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Backpacker Magazine – May 2011

Going to Extremes

Can you ever really have too much of a good thing? Once you've seen the biggest tree, largest glacier, and deepest canyon, nothing else compares.

by: Ted Alvarez

Mt. Washington's Nelson Crag Trail (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)
Mt. Washington's Nelson Crag Trail (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)
Emerald Lake in the Weminuche (Tad Bowman)
Emerald Lake in the Weminuche (Tad Bowman)
White Fringed Phacelia in the Smokies (Paul Rezendes)
White Fringed Phacelia in the Smokies (Paul Rezendes)

Deepest Canyon
Seven Devils Loop, Hells Canyon Wilderness, ID

The Grand Canyon may be massive in scale, but it does not own every record relating to size. North America’s deepest trench? That’s Hells Canyon, on the Idaho/Oregon border—it plunges 8,043 feet from the top of He Devil Peak down to the Snake River below. (The Grand? A mere 6,000 feet deep.)

The Seven Devils—9,000-foot peaks of dark granite—dominate the Idaho side of the 10-mile-wide gorge. On the 26.7-mile Seven Devils Loop, dip as low as 6,500 feet and scrape as high as 8,100 feet while wandering through old-growth forest, across lush meadows, and around quiet lakes. Overlook wide-angle panoramas of the yawning gorge below, with creepy sentinels like He Devil, She Devil, Mt. Baal, and the Tower of Babel at your back. Start at the 7,500-foot Windy Saddle trailhead and hike clockwise, covering 7.6 miles before reaching camp at Dog Creek. Tank up in the morning: Day two includes 10 miles of dry hiking, first through conifers and then up and over the treeless, crushed talus of 8,100-foot Horse Heaven Pass. As you round the pass to turn north, gaping Hells Canyon and the 5,000-foot grassy bench on the Oregon side fill the western view. In late July and early August, patches of Indian paintbrush carpet the path to Baldy Lake; take a three-quarter-mile spur trail to camp by the peak-circled pool (look for flat, wooded areas on the northwest shore).

The final leg presents ample side-trip opportunities. The best: The 2.6-mile spur to Dry Diggins Lookout, at mile 22.1, from which you can gaze 7,000 feet down to the Snake River. Bonus night: Camp near Sheep Lake (a worthy four-mile detour) or Lily Pad Lake, and rest up for the final 1.4-mile, 1,000-foot climb up a shadeless rock slope. Two more wooded miles close the loop at Windy Saddle.

Do it From Riggins, take ID 95 south one mile to Seven Devils Rd. (FR 517, gravel). Go 17 miles to Windy Saddle trailhead. Map Hells Canyon NRA Map, available from the NRA office in Riggins Guidebook Hiking Hells Canyon & Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains, by Fred Barstad ($19, Contact Trip data

Lonliest Mountain
Luna Peak—North Cascades, WA

You’ll need determination and navigation savvy to reach 8,311-foot Luna Peak, the rarely visited highpoint of the remote Picket Range. From Big Beaver Landing, it’s a 16.5-mile bushwhack that ends with a class 4 scramble.

Quietest Place / Tallest Dunes
Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO

The sand-muffled wilderness here is so silent, nighttime readings bottom out beyond the capabilities of the NPS Natural Sounds Program’s ultra-sensitive instruments. Claim your quiet: Tag North America’s highest dune (750-foot Star Dune) by hiking about 4.5 miles northwest from Medano Creek; camp in the dune field after (BYO water; permit required).

→ Tallest tree: 379-foot Hyperion, a redwood taller than Lady Liberty.
Find it:

→ Most snow:
Rainier’s Paradise Ranger Station averages 672.6 inches annually:

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Reader Rating: -


Tammy Vanden Heuvel
Jun 30, 2011

I just was at Black Canyon in May 2011 and hiked to the bottom. The only animals I saw were the birds, squirrels and pikas. But there were posted signs around that the park was having an issue with a problem bear.

Don't let the predators scare you off - this is an absolutely gorgeous park. Take time and the right gear and hike to the bottom.


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