Idaho doesn’t have a banana belt, it has a bunch of them, and the top banana is Hells Canyon. It’s North America’s deepest gorge, and the combination of low and high elevations makes a fascinating environment that attracts people year-round, but spring is a prime time for exploring it.
Hells Canyon encompasses a vast, remote region with dramatic changes in terrain, climate and vegetation. Carved by Snake River, Hells Canyon is a pretty impressive crevice. According to the Forest Service, He Devil Mountain towers above the river at 9,393 feet above sea level, and the canyon plunges 7,913 feet from its summit to the mouth of Granite Creek, 6 miles away, at 1,480 feet elevation.
The extremes in geography are reflected by the recreation in the canyon. Backpackers hike the rugged canyon in March because its low elevation provides mild temperatures, and warm weather is common in early spring. RV campers head there for the same reason. Instead of roughing it, they relax in the well-equipped Idaho Power campgrounds that feature electric hookups and bathrooms with running water and showers, or they set up a self-contained camp at one of many undeveloped camp spots along the shoreline.
Boaters head into Hells Canyon to take advantage of not only the weather but also the excellent early-season fishing for trophy smallmouth bass. The three reservoirs, Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon, are different sizes and provide options tailored to different boaters. Brownlee is the largest of the three and best suited for larger powerboats, but Oxbow and Hells Canyon reservoirs are both suitable for canoes, kayaks and float tubes.
Wildlife watchers flock to the canyon to spot bald eagles, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, black bears, wild turkeys and other wildlife that winter in the canyon. With a little dedication and luck, it’s possible to see all those in a single day. Bring your binoculars and spend some time scanning the vast hillsides, rocky bluffs and brushy draws.
Wintering in Hells Canyon is nothing new for people, either. Archeologists report that humans have lived in the canyon for 7,100 years, and a Clovis point found near the south end of the canyon indicates the possibility of human occupation as long as 15,000 years ago.
If you’ve visited the canyon in the past, you know its rugged beauty provides iconic views top to bottom, and the river’s emerald waters of its chain of three reservoirs provide a scenic contrast between the dry slopes and rocky cliffs.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s time to load up the family car, RV or SUV and check it out, because, despite Hells Canyon’s rugged nature, it’s surprisingly accessible. It’s about 125 miles and a 2.5-hour drive on paved roads from the Treasure Valley into the canyon. Take U.S. Highway 95 north to Cambridge, then Idaho State Highway 71 into the canyon.
Get an early start, and it’s a long but manageable day trip. If you’re day tripping, you can eat at a cafe on Idaho 71 near the canyon, or venture across the river to Pine Creek, Oregon, where there’s a restaurant and supplies.
If you want to do the canyon justice as well as take advantage of its early spring weather, plan on spending a weekend there, or longer.
Pack the RV or tent-camping gear, but beware that although it has a mild climate, it can still be wet and cold, and possibly snowy, so plan accordingly.
Idaho Power has a series of campgrounds along the river, and you can reserve a campsite at several of them, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of space available, but if you have your heart set on a prime spot, it’s not a bad idea. You can make reservations on IdahoPower.com.