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.