Exploring The Lewis and Clark Valley

Home of the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA-Getting the lay of the land

In my two upcoming posts I will be sharing my visit to the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA with highlights of wineries, vineyards and wines from this bi-state American Viticultural Area. First however, I thought that sharing some of the amazing landscape, geology and history of this region would provide you with a better understanding of what shaped this area and why it is a must visit wine destination.

If you’re looking for an educational and scenic Pacific Northwest road trip, then you need to explore the rugged and beautiful Lewis and Clark Valley. The Lewis and Clark Valley is anchored by twin cities, Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington and the only thing separating these cities, is a river with a state line running through it.

Clarkston and Lewiston are not only bonded by the history that surrounds their namesakes, explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis but they are also linked as the home of North America’s deepest gorge and the gateway to Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area. The Lewis and Clark Valley is also the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers which flow westerly to join with the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities area of Washington.

Geology of the Region

This part of the United States experienced many of the same geological events that I discussed in my previous story Washington Wine: The Shaping of a Region. To recap, one of the best resources that explains the formation and shaping of this part of Idaho and Washington is a video by Tom Foster and Nick Zentner, Lava + Ice + Water = Floods Geology. If you are interested in how this region was formed and sculpted take a few minutes and watch this 16 minute video.

This map shows the collection of Volcanoes that arose from the Pacific Ocean.

During their journey to the Pacific Coast, explorers Lewis and Clark made note of the major Cascade Range Volcanoes, Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount St. Helens, which are located on the north side of the Columbia River in Washington State, and Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson on the south side of the Columbia River, in Oregon.

Image from volcanoes.usgs.gov

This region is distinctively different from much of the surrounding area. It is home to intersecting rivers and beautiful scenery that takes you all the way from the Clarkston/Lewiston Valley to Hells Canyon.

Hells Canyon

Since the Lewis-Clark Valley is located at the mouth of Hells Canyon I wanted to share a little about this amazing location. Hells Canyon is the deepest gorge in North America, almost two thousand feet deeper than the Grand Canyon. The area is a nature lovers paradise with abundant wildlife and ever changing views and vistas. (Note: It is takes almost 4 hours to drive from Clarkston to the mouth of Hells Canyon).

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, Idaho. Photo Credit: Visit Idaho

Part of the boundary between Idaho and Oregon, Hells Canyon separates the mountain ranges of the Seven Devils in Idaho and the Wallowa in Oregon. Hells Canyon starts 90 miles south of Lewiston, Idaho includes 652,488 acres of beautifully wild landscape where you can let your sense of adventure run free. The canyon is 125 miles long with a section that reaches a maximum depth of nearly 8,000 feet. This vast and remote region encompasses dramatic changes in elevation, terrain, vegetation and climate. Sections of the canyon are splashed in rich shades of red, orange, and yellow emphasizing the walls of the canyon that rise perpendicularly for thousands of feet.

The gorge of Hells Canyon was originally referred to as Box Canyon or Snake River Canyon by early explorers. In an 1895 edition of McCurdy’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, the first reference to Hells Canyon appeared when the books author wrote “she then bound off, swinging into midstream, and like a racehorse, shot into Hells Canyon” about a steamboat voyage on the river. In the years to come the name Hells Canyon began showing up in bulletins and books, including several publications in the 1930’s written by Senator Neuberger of Oregon.

Access to Hells Canyon is limited and there are no roads across the canyon’s 10-mile wide expanse. Leading to the Snake River between Hells Canyon Dam and the Oregon-Washington boundary there are only three roads allowing access to the river. You can however experience it’s unparalleled natural beauty on a guided jet boat tour, a river cruise or on a scenic whitewater rafting tour available in varies spots along the canyon. The remote wilderness of Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA) truly offers something for everyone, from hiking, to horseback riding, to discovering rustic remains of early miners and settlers.

In journals it is noted that the Lewis and Clark expedition entered the Hells Canyon region in 1805 along the Salmon River, but they soon discovered why they were warned away from the canyon by the local Indians and they turned back before seeing the deepest parts of the canyon.

The Nez Perce and Lewis & Clark

Image from the National Park Service Website

Once home to Nez Perce tribes, Hells Canyon is filled with evidence of the tribe inhabiting the area for thousands of years. The Nez Perce, “Nimiipuu” according to tribal lore tells the tale of ‘Coyote’ who dug the Snake River Canyon (Hells Canyon) in a day as a form of protection for the people on with west side of the river from the Seven Devils.

Seven Devils Mountains Photo Credit: U.S. Forest Service

The Seven Devils, were a band of evil spirits living in the mountain range to the east. Today this mountain range is still known as Seven Devils Mountains.

