Little-Known Fact: Hells Canyon is the deepest gorge in the United States ~ even deeper than the Grand Canyon.
When we reached the aptly named Heaven’s Gate Lookout, it didn’t take much discussion to decide that we’d found the perfect lunch spot. To the south, like a fortress constructed by demons, rose the dark granite parapets, spires, and ramparts of the Seven Devils Mountains, our destination.
Situated on central Idaho’s border with Oregon and contained almost wholly within the 215,000-acre Hells Canyon Wilderness, the Seven Devils range separates Hells Canyon and the Salmon River Canyon. These mountains boast major peaks with sinister names such as Devils Throne, Tower of Babel, Twin Imps, the Ogre, and the Goblin. Local legend claims the area’s Native American tribes originated the name “Seven Devils,” and explorers and climbers later gave individual peaks titles that suited their ominous appearances.
Hells Canyon, on the other hand, is the deepest river gorge in North America ~ 8,043 feet deep measured from He Devil Peak to the Snake River. (Compare that to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, which is “only” 6,000 feet.) It’s a 110-mile section of the Snake River from Oxbow Dam in the south to the Oregon-Washington border below the mouth of the Salmon River.
The Snake River corridor divides the Wilderness into two distinct units. On the Idaho side, canyon slopes ascend to the majestic Seven Devils peaks. In Oregon, the river rimrock gives way to grassy benches and timbered ridges.
After a tri-state view at Heaven’s Gate, we backtracked to Windy Saddle, one entrance to the excellent 27-mile loop trail that encircles Seven Devils. Many unmaintained side trails depart from this loop, leading to a myriad of lakes and peaks within the range. We camped at Windy Saddle the first night, choosing a mountain view site.
The next morning, we decided to tackle the strenuous 9-mile trek off the loop trail into Sheep Lake. The trail wound through striking alpine scenery beneath the sheer column of the Devils Tooth, then past a half-dozen ponds to a crest above Sheep Lake. Below us, Sheep Lake seemed set at the heart of a mountain king’s palace, with the of He Devil, She Devil, Mt. Baal, and Tower of Babel jutting 1,000 feet above the icy water.
Although you won’t need technical climbing skills to traverse Seven Devils, you will need sturdy legs to carry you up and down the peaks and valleys. Heavy snow generally restricts travel to July through October. We arrived back at the trailhead the third day, tired, exhilarated, and convinced that the Northwest has few ranges that compare with the Seven Devils when it comes to scenery and the variety of trails.