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Snake River Region

Southern Idaho

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Hells Canyon Scenic Byway

 

Hells Canyon Road between the Brownlee and Hells Canyon Dams is intense and may be fatiguing.

Hells Canyon Road between the Brownlee and Hells Canyon Dams is intense and may be fatiguing.

 

Technical with stunning scenery
Is this route the best in Idaho?


We last ran Hells Canyon in the spring of 2015, pre-Memorial Day. We were practically alone!

Map of Snake River Region

In that instance we approached from the north on Hwy. 95. We’ve covered some of 95 – south to Riggins – in the Salmon River section of the book. So let’s pick it up at Riggins.

This route brings a rider due south along the Little Salmon River so scenery remains of a marvelous quality. The roadway bends this way and that in numerous mellow sweepers. The surface is smooth and shoulders are ample.

In the shoulder seasons traffic is present but not daunting, unlike during mid-summer recreation time.

All-in-all this is a very pleasant cruise of 35 miles between Riggins and New Meadows.

It’s 45 more southerly miles down Hwy. 95 through Council to Cambridge, some of that along the Weiser River which yields more eye candy. There are more good sweepers with one set of tighter turns as you cross a summit south of New Meadows and before Council. The pavement is excellent though some wind was hammering us last time there. Traffic is lighter south of New Meadows.

Don’t expect lodging in Council; we were relieved to find a nice local motel in Cambridge as the day was getting long.
We picked up Hwy. 71 in a northwesterly direction out of Cambridge and things became much more interesting quickly. This is remote riding on narrow two-lane with a good surface but no shoulders. Traffic was almost absent, just a few recreationists heading for river accesses.

A rider will begin a long climb through a pretty canyon which means...yes! Curves! These aren’t real tight...yet...with the speed limit posted at just 50. Once over the 4,131-foot Brownlee Summit and heading down the other side you’ll need to stay on your game as turns are more frequent and of a reduced radius. The surface is smooth and confidence inspiring.

Here a rider can get some serious lean going through the corners that bend this way, then that, oscillating nicely down from the crest toward the Snake River. Some of these bends are posted at 20 and 25, plenty of others at 30, 35 and 40. A couple of them seemed to go off-camber but there was no serious clench.

My notes say, “Spectacular run, very sporty. Scenery is excellent.” Surely a solid #9 rating.

After completing the 30 miles of Hwy. 71 from Cambridge to the Snake – the Idaho-Oregon border – you may expect that to be the highlight of the run. Nope. More – and better – to come!

Once down to the water we enjoyed another intensely snakey stretch of pavement with some significant hilliness thrown in, then a deserved (needed?) break at Woodhead Park, a very nicely maintained, grassy facility with restrooms, fountains and other amenities.

We were just getting started! The roadway closely parallels

the shoreline so undulates unceasingly as you ride north toward Brownlee Dam. Just fun, fun, fun!

You cross the Snake (and border) just downriver (north) of Brownlee Dam and continue the superb run now on the west side of the river on the Brownlee-Oxbow Highway.

Here the riding is faster and mellower – many sweet sweepers – but the land- and waterscapes continue to amaze. Hells Canyon is aptly named. The rock formations along the canyon are overwhelming and simply magnificent.

Twelve highly pleasing miles after passing into Oregon, just down from Oxbow Dam, the route crosses the Snake back into Idaho and becomes the Hells Canyon Road (NF 454)...and the intensity is wicked up once again. The roadway rises, twists, falls and winds along the east shore. Awareness is paramount as the opportunities for mistakes are abundant. Many corners should only be attempted in the 20-30 mph range.

The pavement is narrow but the surface is clean and otherwise acceptable.

Running it back out the opposite direction makes it feel like a different road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running it back out the opposite direction makes it feel like a different road.

 

Riders R

 

My notes indicate I had pumped plenty of adrenalin: “Saw only two cars from Oxbow to Hells Canyon Dam. All curves!

Scenery is stunning, unprecedented, fantastic, just amazing!” I’ve been known to go in for some hyperbole but it is difficult to exaggerate the majesty of this natural wonder...and exceptional example of “The Perfect Motorcycle Road.”

Those who are aboard big, heavy machines with slow steering dynamics will need to dial it back, cruise sedately, carefully and safely, while navigating the 25-mile course.

Those with sportier bikes with good tires, suspension and flickable steering can step it up if they possess the requisite skill sets.

We don’t mind – heck, we love! – technical roadways and riding. And this is it! This one is an 11! It has it all...in spades!

But it is intense and can be draining. Take a break at the Hells Canyon Dam visitors center. Relax, rehydrate, catch your breath... Then turn around and run it back out, because the pavement ends at the dam.

Is this our favorite piece of Idaho moto tarmac? Maybe... But that’s like trying to decide what is your favorite food, or song or motorcycle. Okay, it is surely among our Top Three.

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