Hells Canyon Dam to Heller Bar
photos by Pete Giordano and Paul Bunce
With the busy rafting season behind us, a group of Blue Sky guides and friends headed over to spend several days rafting on the Snake River through Hells Canyon. I’d heard good things about Hells Canyon over the years but for some reason never really pulled the trigger and planned a trip. This year the promise of warm fall weather and 18,000 cfs in the river was enough to pull together a trip.
Finally, almost ready to go
Trying to find vehicles to fit all of our gear and still minimize our shuttle costs was a bit of a challenge. We decided to take one of the rafting vans crammed to the gills with most of the gear for two of the rafts and most of the kayakers. The 7 hour trip to eastern Oregon went well despite my constant worry that something on the van would break and leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere. We arrived in Halfway, Oregon tired and a bit sticky due to the lack of air-conditioning in the van. After a quick meal, we pushed on to check in with our shuttle service and then on to meet Jason and Brian at camp. Needless to say, we all slept well that night.
After a short trip downstream in the morning, we arrived at the put-in at the base of Hells Canyon Dam. Unloading and rigging the rafts always seems to take an incredibly long time on the first day of a trip. Pumping boats, and organizing gear took us a couple hours but eventually, we shoved off into the current, looking forward to the first big rapids.
Our schedule had us running both Wild Sheep and Granite Rapids on the first day of the trip at peak water flow. I was pretty interested to see what these big rapids looked like and wasn’t disappointed. Wild Sheep has some huge waves and holes down the right side of the rapid, a tricky move in the middle through big waves and an easier run down the left. After a quick scout, we all decided to run the left side of the rapid. I think nobody really wanted to test the small rafts we had and risk flipping so early in the trip. Here is a picture of Wild Sheep from Jason’s website: Pete and Lisa running Wild Sheep Rapid
After successful runs we moved downriver another couple miles and stopped to scout an obvious horizon line at Granite Rapid. At the flows we had, Granite was HUGE! The guidebook says to go anywhere but down the middle but after a long scout, the middle looked like the only really clean line; assuming you didn’t flip! There was a big, nasty hole on the right side and a big breaking wave on the left, neither of which looked really clean. The middle line had a huge wave but looked like it would be a smooth line as long as the boat was in the right spot. Knowing there weren’t a lot of options to think about, Brian and I decided to shove off first and roll the dice. The entrance was pretty blind, making me trust my scout and hope I’d read the water correct. We dropped 10′ down the face of the wave and flew out the other side without problems. The tail waves were also really large and nearly got us when we hit one a bit crooked but we made it to the eddy at the bottom with Brian close behind. What a great rapid! As good as anything I ran on the Grand Canyon 2.5 years ago. Here is a picture of Granite Rapid from Jason’s website: Brian and Sue dropping into Granite Rapid
After everyone was successfully through Granite, we proceeded downstream and started looking for a campsite for the first night. This turned out to be more difficult than we thought since a lot of the campsites weren’t as nice as we expected. In stark contrast to the Grand Canyon, Hells Canyon campsites are more overgrown with vegetation and there are very few sandy beaches. After a couple unsuccessful camp scouts, we finally arrived at a really sweet campsite with some sand and plenty of space to hang out.
Lisa and Brian waiting on an unsuccessful campsite scout
The canyon scenery continued on our second day. Despite the lack of big rapids, the river had some decent current and not much wind. We took our time with a nice stop for a short hike, lunch and another stop at the Historic Kirkwood Ranch.
Sue and Kurt on a short hike along the river
Hells Canyon has a lot of cool history of settlements which make for some interesting sights. We found a decent camp not too far below Kirkwood although it had some poison oak and sand spurs so you had to watch where you were walking.
