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Hiking Hells Canyon, ID

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

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.

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