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June 2007

Hiking Hells Canyon, ID

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

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.

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