain-rich farmland across country roads and state highways and over the rolling hills of the Palouse to reach the Lewis Clark Valley and the towns of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington. At some points, depending on the time of year, all you can see in any direction are “amber waves of grain.” No matter which direction you travel from, there are no interstate highways that lead to your destination, which makes for a lovely scenic drive and a sense of discovery when you finally arrive. Both towns are nestled on the banks of the Snake River and serve as the gateway to Hells Canyon.
Where to Stay
The Quality Inn and Suites Conference Center overlooking the Snake River in Clarkston is the perfect base for your trip to the area. It is located within walking distance of the Lewis Clark Valley Visitor’s Center, a winery, a brewery, shops and restaurants. This recently remodeled hotel is pretty upscale for the price point and has one of the top restaurants in the town. Your stay comes with breakfast vouchers for the Quay restaurant and is a full, hot cooked-to-order meal with a variety of choices. It is a perfect start for a day on the river. The hotel also has a charming garden, patio and outdoor pool. Dave’s Golf Range is located directly behind the hotel if you want to brush up on your golfing skills.
A highlight of any visit to this area is a jet boat tour of Hells Canyon. Not as well-known as the Grand Canyon, Hells Canyon is equally epic and without the crowds. It is North America’s deepest river gorge and traverses a remote region with harsh terrain. At one point, you are on the border of Idaho, Washington and Oregon. The canyon gets narrower as you go further in and is more than a mile deep below the Oregon west rim.
Book a five-and-a-half hour Dug Bar trip with Snake Dancer Excursions. Departing at 10am, this exciting excursion will show you what the canyon has to offer as you explore 120 miles roundtrip. Snake Dancer Excursions operates under authority of a special use permit issued by the United States Forest Service, Wallowa Whitman National Forest and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. All the boats are Coast Guard licensed and inspected each year, and the captains are CPR and First Aid certified. Captain Eric Elben is a wealth of information on the history of the canyon.
The first stop was at Buffalo Eddy to view Native American petroglyphs—truly incredible to view these ancient works of art, and Elben allowed plenty of time for everyone to take photos. As you continue into Hells Canyon, he shares the history and lore of the area, including those of the Nez Perce Indians and stories of Chinese immigrants, miners and trappers.
The lunch stop takes place at the Cache Creek Ranch within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. This shaded oasis with sloping green lawns and picnic tables in a fruit orchard is the perfect spot for an old-fashioned picnic with cold fried chicken, baked beans, salads and yummy homemade cookies just like your grandmother would make. There are also exhibits which provide information on the canyon’s natural history as well as the history of the area.
One question Elben always gets is, “When will we see the bighorn sheep?” His response is the sheep only work from 12 to 4 each day. Although joking around, it is actually pretty accurate as the bighorn sheep make their way down to the water in the afternoon when it gets hot to drink water. The sheep are plentiful, so it is highly likely you will see some on your trip. Other sightings include bear, river otters, bobcats and the occasional cougar or wolves, but these are rarer.
Once it is time to head back, Elben recommends putting your cameras away as it is going to get wet. The return trip is at a faster pace with some turns designed to soak everyone. On hot days there are opportunities to swim, and one favorite spot is a small waterfall flowing into the Snake River. This excursion should be on everyone’s bucket list. Hells Canyon is just breathtaking, and the jet boat trip is so unique. When planning your trip make sure to wear sunscreen. Temperatures can get over 100 degrees in the canyon in the summer.
Near the Hotel
Roosters Landing is a fun, laid-back place to eat. Its casual atmosphere is perfect after a day on the river. Dine inside or sit outside overlooking the Snake River. The extensive menu has something for everyone from seafood, steak and pasta to burgers, sandwiches and salads. The food is nothing fancy but very good with great service. They serve 18 microbrews, and 15 wines are available by the glass with local wines available. Across the parking lot is a quirky local shop, River Chicks Antiques and Knicks. This fun little shop is unlike most antique stores, with each little room organized around a theme.
A short walk from the hotel you can taste wines from the Lewis Clark Valley AVA at Basalt Winery in their cute tasting room. Next door is Riverport Brewery with a variety of local craft beer. Conveniently nestled between the two is Munchiez, which is a more permanent food truck, surrounded with a nice wooden deck. This place is very popular with locals and serves up some great food. Make sure to try anything with the tri-tip. Fresh cooked, you can order it in the super burrito Philly cheese steak, as a French dip, a tri-tip sandwich or atop nachos. It’s also sold as a meal with two sides and cheesy garlic bread or purchased by the pound.
Across the Snake River is Lewiston, Idaho, with a quaint historic downtown. A must stop is Newberry Square. This newly renovated space was brought back to life by twin sisters Vikky Ross and Nikky Hites. The two longtime preservationists have a passion for bringing things back to life that people think have used up their lifespan—whether it is furniture or historic buildings. The two repurposed an old five-and-dime store into a vibrant downtown shopping area with a wine tasting room, restaurant, bakery and vintage stores. Their store is the Idaho Memories Gift and Souvenir Shop which carries the gifts and local products tourists love.
Beautiful Downtown Lewiston is also the name of the nonprofit which promotes the town with events that encourage people to come back to Main Street. Each First Friday during the summer enjoy a live concert with local bands. Get some exercise on a 1.5-mile Public Art Walk, making time to visit the shops and restaurants. The Nez Perce County Historical Society and Museum has a historical campus to share 150 years of the county’s history. Just outside of town are Hells Gate State Park and the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center with interesting indoor and outdoor exhibits.
There is plenty to keep you busy in the Lewis Clark Valley with two vibrant towns and the breathtaking Hells Canyon.
Visit Lewis Clark Valley: Gateway to Hells Canyon
Where to Stay
Quality Inn and Suites Conference Center
What to Do
Snake Dancer Excursions