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The Snake River is one of the major waterways in the Pacific Northwest United States. The Snake River, a major tributary of the Columbia River, generates hydroelectric power, provides irrigation water and improves navigation for residents in six different states. The Snake River crosses many different regions on its meandering route. But how long is the Snake River?
Read on to learn more about where the Snake River begins, where it ends, and how long it measures. We will also cover the main tributaries of the river, geography, history and importance.
Where does the Snake River begin?
The Snake River’s origins begin with three small creeks high up in the Rocky Mountains. Its headwaters begin at the confluence of these three forks in Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming. Shortly thereafter, the Snake River empties south into Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. From there, the river flows through Jackson Hole, a valley between the Teton and Gros Ventre mountain ranges. The river passes through the town of Jackson before changing course and flowing west through the Snake River Canyon into eastern Idaho.
Entering Idaho, the Snake River flows through the Snake River Plain, a vast, arid landscape that covers most of southern Idaho. Just southwest of the town of Rexburg, Idaho, Henry’s Fork joins the Snake River. People sometimes refer to Henry’s Fork as the “North Fork” of the Snake River. Meanwhile, the “South Fork” refers to all bodies of water upstream of the confluence.
How long is the Snake River?
In all, the Snake River measures approximately 1,078 miles from its headwaters to its mouth. This makes the Snake River the 9thth longest river in the United States. In addition, the Snake River is considered the largest tributary of the Columbia River. Its headwaters are at an elevation of 9,206 feet while its mouth is just 358 feet above sea level. In other words, the river drops nearly 1.6 miles in elevation on its journey!
Which states does the Snake River flow through?
The Snake River officially flows through four states: Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. However, the Snake River drainage basin includes two other states, Utah and Nevada. The river originates in northwest Wyoming in Yellowstone National Park and cuts south towards Jackson, Wyoming. It then changes course and flows northwest once it reaches the Palisades Reservoir on the Wyoming-Idaho border. Near Rexburg, Idaho, the river changes course again, flowing southwest toward Idaho Falls and Pocatello. After the American Falls Reservoir, the river flows mostly west to Twin Falls, where it turns northwest again.
The Snake River briefly enters Oregon about 60 miles west of Boise, Idaho. From there, the river cuts north, forming the entire northern half of the Idaho–Oregon border. Near Lewiston, Idaho, the Snake River changes course again and begins to flow west into Washington state.
What are the tributaries of the Snake River?
Numerous smaller streams and rivers flow into the Snake River. While most rivers are much smaller than the Snake River, a few are considered significant waterways in their own right.
Six major rivers drain into the Snake River from its source in Wyoming to the Idaho border. These include the Heart River, Lewis River, Gros Ventre River, Hoback River, Grays River, and Salt River. Of these, the Salt River is the longest at 70 miles.
From the Snake River Plains to Hells Canyon near the Idaho, Oregon, and Washington border, 10 major rivers flow into the Snake River. These include:
- Henry’s Fork (sometimes called the North Fork of the Snake River)
- Portneuf River
- raft river
- Malad River
- salmon falls creek
- Bruneau river
- Owyhee River
- Boise River
- river of misfortune
- Payette River
Of these waterways, Henry’s Fork, Malheur River, Salmon Falls Creek, and Owyhee River are all over 100 miles long. The Owyhee River is the largest of the four at about 280 miles in length.
The Snake River meanders through Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America. Although Hells Canyon is only 125 miles long, five tributaries join the Snake River along this short stretch. These rivers include the Weiser River, Burnt River, Salmon River, Grande Ronde River, and Clearwater River. Of these waterways, the Salmon River is the longest at 425 miles. This makes the Salmon River the largest of all the Snake River tributaries.
From the Idaho-Washington border, two final tributaries join the Snake River before it joins the Columbia River. These two rivers — the Tucannon River and the Palouse River — are 70 miles and 140 miles long, respectively.
Where does the Snake River end?
As it traverses Hells Canyon, the Snake River cuts west and empties into the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington. This portion of the Lower Snake River features four dams and a number of reservoirs. The Snake River continues west through these locks until it reaches Lake Wallula near Burbank, Washington. Created by the McNary Dam, this reservoir represents the confluence of the Snake River and the Columbia River. From there, the Columbia River flows about 325 miles until its mouth reaches the Pacific Ocean.
Is the Snake River longer than the Columbia River?
