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June 2007

Hiking Hells Canyon, ID

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

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.

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