Imnaha and Hells Canyon

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Hells Canyon
The Hells Canyon Overlook is one of the most accessible views of the canyon, but also one of the least impressive.

No, it’s probably not as jaw-dropping as the Grand Canyon (still haven’t seen that one in person), but Hells Canyon is pretty grand in its own right. It just happens to be in the middle of nowhere, and that makes finding a good view difficult.

The deepest gorge in North America, Hells Canyon straddles the Oregon-Idaho border, with the Snake River continuing to carve a path through the large mounds of rock at the bottom. The rim consistently sits a mile above the Snake River on the Oregon side, and is even higher on the east side. After 35 years, it was time to finally see it.

The historic post office is one of a handful of buildings in Imnaha.

Before getting to the canyon, however, there was Imnaha. We were taking the long and dusty scenic route to Hells Canyon in order to see some old homesteads outside the tiny community, which itself is 30 miles from the town of Joseph. As much as anything, Imnaha is known as the place where the pavement ends. There are only a handful of buildings and a dozen people in the town proper, with less than 200 folks in the surrounding area. It’s a popular (for Imnaha) retreat for hunters and fishermen. From the bridge over the Imnaha River, there are three paths, all of which quickly turn to gravel or dirt. But all eventually lead to Hells Canyon.

After a stop at the post office to send some postcards and gather information from the friendly employee there, we headed south along Imnaha River Road, which follows the river for 30 miles and passes a number of homesteads before reconnecting with pavement and the Hells Canyon Overlook. The gravel was good enough to safely drive 30 mph, except when a group of cows decided that the road was theirs. That was OK, though. The slower you go, the longer you have to take in the views of the rocky plateaus that rise on either side of the river like a mini-Hells Canyon. It’s hard to believe that anybody makes a living out there, but every couple of miles we spotted a house or ranch. A couple of buildings are so close to the banks that the river must be a threat after heavy rains, but those same properties featured massive, impressive gardens that clearly could sustain a family through the summer. Winter must be a different story.

Imnaha River Road
And old ranch still stands along Imnaha River Road.

Consider that drive one of luxury. The “road” that heads north out of Imnaha to Dug Bar supposedly requires two hours of bumps and steep turns to navigate 25 miles. It follows the path that Chief Joseph took when his tribe was forced out of its homeland, and the road is the only way to drive to the Snake River shore on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon. Next time, it might be worth the effort.

That’s because the Hells Canyon Overlook, less than 10 paved miles east of where Imnaha River Road ends, offers the most-accessible but probably least-spectacular place to view the canyon. Sure, the vast array of rippled mountains and twisted valleys seemingly go on forever, but even so close, the canyon feels distant. (You can’t see the Snake River from this overlook.) You’re not supposed to walk out past the paved trail to the brink, and trees somewhat block the nearest drop. There’s a toilet, picnic tables, interpretive signs and a look at the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho, but that’s about it. The overlook is essentially a parking lot with nothing to do and no places to explore, like it’s trying to constrain your appreciation.

If the Hells Canyon Overlook is your only chance to see the canyon, of course it’s worth the postcard view. But that’s a long way to go for 15 minutes of fresh air.

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