Hells Canyon tends to be a difficult place to reach for both sinners and the pure of heart.
You can get there by jet boat or raft. But doing so requires a jet boat or raft, the proper permits and at least a little bit of skill maneuvering a craft through whitewater.
There are no roads for motorized vehicles that run up and down the canyon and along the Snake River, so you can’t really take a scenic drive through its basalt walls and tawny hillsides.
But there are a few backcountry byways that deliver visitors to sweet spots in the heart of the canyon. Deer Creek Road is just such a route, and the sweet spot at its end is Pittsburg Landing.
It’s not exactly a short drive to reach this boat ramp, campground and trailhead. But the gravel road is generally in pretty good shape and the reward is a taste of the famous canyon that is the deepest gorge in North America. The canyon gets this distinction by counting the peaks of the Seven Devils Mountain Range as part of its eastern rim.
The scenery is well worth the drive and it’s not unusual to see wildlife such as deer and sometimes elk, birds of prey and even rattlesnakes.
Deer Creek Road begins at the lower Salmon River near White Bird and Hammer Creek and climbs gently as it heads west and south, winding its way to the top of the divide separating the Snake and Salmon rivers. Just over the crest and surrounded by big ponderosa pine trees is the Pittsburg Saddle View Point, which gives visitors their first gander at the canyon below. From there, the road that is also known as National Forest Road 493, follows Kurry Creek to the landing. It descends quickly in a series of hairpin turns but the pitch quickly becomes more gentle.
The lower landing includes a campground, picnic area and boat ramp. The upper landing includes a campground and trailhead.
It is fairly open at Pittsburg Landing but those looking to experience the steep walls the canyon is known for can do so by hiking upstream toward the historic Kirkwood Ranch. It’s a 6-mile, one-way trip along the Snake River National Recreation Trail to reach the ranch that is staffed by volunteers and serves as a museum featuring the history of early homesteaders in the canyon and the much older history of Native Americans. n
LOCATION: From the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley or the Palouse, travel south on U.S. Highway 95 past White Bird and turn right on Old Highway 95 at mile marker 222 where there are signs for Pittsburg Landing and Hammer Creek Recreation Area. Follow the road for about 1 mile, turn left and cross the bridge over the Salmon River and then take an immediate left on Deer Creek Road and follow it for 17½ miles to arrive at the landing.
WHAT YOU’LL DO: Take in the majesty of Hells Canyon, have a picnic and maybe go for a hike.
DIFFICULTY: 3 out of 5.
DON’T FORGET: Sun screen, water, snacks. It’s rattlesnake country so long pants and boots are not a bad idea if you plan to hike.
NEARBY SITES OF INTEREST: Although Pittsburg Landing is on the river, it’s not a great swimming hole. If you visit in the middle of summer and have a hankering for a dip or just to sit on a sandy beach, consider stopping at Skookumchuck Recreation Site on the Salmon River at mile marker 219.