One of the iconic waterways of America’s West, the Snake River winds for more than 1,000 miles, cutting through the nation’s deepest gorge: Hells Canyon. Yes, it’s even deeper than the Grand Canyon by more than 2,000 feet. Near Washington’s tri-state southeastern corner, the Snake turns sharply west before eventually emptying into the mighty Columbia River. It’s one of the defining geographical features of the fertile Palouse, and although you can drive, bike, or hike along portions of its basalt cliff–flanked banks, the most magical way to experience the Snake River is from the deck of a welded-aluminum jet boat.
The community of Clarkston borders the Snake River and is known as one of the world’s jet-boating capitals. Several outfitters offer half, full-day, and even overnight tours through the most magnificent sections of Hells Canyon—areas that you simply cannot access by road. On even the half-day jet-boat adventures, you’re likely to see a rich abundance of wildlife, from elk and bighorn sheep to blue heron and bald eagles. These swift and powerful boats typically have covered seating, but you should plan on getting a little wet during your tour—part of the fun is bouncing over Class I and II rapids. Outfitters generally provide lunch and refreshments, plus opportunities for swimming in the river and exploring historic sites on land, including Dug Bar, where in 1877 the venerable Chief Joseph led a group of more than 750 Nez Perce across the river en route toward Canada. If you have time, opt for a full-day tour—these longer excursions lead into the deepest and most spectacular parts of the canyon.
The Hells Canyon Visitors Bureau can provide a list of local jet-boat tour companies. You can also stop by their visitor center in Clarkston’s up-and-coming Port District. Another good resource for information is the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest office.
There are several scenic parks offering explore-it-yourself activities along the Snake River between Clarkston and the Columbia River, including Chief Timothy Park west of Clarkston, Wawawai County Park in Colton, Boyer Park and Marina in Colfax, and Lyons Ferry State Park in Washtucna, near Palouse Falls.