At 1,243 miles in length, the Columbia River holds the title of the longest river in the Pacific Northwest. Still, the Snake River manages to secure second place in this 1,078-mile race. It also traverses a much greater elevation change than the Columbia River. In addition, the Snake River is considered the longest river in Idaho and Wyoming. The Columbia River is now the longest river in both Oregon and Washington.
How did the Snake River get its name?
Native American tribes have traveled and lived near the Snake River for over 11,000 years. The current name of the Snake River comes from the term “Snake Indians”. Plains Indian tribes used this term to refer to tribes along the Snake River. Namely, the term includes the Shoshone, Bannock and Northern Paiute tribes. Debate continues as to how this term came about. Some believe the term refers to the use by these tribes of snake heads in war gear. Others claim that the Plains Indians referred to these Snake River tribes with a “snake-like” hand gesture. Either way, the Snake River name stuck.
Over the years, the Snake River has had several other names. The Lewis and Clark Expedition named it the Lewis River because Meriwether Lewis first discovered the river. Shortly thereafter, Wilson Price Hunt of the Astor Expedition called him Mad River. Other names include the Shoshone River and the Saptin River. This surname closely resembles the first name for the river recorded by Canadian explorer David Thompson in 1800. Shawpatin. Meanwhile, local tribes called the Snake River by a variety of names, including Ki-moo-e-nim And Yam-pah-pa, The latter is also the name of an herb common to the banks of the Snake River.
Ecology of the Snake River
In terms of geography, the Snake River features a variety of ecological zones. The Snake River Plains contain most of the shrub-steppe grasslands. Riparian zones and wetlands are common in the areas where tributaries join the Snake River. In eastern Washington, the river flows through the Palouse Hills. In the past, this area was characterized by fertile prairies and hills, but today it consists mainly of irrigated farmland. Meanwhile, the headwaters of the Snake River historically consisted of heavily forested mountain zones. Although there are still large numbers of aspens and firs in this area, sagebrush is now also more common due to deforestation.
The Snake River can be divided into two main parts: the Upper Snake River and the Lower Snake River. Shoshone Falls, near Twin Falls, Idaho, forms the boundary between these two sections.
The Upper Snake River lies entirely in southeastern Idaho and Wyoming. This part of the river contains numerous species endemic to only small parts of the Snake River. This list of rare species includes 21 species of snails and mussels of particular concern. The Upper Snake River also contains around 14 species of fish not found anywhere else along the Snake River or the Columbia River basin.
The Lower Snake River is now home to around 35 native fish species. You can also find 12 of these species in the Columbia River, while four are found only in the Snake River. The four species native to the Snake River include the short-headed sculpin, the marginal sculpin, the relict sandroller, and the Oregon chub. The Snake River also supports several species of trout and Pacific salmon, including chinook salmon, sockeye salmon, and coho salmon.
In addition to fish, numerous other animals can be found around the Snake River. About 97 species of mammals live on the banks of the Upper Snake River. Large predators that hunt around the river include grizzly bears, mountain lions, gray wolves and wolverines. Around the river you will also find about 10 different species of amphibians and 20 different species of reptiles. Nearly 274 species of birds live along or visit the Snake River. These include peregrine falcons, whooping cranes and yellow-billed cuckoos.
The Snake River today
A total of 20 dams were built along the Snake River. These dams serve a variety of functions, including providing irrigation water, generating hydroelectric power, and facilitating navigation. In general, the dams downstream of Hells Canyon serve primarily to facilitate navigation, while those upstream of Hells Canyon serve primarily to provide irrigation water. Due to their inaccessibility, the dams in Hells Canyon are used almost exclusively to generate hydroelectric power.
Unfortunately, many of these dams adversely affected the health of the Snake River. For thousands of years, the Snake River served as one of the most important spawning rivers for anadromous fish. These fish – like salmon – spawn in freshwater and then travel to saltwater to feed and grow. The construction of dams along the river severely impacted the migratory routes of these fish. In addition, agricultural runoff has damaged several stretches of river with high concentrations of deadly pollutants. The pollutants not only damage the river itself, but also affect the reservoirs and aquifers in its catchment area.
Over the years, several groups have advocated for the removal of several dams along the Snake River to improve navigation for fish and reduce environmental impact. Unfortunately, such projects cost a lot of money to remove them, and they can also negatively affect the economy of local regions. Advocates, pundits, and politicians continue to weigh the costs and benefits of these projects in hopes of finding just solutions.
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