Hiking Hells Canyon, ID

This remote chasm boasts big views, craggy mountains, abundant wildlife, and staggering solitude.
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This remote chasm boasts big views, craggy mountains, abundant wildlife, and staggering solitude.

Pfft…pfft. The sound barely registers inside the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag. It’s different—softer—than the anesthetic patter of rain that lulled me to sleep hours ago. Working slowly, like a cranky old PC, my brain powers up to identify the source: Snow. In April. I crack an eyelid to check for daylight. The tent is intensely dark, like the recesses of a cave. I shut down for a few more hours of deep unconsciousness, the gentle brushing of snowflakes on my nylon roof as effective a narcotic as the rain.

At daylight, I step outside on urgent business and discover a landscape that has changed radically overnight. Visibility is 50 feet, and 3 inches of wet stuff blankets the ground. Perfect fat flakes flutter down from a ceiling so close it’s almost claustrophobic. There’s no wind, no sound. I’ve been in many whiteouts, but stepping so abruptly into a space so blank gives me a disorienting rush of vertigo. After a few moments, my eyes and equilibrium adjust, and I begin to relax—and appreciate the emptiness. My little white bubble is as peaceful as the world gets.

When I hit the trail an hour later, the clouds lift enough to reveal the looming cliffs, deep side canyons, and steep, sage- and grass-covered slopes of Hells Canyon, all whitewashed by the storm. I chuckle to myself at the fickle notion of seasons. Here in North America’s deepest river gorge, weather ignores the calendar. I’ve seen snow on the 4th of July, and sunbathed the first week of March. The canyon is big enough to make its own weather, but its climate is mostly a function of elevation change, something the canyon has in greater measure than many U.S. mountain ranges.

This is a place defined by extremes—of scale, solitude, grandeur. Perhaps more than any wild land I’ve known, this canyon fills me with a sense of having dropped out of time, of diving, wide-eyed, into Alice’s rabbit-hole. The biggest disconnect? That a place so unblemished and diverse could attract so few visitors.

Which is exactly why I’ve returned for a four day, 49-mile spring hike, during which I’ll loop from the top of Hells Canyon down to the Snake River and back up again, sampling every part of the canyon’s geography.

And what a geography. Hells, as some locals call it, is a 70-mile-long chasm dividing western Idaho from northeastern Oregon. Over eons, the Snake River and its tributaries have carved a vast, complex topography of side canyons and draws branching from the main gorge like the roots of an old cottonwood.

On the Oregon side, where I started yesterday, the rim rises 5,500 feet above the river. The relief on the Idaho side is even more dramatic. More than 8,000 feet separate the river from the top of the Seven Devils Mountains, making Hells deeper then the Grand Canyon by more than half a mile. The canyon is arid—nearly a desert—and largely treeless, except at higher elevations, where snowfall nurtures conifer forests. But the conditions don’t stop the canyon and its surrounding peaks from being one of the richest wildlife refuges in the Lower 48, home to more than 350 species, including life-listers such as bighorn sheep, black bears, bald eagles, and mountain lions, plus river otters and scads of rattlers. For all of these reasons, Congress in 1975 designated the 652,000-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area; today, the area includes 214,000 acres of wilderness.

The loop will lead me on a wild tour of the seasons—sometimes multiple seasons in a single day. I began yesterday afternoon in “summer,” marching nearly 2,000 feet uphill on the Saddle Creek Trail. After 50 switchbacks on a sunbaked slope, I’d sweated through my T-shirt like a 380-pounder at an NFL training camp. At 5,448-foot Freezeout Saddle, I stepped abruptly into autumn—a chill wind and patches of snow. Even the view raised goosebumps. Snowcapped mountains rose in two directions—the Seven Devils to the east, Oregon’s Wallowas to the west. The great gash of Hells fell away so far below I couldn’t see the bottom. Then it was forward into spring, as I descended 1,500 feet of switchbacks beneath a warm drizzle and a vibrant rainbow.

Today, sunrise brought my wintry surprise. The black, pinnacled cliffs of Summit Ridge, towering hundreds of feet overhead, display a thin, new cape of white. A light snow falls as I hike the High Trail, a path set on a broad, miles-long bench at 4,200 feet. It cuts through open groves of trees, past waterfalls, and across broad, grass-covered ridges.

The unpredictable weather hints at the immensity of Hells Canyon, but it doesn’t tell the full story. With each passing hour, my eyes adjust to the breadth and depth of scenery in the way a theatergoer’s ears tune in to Shakespearean dialogue. Like a great mountain range turned inside-out, the canyon’s contours leap and fall endlessly, from the creek-scoured ravine I step across to the multiple layers of distant ridges and tributary canyons. Land features seem to swell to tremendous size, then fade slowly to relative obscurity against a vast backdrop, a phenomenon of perception I’ve experienced only here and in the Grand Canyon.

Late in the morning on my second day, five elk dart uphill away from me, moving with an effortless speed that belies the slope’s severe angle. Within seconds, they’ve disappeared into the sparse pine forest. In the canyon’s middle elevations, the elk seem as numerous as birds. On previous trips, I’ve watched as many as 100 of these majestic animals flow uphill in such a dense cluster it gave the illusion of the ground moving.

