“The town of Oxbow. That’s how you should get to Idaho,” Cropdusting Pilot Chris told us back in Madras, Oregon. “When you are there, you can go to Hells Canyon.” Honestly, if it wasn’t for Chris, we would have missed THE DEEPEST canyon in North America. There is only so much maps, guide books and even Google can tell you. We’ve gotten our best tips from real live people. We headed east with great anticipation.
Now, you should know right off what we didn’t: most of Hells Canyon, which surrounds the Snake River, is inaccessible to the casual traveler, and so we really only got a peek at it, but loved it for what it taught us about: Dams and rivers and power, reasons to ever go on a jet boat, boondocking (officially for the first time), and just a taste about the value of fish and fishing in this part of the country.
Following the success of getting the best tips from real live people, we asked our young BLM friends at the Oregon Trail site where we should camp in Hells Canyon. They had a bunch of ideas (I took notes), but directed us to a boondocking site just before you cross the bridge at Oxbow.
Oxbow is a very small spot on the map, just on the Oregon side of the Snake River, which divides Oregon (west) from Idaho (east). Boondocking is “wild camping” on unofficial, ungroomed, unmaintained, etc noncampsites. It is FREE and legal – and infact encouraged by many public lands, though they usually call it “dispersed camping”. In brochures, on the phone, or best yet face to face at their regional stations, staffers will share with you places for dispersed camping. It’s a bit tough to get the hang of – relying in some cases on only GPS coordinates to find sites, going down a bumpy dirt non-road, not knowing if you can turn around if needed (we have about 40 feet total of vehicles to maneuver.) And, conditions change – there have been so many fires out here – tragic in some cases, just nature running its course in others – that our public servants are doing their best to keep up, and finding us a free place to camp may not be the number one priority, right? But, to circle back, we had the best possible advice and source – from BLM staffers who we’d been chatting with anyway, and were generous enough with their time and insights to help us dip our toes in boondocking.
So – how did we get to our recommended free wild campsite? “Turn left before u cross Oxbow bridge. On reservoir. Tunnel” was all I had in my notes. It actually wasn’t that hard to figure out once we got to Oxbow. If we crossed the bridge, we’d gone too far. Look for a left turn. And a tunnel.The tunnel through a hill of rock was indeed intimidating (to me) but not to Ben. Keep on driving.We picked a spot, more of a pullover on a dirt road, indeed overlooking the reservoir, and settled in. When you are a newbie to boondocking you might get a little nervous – Is someone going to tell you to move along? Will your trailer be vandalized? Sure enough, the first other person we saw was a man with a GUN, “just taking his horse out for a ride.” The horse got spooked when he saw his reflection in our trailer. Yep. The second people we saw were two moms with strollers and baby bjorns. OK, we could relax a little.
The reservoir we were on was formed from the Snake River and the Hells Canyon Dam – 20 or so miles north and downriver – from our spot. (There are also the Oxbow and Brownlee Dams.) The dams create power of course, and recreation, all governed by Idaho Power. (We barely scratched the surface, but it seems a fascinating intersection of politics, resource management, conservation, and good old boys drinking and fishing. Would love to know more.) It also created a lovely lake-like setting for us to settle in and enjoy the sun as it rose and set across the mountains on both sides (canyon-esque), the birds, the bugs, the jumping fish, and the just-turning fall leaves.
The next day we unhooked – a bit shaky about leaving the trailer in this “unprotected” state but knowing we had a windy road ahead made it easier, and smarter to leave it behind. We crossed the reservoir – we were now in Idaho! A first time in the state for both of us, though this just barely over the border-crossing seemed a bit cheap to count. Passing the dam was incredible – they make it a bit intimidating, like you might have to go through security, though there was none. You realize how valuable dams are, what a target they might be. You don’t have to know much about engineering to be in awe of this.Once we got to the Hells Canyon visitors center, it was a bit of a dead end for us, though just the beginning for those going on jet boat rides and multi-day rafting trips. The road for Chevy Silverados (like ours) literally ends there. There are some nice overlooks, the jet boats, and a nice staffer who told me that most people who explore the Snake do so on multi-day raft trips. The first accessible put out was about 25 miles down river. Amazing.
There is however-and this is a big however- a one mile or so out and back hike along the shoreline which we did and made the trip well worth it. It was so beautiful and like so much on this well timed post-summer season trip-we were the only ones there. We celebrated our two week anniversary as full-timers! A gallery of pics below…I can only imagine what the river and canyon look like beyond this-plan your multi-day rafting trip now!
We did have to watch out for poison ivy which I did with my full attention, being super allergic to poison oak. This information saved me, it might save you.
We looked for pictographs and petroglyphs and I thank Hells Canyon for teaching me about what dams do, what reservoirs are, and that there are parts of this country that are “the greatest” but are still very, very wild and not overrun by tourists (like me). I still don’t get what happens to the river – does it just disappear upstream of the dam? Can we make rivers disappear, so it’s easier to go fishing out on our motorboat? Naive city girl, I know.
Back at camp, I went for a swim in the reservoir (a short one). Spent 30 minutes or so watching the show nature was putting on as the sun was setting – a cliche I know, but so accurate. A great show.We grilled hamburgers for dinner and made a grilled veggie white bean salad to go with. We thank the Kaufmann’s in Island City, Oregon for the local bread, beef and veggies. Still working on my food photography.
The next day we headed to Boise, the big city, a couple hours southeast. We had one last surprise as we transitioned from the wild to civilization: the little baby bear (below) on the side of the road – perfectly content until he saw us. Luckily we saw him and slowed down and we got to watch him bound away. Blacker than we expected, wide eyed, and very bouncy. Godspeed.