Jason soaking in some mellow scenery
After a short few miles, we arrived at Pittsburg Landing where Brian and Jason left to head back to Portland. The guidebooks make the river sound a lot less interesting below Pittsburg Landing but very shortly after leaving Pittsburg, the canyon walls rose up again and we entered a really nice section of river with tall, shear canyon walls, interesting geology, and fun rapids. I think we were all very pleasantly surprised with this section of river and happy to have a few more days on the river. Pretty soon we found a great camp across the river from a ranch with a big sandy beach, good swimming area and a short hike up the rocks behind the camp. We had lots of time to hang out and enjoy the sunny, warm weather before making dinner.
Day 4 continued to surprise with some more great scenery and decent current for downstream progress. We stopped briefly to check out the old Mountain Chief mine just above the confluence with the Imnaha River and then again just below the confluence to check out the old mining settlement. There is a beautiful grassy bench near the river and wonderful scenery. I can tell why it was an attractive place to try and set up a mining operation. There is only a small foundation for a house and a crumbling foundation for the mine left on the site.
Confluence of the Snake and Imnaha River
After a short lunch here, we continued downstream to the confluence with the mighty Salmon River. We’d heard horror stories of brutal upstream winds below the Salmon and very little current so we were all very leery of how much progress we could make on this day. As it turned out, there is was some good current below the Salmon and we lucked into a strong downstream wind. The camping opportunities were higher quality with a lot more sandy beaches. After a couple scouts, we found an awesome, large sandy beach and stopped for the day. We covered 21 miles and still had time to hang out in camp, play some frisbee, and get the kitchen set up before the sun went down.
Confluence of the Snake and Salmon River
Somewhere downstream of the Salmon River confluence
This was our last night in the canyon so we made a small fire and soaked in a glorious, star-filled night sky in an incredibly beautiful place before heading to bed. I have to say, despite all we’d heard about the bummer of running the river below Pittsburg Landing, this day on the river really made the trip for me. The canyon geology is exceptional, camps are really nice and it really wasn’t nearly as flat as we’d heard.
Kurt contemplating the mysteries of the universe
Dreading flat water and upstream winds, we got an early start the next morning hoping to make the last 9 miles to the take-out about noon. We made a quick stop at the ranger station at the official downstream end of Hells Canyon and cruised to the take out in about 3 hours. We never really got the upstream winds we were expecting and the river had a pleasant amount of current to keep things moving downstream. With some lingering regret about having to leave the river, we packed up pretty quickly and headed back to real life.
Logistics and such
We launched on Sept. 13th. Jason and Brian took out at Pittsburg Landing the morning of Sept. 15th and the rest of the group took out about noon on Sept. 17th. Permits are required for the spring and summer season. This was the first weekend after permit season. The weather was warm and sunny the whole time of our trip.
Hells Canyon is about 7 hours or so from the Portland area by the time you finally get to the river. The put-in is just below Hells Canyon Dam which is about 40 miles from Halfway, Oregon. The night before we launched, we camped at Hells Canyon Park which is operated by Idaho Power. There are nice, grassy campsites and bathrooms with showers. This is also the last realistic place to get water before launching. There is no water at the put-in!
We used Scotty’s Hells Canyon Outdoor Supply for our shuttle. Shuttle was $150/vehicle to Pittsburg Landing and $160/vehicle to Heller Bar. The folks at Scotty’s were professional and efficient. Most of the other shuttle services weren’t running shuttles this time of year.
There was water available throughout the canyon for filtering if necessary despite the dry weather. We filtered out of the river on Day 1 and that worked well. There is drinking water at Pittsburg Landing as well.
A lot of the campsites listed on the maps were fairly marginal so some flexibility helps. I was happy there were only a couple other groups on the river at the same time as us and we didn’t have any competition for camps. We camped at approximately Johnson Bar (RM 229.9), Corral Cr. (RM 217), Bar Cr. (RM201.9) and Lower Cottonwood Cr. (RM 180.9).
For some more info and pictures please check out:
Information is also available in several guidebooks including:
Soggy Sneakers, 4th edition
Forest Service boater guide (This one has more info than the River Map guide and is cheaper!)