Seven Devils of Hells Canyon

Where you'll share the mountain with curious goats and mysteries of the past.
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Where you'll share the mountain with curious goats and mysteries of the past.

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.

Contact Information:

The Wallowa County Chieftain newspaper publishes an online version of its Visitor's Guide to Wallowa County. The Chieftain also offers an even larger database of local information on their BBS. The BBS contains back issues of the Chieftain as well as more than 600 digitized photos. To access the Chieftain BBS, use your modem to call 541/569-2326.

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area

Headquarters

88401 Hwy 82

Enterprise, OR 97828

541/426-4978

Hells Canyon NRA ~ Riggins Office

Box 832

Riggins, ID 83549

208/628-3916

Hells Canyon NRA ~ Snake River Office

Box 699

Clarkston, WA 99403

509/758-0616

Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

Box 907

1550 Dewey Avenue

Baker City, OR 97814

541/523-6391

For information on preserving the area and efforts to exalt the area to National Park status:

Hells Canyon Preservation Council

Box 908

Joseph, OR 97846

541/432-8100

Location:

The Seven Devils are located along central Idaho's border with Oregon, 150 miles north of Boise and 17 miles southwest of Riggins.

Getting There:

  • For general access to the HCNRA, one of the main access roads is the Wallowa Valley Loop Road (Forest Road 39). It cuts across the recreation area between Joseph, Oregon, and Richland, Oregon. There's a canyon overlook accessible from this road, which is now paved.
  • The most popular overlook is Hat Point lookout, which receives 200,000 visitors a year. To reach this lookout, go to the town of Imnaha, Oregon and continue on a gravel road that is clearly marked. Once there you can climb the tower and peer down into the bottom of the canyon.

For the Seven Devils, there are 3 main trailheads on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon Wilderness:

  • Windy Saddle: Access to Windy Saddle is via Forest Road 517, which leaves Hwy. 95 about half a mile south of Riggins, Idaho. This is the main access for the Seven Devils and the high elevation country. It's 17 miles from highway to trailhead, with an elevation gain of 5,400 feet.
  • This approach is a single lane gravel road that's rough and steep in places, so it is suitable for vehicles with low clearance only during the summer months. Four-wheel drive is recommended, especially in spring and fall.
  • Upper Pittsburg Landing: This is the trailhead for the Snake River National Recreation Trail (NRT) and the connector trails from the river up into the Seven Devils. Access is via Forest Road 493 from Hwy 95 at Whitebird, Idaho, a 19-mile drive on a well-maintained, single lane, steep gravel road suitable for passenger cars. The altitude gain is 1,210 feet. (The Snake River NRT follows the river for approximately 35 miles but doesn't go through to Hells Canyon Dam or Boat Launch.)
  • Black Lake: You'll need a map of the Payette National Forest to locate the access roads to this area, which can be obtained from the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area headquarters. Take Hwy. 95 northwest from Council, Idaho, about 54 miles. Then take Fire Road 112 to Black Lake Campground and trailhead. The latter portion of FR 112 is rough and requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle.

Seasonal Information:

The Seven Devils area is only passable from the first week of July through mid-October. Even during these times, extremes in conditions are not uncommon; be prepared for anything from snow to 95-degree temperatures.

Wildlife:

Rattlesnakes are common in the canyon. They're most active from May to September. The Forest Service recommends that anyone entering the area carry a snake bite kit.

Elk, deer, bear, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, cougars and bobcat roam the area around the Seven Devils ~ but the true sovereigns are the mountain goats. All around us the underbrush was strewn with their white hair, and we spotted one perched on a precipice above the lake. He witnessed a brief and incredibly bracing swim that left us refreshed and alert for pitching camp.

The occasional moose passes through, too, and there have been unconfirmed sightings of grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines.

The river corridors are good places to spot ducks, geese, bald eagles and osprey. Golden eagles, hawks and falcons are common in the high country. Forested areas are home to jays, owls, and woodpeckers. Songbirds such as vireos, thrushes, warblers and wrens frequent brushy side canyons, particularly in riparian areas.

Watch for the endangered peregrine falcons hunting high over the canyon. Peregrines have been reared in captivity and successfully reintroduced into the area.

Insects:

Contact park office for information.

Plant Life:

Contact park office for information.

Facilities:

Hells Canyon NRA has 19 different areas to camp, ranging from completely primitive to developed with trailer hookups. Contact the Hells Canyon NRA Headquarters and ask for the "Look Into Hells Canyon" brochure, which lists all camping facilities. Note that camping policies differ greatly in the Wilderness Area of Hells Canyon.

Parking:

Contact park office for information.

Permits:

No permits are needed to camp, but registration is encouraged.

For river travel, reservations are required the Friday before Memorial day through September 15. Reservation applications are accepted December 1 through January 31.

River Reservation Phone Line, 509/758-1957.

Policies:

Contact park office for information.

Hazards:

Access roads are not suitable for all vehicles. Check with Hells Canyon National Recreation Area officials.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

The Hells Canyon National Recreation map is available from the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area office in Riggins. A driving-tour map of scenic view points is also available.

Other Trip Options:

Those seeking additional solitude can find plenty within the larger Hells Canyon National Recreation Area's 652,488 acres. Nearly 1,000 miles of trails traverse the HCNRA. Some are maintained yearly and are easy to travel. Others are rarely maintained and difficult to find.