The earliest firm date comes from a rock shelter at Bernard Creek, 7,100 years ago. A Clovis point found near the south end of the canyon indicates the possibility of human occupation 15,000 years ago. These people left ample evidence of their passing including some magnificent rock art at places like Buffalo Eddy. Figures carved into the rock are called petroglyphs, and pictures painted on the rock are called pictographs. They are not a form of written language; their meanings are lost in time.

Below I share more information about Buffalo Eddy and my off the beaten path excursion along the Snake River.

In 1803 the first people of European ancestry to visit this area were members of the David Thompson expedition. Looking to establish fur trading posts for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Thompson established the first white settlement, MacKenzie’s Post, in Idaho. This endeavor failed, but was followed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in October 1805. At what would become Lewiston, Idaho, Lewis and Clark encountered settlements of the Nez Perce when William Clark and a group of hunters, ragged and tired, stumbled onto Idaho’s Weippe Prairie in September of 1805. After three weeks of trekking west through the Bitterroot Mountains in the Rockies, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery were starving and at the end of their physical and mental endurance limits.

Although cautious of the hospitality of the Nez Perce, Clark’s expedition group accepted a dinner of dry fish and bread baked from camas roots, and a deeper friendship began to form. After sending one man back to bring Lewis and the rest of the party to the location a camp was set up near the Nez Perce. When Lewis arrived Clark had started to gather maps and information about a possible route that would take them further west. Gaining information that the Columbia River was not far away, the group started building canoes right away so that they could press on with their mission to the Pacific Coast.

A genuine fondness had developed between the Corps of Discovery men and the Nez Perce tribe, it was a bond that they carried with them as they continued their expedition. The group of explorers returned during their eastward trip in May of 1806 after spending a long winter at Fort Clatsop, in Oregon. Because of the lingering snow in the mountains, the Corps stayed for nearly two months among the Nez Perce from early May to late June, before making the long journey home.

*Due to the Pandemic The Nez Perce National Historical Park was closed to visitors during my trip to the Lewis and Clark Valley. The park is located 11 miles southeast of Lewiston on state Highway 95, and is home to a complete informational center and museum featuring historical displays and interpretive programs teaching travelers about the rich history and customs of the Nez Perce Tribe.

Ancient Nez Perce Art-Discovering the Buffalo Eddy Petroglyphs

While traveling through the Lewis and Clark Valley I became fasinated by it’s history and geology, with research I came across The Journal of Geology Volume 50, Number 7 Oct. – Nov., 1942 where I learned;

An early chapter in the evolution of the Snake River is recorded by intracanyon lavas in and near the Lewiston Basin of Washington and Idaho. Dissection, attendant upon the beginning of late Cenozoic deformation of the Columbia River lavas, produced canyons which reached a maximum known depth of more than 1,200 feet before they were nearly filled with two thick lava flows. This stage of dissection, which is termed the “Asotin” stage, and the volcanism which terminated it are probably of early Pleistocene age. The Snake River canyon of the Asotin stage was 900 feet deep south of the axis of the Lewiston downwarp and more than 1,200 feet deep on the north, or downstream, side of the axis, thus suggesting an early stage in the folding of the Lewiston downwarp. Continued regional deformation has brought the bottom of Asotin Canyon about 300 feet below present river-level at the axis of the downwarp and elevated it nearly 1,000 feet above river-level on the margins of the downwarp. The Snake River, during post-Asotin time, followed on and near its former course and carved a new canyon that is deeper than the Asotin Canyon except in the center of the Lewiston downwarp. Much of the intracanyon lava was removed during the later stage of canyon-cutting, but a number of remnants remain in a known distance of 22 miles.‘ -The Journal of Geology, Volume 50.

You’ll notice in the Geology paragraph above that the name Asotin is highlighted and for good reason. It is the starting point of a journey that will lead you to the petroglyphs at Buffalo Eddy.

The Snake River in Asotin, WA

The City of Asotin is located at the confluence of the Snake River and Asotin Creek on Highway 129, just 6 miles south of Clarkston, WA. On the Washington side, through Asotin (which is a former site of a Nez Perce winter camp) and continuing on Highway 129, is the only way to reach Hells Canyon.

Just outside of Asotin, there is a fork in the road, going right will keep you on Highway 129 and take you to Hells Canyon. Continuing straight on 1st Street in Asotin will lead you to Snake River Drive and it is along this stretch that you will find Petroglyphs and an array of wildlife and fowl along the banks and on the rugged rock outcroppings. Once you leave the city of Asotin it is about 15 miles until you arrive at the Buffalo Eddy Petroglyphs, which is a park of the Nez Perce National Historical Park.

As you travel along Snake River Drive, watch for the small sign on the right that reads “Historical Site Ahead”, then about a quarter mile farther, on the left is a paved parking lot adjacent to the roadway. The path is on the left side of the parking lot when facing the river.