By midafternoon, the storm passes. My load light, I lope nearly 2,000 feet down numerous switchbacks to the valley of Temperance Creek…and back into spring. I strip to short sleeves and make camp in an overgrown meadow called Wisnor Place, then poke around a dilapidated cabin and some long-abandoned farm equipment rusting in the tall grass. Tiny, mouse-infested shacks like this one are scattered around the canyon, stark reminders of the remote, marginal lives of the settlers who farmed and ranched here from the late 1800s until the Depression.

A mile below Wisnor Place, knee-deep Temperance Creek ducks between 400-foot cliffs on its descent to the Snake River. Except for one spot where it climbs steeply to a great overlook of this side canyon, the Temperance Creek Trail hugs the creek so closely it requires you to ford the creek 21 times in 3 miles. I change to hiking sandals and splash downstream.

When I reach the Snake on my third morning, it feels like July in St. Louis. At 1,300 feet, I’m two seasons and four-fifths of a vertical mile removed from the snowy highlands where I started. Under a desert sun, I follow the Oregon Snake River Trail south. The nonstop views of the meandering river, cliffs, and grassy, nearly treeless ridges leave no doubt why 68 miles of the Snake River are designated as wild and scenic. There are sandy beaches, broad flats covered with bunchgrasses and prickly pear cactus, and a remarkably well-built path clinging to cliffs 400 feet above the roiling whitewater.

On my last night, I pitch my tent near the mouth of Saddle Creek on a perfect, flat lawn at the edge of an abandoned orchard. A ranching family tended cherry, apricot, apple, pear, and peach trees here from about 1915 to 1938, I’ll later learn from an 87-year-old woman who remembers playing among the neat rows. My only neighbors now are wagon wheels and a plow slowly sinking into the earth (though a group of wild turkeys will awaken me at dawn with their boisterous foraging). Evening paints the rock bands and grassy hillsides across the river in a warm, golden light.

Looking at the old farm equipment, I think about what life must have been like here a century ago—and conjure an image at once daunting and appealing. Then I realize that this spot almost certainly feels lonelier and more remote today than it did then. In four days, I’ve seen just one other person, a woman running a rustic lodge at Temperance Creek. On other visits, I’ve seen no one at all. For a backpacker, that kind of solitude is always a glorious thing, but it’s truly rare when you find it in a landscape so transcendent. That’s the story of Hells Canyon, the rare American wilderness whose beauty far eclipses its renown.

HIKE IT: Oregon Rim-to-River Loop

Enjoy the author’s Hells Canyon experience on this

top-to-bottom tour.

This 56-mile, 4- to 6-day route entails 6,000-plus feet of hard elevation gain and loss. But it may be the finest multiday hike in Hells Canyon. And the payoff is constant views, excellent campsites, and near-complete solitude (if you don’t count the elk).

From the Freezeout parking area, follow Saddle Creek Trail’s arduous, nearly 2,000-foot climb to Freezeout Saddle; start this 2-hour stretch by 9 a.m. to avoid the afternoon heat. Then descend 1,500 feet to the High Trail junction at 5.3 miles. From here, you’ll hike a 45.5-mile loop on the High, Temperance Creek, Oregon Snake River, and Saddle Creek Trails, then return over Freezeout Saddle to your car. Side trails allow options for shorter or longer hikes.

The top campsites for the first night or two are along the High Trail, on the grassy, open ridges between the creeks; there’s an especially scenic spot just north of Big Creek. From these sites, you’ll walk several minutes for water. Farther along, Wisnor Place has good tent space in the meadow between the historic cabin and Temperance Creek. There are a few sites on the Snake River between Temperance and Saddle Creeks, but not all have a stream nearby (don’t drink from the polluted Snake). One of this loop’s best sites is a grassy area where the Saddle Creek Trail meets the Oregon Snake River Trail, with the canyon rising skyward all around. To break up the 4,000-foot, 11.3-mile hump from the Snake River back over Freezeout Saddle, look for a small campsite midway up, near the junction of the High and Saddle Creek Trails. Except for those cited above, you won’t find sites on the Saddle Creek or Temperance Creek Trails.

Navigation is straightforward, with two exceptions. In a grassy saddle where the High and Dry Gulch Trails meet, a sign incorrectly points north for Temperance Creek; instead, turn west and walk 50 feet to pick up a good trail. (Note: The Dry Gulch Trail is a better route to the Snake if, before your trip, the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center warns of many blowdowns on the Temperance Creek Trail.) Also, the lower 6 miles of the Saddle Creek Trail include sections that are faint, overgrown, or obscured by blowdowns; the trail is passable, but the going is slow and requires careful attention.

THE WAY From OR 82 in Joseph, turn north on OR 350/Imnaha Highway and follow it 30 miles to the little town of Imnaha. Across from the post office, turn right onto Upper Imnaha River Road, continue 12.4 miles, and turn left onto Road 4230, which forks almost immediately (bear left). Follow to its end at the Freezeout trailhead.