Great Escapes: Hells Canyon is an out of the way gem
By Tim Clinton
Hells Canyon may sound like a place to avoid at all costs, but think again.
It is actually a scenic and out of the way location on the border between Oregon and Idaho.
It ranks as the deepest canyon in North America, eclipsing even Arizona's mighty and more famous Grand Canyon.
Hells Canyon checks in at 7,993 feet deep, while the maximum depth of the Grand Canyon is 6,093 feet -- or 1,900 feet shallower.
Both canyons average about 10 miles across from rim to rim.
The elevation at the bottom of Hells Canyon on the Snake River is 875 feet above sea level.
But Hells Canyon is harder to get to than Grand Canyon, especially at its deepest points on the Oregon side.
The Hells Canyon Overlook is located on the farthest point of the 208-mile loop known as the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway.
If you start the loop on the south side near Baker City, head east on Highway 86 by way of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and on to the Powder River and the towns of Richland and Halfway.
Turn left onto Forest Service Road 39 right before you reach Oxbow. Wind along on a paved mountain road that is closed in the winter and take the exit on the right to the Hells Canyon Overlook.
If you start the loop on the north side from near La Grande, turn onto Highway 82. The road heads North to start with, then veers east at Elgin.
The road comes to the Wallowa River and goes up that through the towns of Wallowa, Lostine, Enterprise and Joseph.
Go on and turn right onto seasonal Forest Service Road 39 and turn left to the Overlook just after you cross the Imnaha River.
From the Overlook you can turn back the way you came, or continue on the other side of the loop.
The Overlook is part of the 1,020 square mile Hells Canyon National Recreation Area that was established Dec. 31, 1975.
Call (541) 523-6391 for more information, or call the office on the Idaho side at (208) 628-3916.
Other recreational opportunities abound, including hiking and fishing, or even rafting on the Snake River.
Also, if you continue on Highway 86 a short distance to Oxbow past the Forest Service Road 39 turnoff, you can go right on the Oregon side to just below the dam on the Brownlee Reservoir.
You can also go left and cross the river into Idaho and go downstream as far as the Hells Canyon Dam.
The wild section of the Snake River awaits beyond that and a jet boat ride is offered from there.