As you follow the small hiking trail you will see a bulletin board that explain some information about the Nez Perce people and the petroglyphs seen here. Nez Perce tribal artists for thousands of years, used the black rocks at Buffalo Eddy as canvases for their rock art carvings. The site was protected in 1999, as part of the Nez Perce National Historical Park when the road was shifted away from the rocks.

Beginning about 4,500 years ago, the tribal artists, began scraping and chipping the riverside basalt boulders at the Buffalo Eddy. These designs represent both people and animals along with abstract shapes like triangles, spirals, dotted lines and circles.

If you follow the path all the way down to where the rocks meet the river you will come across two sets of petroglyphs.

The rock carvings at Buffalo Eddy aren’t always obvious and part of the fun of visiting is having to search to find them. Make sure that you scan all of the rocks and walls around you to discover remnants of the past.

It was about 300 years ago, that the tribal artisans stopped adding to the diverse collection of art at Buffalo Eddy. Some authorities hypothesize that the artistry stopped because of cultural changes like the arrival of white settlers, but no one knows the real reason that the rock carvings stopped.

On the other side of the river, a small cabin that sits amongst the black basalt rock marks the location of the Buffalo Eddy Petroglyphs on the Idaho side. This is private property and the owners do not allow visitors to its petroglyph area.

A beautiful and unique place that is considered sacred by the Nez Perce, the eddy is one of the deepest holes in the river, yet the swirling water at that hole can be treacherous.

Depending on the water levels, the Buffalo Eddy’s spiraling waters can become a whirlpool that pulls down logs, boats and swimmers. At other times as the Nez Perce experienced, the Buffalo Eddy can be an excellent fishing place.

This historic place is a marvelous opportunity to witness first hand some ancient Nez Perce art while enjoying the beauty of the Snake River. At this point you can turn around and head back to Clarkston/Lewiston or you can continue your journey South long the Snake River Drive, and see where the road takes you.

Off the Beaten Path in the Lewis and Clark Valley

“I travel not to go anywhere but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

There’s nothing quite like letting it all go and just driving, sometimes you don’t even have to know where you will end up. After leaving Buffalo Eddy we continued to drive along the Snake River, taking in the amazing landscape along the way.

Follow the Snake River Road along the Snake River to Heller Bar, which is located at the mouth of the Grande Ronde River. Then continue along the county road, which now leaves the Snake River behind and follows the Grande Ronde River, a tributary of the Snake River which is 182 miles long and runs through southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

As you continue, take a slight left turn onto Joseph Creek Road and after another 5.3 miles this road will lead you through Joseph Canyon and take you to the Chief Joseph Wildlife Area. There is private property in blocks along the road, which are clearly identified. A Washington Discovery Pass is required to cover both the Entry Fee and Parking.

In this deep canyon the Nez Perce tribe once wintered along Joseph Creek and Grande Ronde River, allowing them to take advantage of the warmer canyon floor micro-climate.

These towering rock formations and steep grassy slopes are an incredibly diverse habitat that supports an abundantly diversity collection of wildlife. Big game like mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk graze here, along with bear, bighorn sheep and small mammals. Over the streams Golden Eagles and prairie falcons soar and upland birds including mountain quail and chukar partridge roam the area. This riparian habitat also supports an assortment of neo-tropical migrant birds, reptiles and amphibians.

If you continue off the beaten path, this road will eventually have you Entering Oregon! We had no idea we would get to this point, but the road brought us there. That is the beautiful thing about road trips, you can completely let go and see where the open road takes you. You next decision is whether to venture into Oregon or turn back as we did.

“All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road.” – Jack Kerouac

Clarkston, Washington & Lewiston, Idaho: The hubs of the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA

Now that you are more familiar with the area next time I will delve deeper into the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA . For now here is a little background information;

Clarkston, Washington’s name is a reference to William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and East directly across the Snake River is Lewiston, Idaho named for Meriwether Lewis. Lewiston is the older and larger of the two cities and the only area that the Expedition visited, neither Lewis nor Clark ever visited the Clarkston side of the river. Twin cities in many ways, both Clarkston and Lewiston are both Port cities by way of the Snake River and Columbia River. The Port of Lewiston is noted as being Idaho’s only seaport and the farthest inland port east of the West Coast.

In the Lewis and Clark Valley you can sip your way through the regions AVA (American Viticultural Area) at some award-winning wineries on both the Washington and Idaho side. My next post will begin with an introduction of the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA and will highlight the grape growing history of the region as well as a Vineyard found in Clarkston. The Idaho area of the AVA will be covered in a future post with information about Idaho wineries and vineyards within the region.

Arnett Vineyard in Clarkston, WA owned by Jim and Dana Arnett.

Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

2 Comments on “Exploring The Lewis and Clark Valley

  1. What a great write up on this interesting region. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to part 2!

  2. Pingback: Wine Exploration in The Lewis and Clark Valley AVA - Drink In Life

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