The other day, I burned a day of vacation to ride my ’02 Ultra from my home in Eagle, Idaho to the Hell’s Canyon Dam on the Snake River – the border between Idaho and Oregon in these parts. The Idaho Power Company built three dams on this stretch of the Snake many years ago which provide hydropower and recreation in the reservoirs. I left Eagle at about 9:30 AM on a perfect day. Using highway 16, I rode to Emmett, and then on highways 52/72/30 on over to New Plymouth through some wide-open farming country. Saw ducks, geese, a pheasant and a fox in the wetland areas along the way. Up highway 30 a few miles, I crossed over the Payette River into the City of Payette. Turning north on highway 95, I got to Weiser, Where I topped off the gas tanks. It’s a really nice road up US-95 to Cambridge – wide open country with great long-distance vistas and a few places where you wind through small river-bottom areas. I was on some nice road where I could glance around at cattle, grain fields, and even a patch or two of snow up high.
In Cambridge, I took a left onto highway 71, and almost immediately started climbing into some hilly, curvy two-lane adventure. The ride from here to the final destination is the most fun – but you don’t get to enjoy the views as much unless you stop – because you have to be alert and on your toes on the winding, up-and-down stuff. There are some great turn-offs where you can stop and get an eyeful, though. I ate lunch at noon at Gateway, which is just before you drop into the Hell’s Canyon Recreation Area and the first dam. Gateway is a small general store, café, and gas stop where campers, fishermen and boaters get provisions. I recommend the shakes! Although the building is newer (the old one burned down in 1999), it’s still pretty quaint. The gas pump is the old type where you turn the handle, pump your gas, turn it back to hang up the nozzle, and then go into the store and tell them how much you got. I topped off there because services are pretty sparse from that point on.
The first dam is called Brownlee, and the reservoir behind it is the largest one. You cross the dam and are then on the Oregon side. You can go left and get over into the Wallowa-Whitman area – but that’s another ride. Turning right, you head downriver to Oxbow Dam. This stretch is really nice, as you are right alongside the river most of the time. This is also when you start getting into the more scenic part of the canyon. When you get to Oxbow, you cross back onto the Idaho side, and continue on to the Hell’s Canyon Dam – which is also the end of the road. This stretch is a bit more curvy and you sometimes climb way above the water. Huge overhanging cliffs sometimes drop rocks onto the roadway, so you have to be watchful. The cliffs also often hold glimpses of mountain sheep – although I didn’t see any this trip. I did see lots of raptors and some Sage Grouse – which are great game birds, but somewhat in decline right now. Also some snakes (ran over one), and fish jumping. This road isn’t for the faint-hearted, but the views alone make it worth the work and sometimes pulse-quickening twists and turns. The trip from Cambridge to road’s end is about 62 miles, but it took me close to 2 hours to ride it. Across the dam, there is a visitor’s center and restrooms and fantastic overlooks of the beginning of the deepest gorge in North America (yep, deeper than the Grand Canyon)! A sign said that the walls are about 2,000 feet above the riverbottom. If you really want more adventure than just riding, you can take jet boat or float trips into the lower reaches of Hell’s Canyon, which gets much wilder and remote from the dam north, into mostly roadless area. The Snake finally runs all the way to Lewiston, combines with the Clearwater River, and turns west into Washington state, where it eventually runs into the Columbia and is off to the Pacific. Jet boats will get you back to your motorcycle, but float trips gotta end somewhere downriver, remember. I stretched my legs for about 40 minutes at the visitor center and boat ramp and then headed back upriver. I stopped more frequently on the way back, to drink water and get some feeling back into my “cheeks”, which were getting weary as the day went by. After gassing up in Cambridge, I ate a steak-and-baked-potato dinner at the Beehive Restaurant in Weiser, and stopped for a cold lemonade at the Double-Diamond in New Plymouth, then zipped back to Eagle and home. Total time gone: 11 hours – a bit more than I am comfortable doing, but I had also taken plenty of stops. I only put on 309 miles, but I felt like I’d ridden much more. Ideally, I think one should start and end this day-trip in Weiser or Payette – or maybe make an overnighter out of it.
The trip took me through some varying Idaho country, from farms to what’s called “palouse” grain country to high-meadows to tree-lined streambeds to timber to rocky canyonland. It isn’t all that Idaho has to offer, but it’s a nice variety. Idaho Power and the Forest Service have provided some really great camping areas, with plenty of boat launches and places to fish from the bank. If you wanted to make a 2-day ride, tie on a pop-up tent and there would be probably 30 places to pull off and rest or stretch your legs. Some words of wisdom: This trip has some 70-mph straightaways, and some 20-mph switchbacks – some real ‘ups’ and some steep ‘downs’ – be ready for plenty of each. There aren’t many guard rails, and some of the corners are tight and blind – so don’t get too cocky about your ability. You get off in that canyon and you ain’t getting back on. The kind of bike you ride will dictate a lot about how you ride and your time – a guy on a road bike passed and ran off and left me because he could corner faster than my low, stretched out machine. Longer choppers will have a slower ride – but anyone can do it. The road sometimes has motorhomes pulling large boats, and they go slowly and take extra roadway. Passing zones are few in the canyon itself. Ride single file if you’re with a group. As I did, it is probably best to avoid a weekend ride and strive for a weekday, as the area draws a lot of recreationalists during peak days off. Mostly, I had the road to myself on a Thursday in June. Spring and early fall are the best times, too. It can get pretty hot in this canyon in July and August, which can diminish the allure of the ride. I personally stopped and soaked my tootsies and shirt in creeks a couple of times to cool off on the way back, as the temp climbed high into the 90’s around 3:00 PM.
Regardless of the type of cycle you have, if you find yourself in the southwest Idaho area with a day or two to kill, try this ride. I purposely didn’t include any pictures of my trip, ‘cause you’ve gotta see it for yourself – it’s awesome.
The Big Guy