Trek America's Deepest Canyon - Backpacker

Trek America's Deepest Canyon

Delve deep on this 40-mile epic through Hells Canyon, one of America's wildest geological features.
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Stand on top of a mountain and everything recedes around you. That’s fine, but I prefer the opposite effect—when the world seems to swallow you whole. That’s how I feel now, midway through a 40-mile epic through the country’s deepest canyon. Towering, brown-and-green walls crowd around me and the calm Snake River, which bored this chasm millennia ago. There’s a name-brand canyon like this one in the southwest corner of the country, but here, beneath a canopy of ponderosa, I don’t have to share. Well, except for the bighorn sheep, elk, and partridges.

Turn by turn

From the Pittsburg Landing trailhead: Pick up the Snake River National Recreational Trail #102 and take it 6 miles south to Kirkwood , a good turnaround point for those looking for a quick overnight.

Continue south to Bernard Creek at mile 20.7 .

Retrace your steps to Pittsburg Landing. (Not down for a mega day? Spend another night at Sheep Creek on your way back; it’s midway between Bernard Creek and Kirkwood, near mile 27.)

Campsite 1

Kirkwood Historic Ranch (mile 6)

Rustic charm meets the backcountry in a throwback to the early 1900s. Historic buildings remain largely unchanged from when the place was a sheep farm. Flush toilets are nice, but the best part is the creek-side camping in the meadow. There are five sites; if all are taken, continue south on the trail to more dispersed campsites.

Campsite 2

Bernard Creek (mile 20.7)

Pitch your tent in the meadow among an array of summer blooms. Water access is a breeze, and intrepid visitors can downclimb the canyon to the Snake River (there is a nice beach campsite down there). Skip the old McGaffee cabin unless you like mice.

Gone fishin’

Cast a line for steelhead trout, walleye, and even monstrous sturgeon in the Snake River. (Or wait for the chinook salmon run in fall.)

Make it longer

Sucker for suffering? Keep going 5 miles south on the main trail (#102), then split east onto the Little Granite Creek Trail (#112), which heads 5 miles—climbing more than 6,000 feet—into the alpine zone. But a DIY adventure through the 9,000-foot Seven Devils Mountains is awesome in its own right, we promise. (Leave a shuttle car at Windy Saddle.)

Make it shorter

Jet-boat outfitters offer drops along Trail #102. Catch a ride with the U.S. Mail boat ($219) to Sheep Creek Ranch to knock off the first 14.5 miles. From there, you can continue 6.2 miles on foot to Bernard Creek or head back north to the trailhead, overnighting at Kirkwood Historic Ranch.

DO IT Trailhead 45.617565, -116.462803; 20 miles southwest of White Bird off NF-493 Season March through November; summer is great for swimming and flora, but temps can crest 90°F. Wait for late summer or early fall for best weather. Permit None 

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