Hells Canyon Reservoirs, Idaho & Oregon, USA

Lake Locations:

USA - West - Idaho - Southwestern - Oregon - Eastern -

Also known as:  Brownlee Reservoir, Oxbow Reservoir, Hells Canyon Reservoir

The three Hells Canyon Reservoirs are one of southwest Idaho’s most scenic locations. Idaho can’t claim this national treasure alone, however as it shares this Snake River canyon with eastern Oregon; in fact, it marks the border between the two states. There is plenty of recreation to go around, however. Hells Canyon itself is the deepest gorge in North America – a full mile and a half below the surrounding mountains. Idaho Power Company has constructed three reservoirs along the Snake River in this area to provide hydroelectric power, irrigation and water supply to a wide range of customers. Increasingly, water levels are managed for optimal fish and wildlife habitat. The reservoirs aren’t built within the depths of the gorge, however. They capture the mighty Snake River just before it reaches its most majestic masterpiece – Hells Canyon Gorge.

Brownlee Reservoir, built in 1959, was the first and the largest of these reservoirs. With 15,00 acres and reaching nearly 300 feet in depth, Brownlee is the most popular fishing hole in the state. Native and stocked fish include rainbow trout, perch, crappie, catfish, sturgeon, pumpkinseed, bullhead and sunfish. Fishermen here are overjoyed to catch the occasional prehistoric-looking sturgeon, which can reach several feet in length. Brownlee Reservoir is known for having the best smallmouth fishing of the three. Crappie are abundant, and there is no creel limit.

Because Brownlee Reservoir’s flow controls water levels at both Oxbow Reservoir and Hells Canyon Reservoir, it is considered the main reservoir in the system. Water levels vary considerably depending on season and water needs. Brownlee covers 58 miles of river and has a shoreline of 193 miles – long, narrow and massive. Oregon’s Farewell Bend State Park takes advantage of a bend in the reservoir to provide camping, boat docks and nature trails. Because the surrounding mountains leave little flat land along the shoreline, most fishing is done from boats. Other boat ramps and camping areas exist along the Oregon side, such as a camping area and launch along the Powder River Arm of the reservoir near Richland. On the Idaho side, visitors can access the reservoir at Steck Park where the Bureau of Land Management runs a campground and boat launch.

Oxbow Reservoir lies downstream to the north. Here 1,150 acres of water cover 12 miles of the Snake River. Water conditions at Oxbow rely heavily on what is happening at the Brownlee Reservoir. Visitors enjoy excellent fishing much of the year at Oxbow Reservoir. Here the reservoir is narrow, and fishing is the favored activity. Several campgrounds and boat launch sites are provided: McCormick Park campground and boat launch is located below Brownlee Dam on the Idaho side, with more camping and more boat ramps located at Copperfield Park, just below the Oxbow Dam. More access points are found on the Oregon side of the reservoir. Again, the steep-sided reservoir has little level shoreline, so most fishing occurs from boats. Idaho Power maintains a fish hatchery here to provide fish for stocking all three reservoirs.

Hells Canyon Reservoir is the last, and farthest north, of the three Hells Canyon reservoirs. With 2,412 acres of water stretched along 25 miles of the Snake River, Hells Canyon Reservoir is more narrow and shallower than the other two: here the water only reaches a depth of 81 feet at full pool. The Oregon side of the reservoir is a part of the Hells Canyon Wilderness where no motorized vehicles are allowed. RV campsites are provided on the Idaho side at Hells Canyon Park, where boat launch facilities, an RV dump and picnic areas are provided. A full 50 miles of hiking trails can be accessed from Hells Canyon Reservoir – a good introduction to the rest of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area downstream. The Hells Canyon Creek Information Station, at the dam, is open to visitors during the summer months. On the Idaho side, Snake River Road winds along the edge of the reservoir, providing great views of the river.

Local guides and outfitters offer guided fishing trips and jet boat tours of the reservoirs and the rapids within the canyon. The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area holds 652,488 acres and a wealth of wildlife including black bear, mountain lion, white-tailed deer, mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain goats, pronghorn antelope and a few shiras moose. Many species of birds are attracted to the water, with the mud flats exposed during low water. For birders, Idaho Power provides a birding guide to help identify all of the species and describes their habitat. Many of these species can be seen from the Hells Canyon Reservoirs. Portions of the recreation area are open for hunting in season, with appropriate licenses. All types of outdoor adventures await visitors to Hells Canyon Recreation Area, where horseback riding and hiking carry the day, and whitewater rafting carries the river!

The Snake River is an important tributary to the Columbia River. From its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park, the Snake meanders across six states on its trek to the Columbia. Its most spectacular section is the Hells Canyon Gorge, where the river tumbles through the deep canyon surrounded by sagebrush and overlooked by spectacular mountain peaks and remote wilderness. Native American tribes once lived here, sheltered from the harsh winters of the surrounding high plateau. Pictographs and petroglyphs attest to their passing: local guided tours lead visitors to view these ancient works of art. Eventually, European settlers attempted both mining and farming along the river banks, with little success. A few ranchers still graze livestock here, but the surrounding area remains wild and unspoiled. The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest abuts the Recreation Area and provides hundreds of miles for hiking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding and refreshing solitude. New visitor needn’t feel overwhelmed by the choices however; a number of facilities offer lodging, meals and guided rafting and canyon tours of various lengths and degrees of difficulty.

Several forms of lodgings are available near the Hells Canyon Reservoirs and the gorge. Besides conventional hotels and motels near the larger towns, many guest ranches and lodges exist, as does the occasional bed-and-breakfast. Although real estate on the reservoirs themselves is unlikely to be found, there are often existing homes or buildable lots available on the tributary creeks and rivers. Whether it is white water rafting, jet boat tours, fishing or hiking the many trails, something at the Hells Canyon Reservoirs appeals to just about everyone. A visit to the Hells Canyon Reservoirs is the destination of a lifetime. Come see this natural wonder and take plenty of photographs!

*Statistics shown are for Brownlee Reservoir.

Things to do at Hells Canyon Reservoirs

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Whitewater Rafting
  • Camping
  • Campground
  • Picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Hunting
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • State Park
  • National Park
  • National Forest

Fish species found at Hells Canyon Reservoirs

  • Catfish
  • Crappie
  • Perch
  • Pumpkinseed
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Sturgeon
  • Sunfish
  • Trout

Hells Canyon Reservoirs Photo Gallery

Hells Canyon Reservoirs Statistics & Helpful Links

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Lake Type: Artificial Reservoir, Dammed

Water Level Control: Idaho Power Company

Surface Area: 15,000 acres

Shoreline Length: 193 miles

Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 2,077 feet

Average Depth: 100 feet

Maximum Depth: 300 feet

Water Volume: 1,420,000 acre-feet

Completion Year: 1959

Water Residence Time: 36 days

Drainage Area: 72,590 sq. miles

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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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