Ask Me: Where Should We Dayhike and Backpack in Hells Canyon?
I wondered if you might have some recommendations for either camping and dayhikes or two-day backpacking trips in the Seven Devils/Hells Canyon area. Or, maybe you have other suggestions for cool hikes relatively nearby in June.
Thanks so much!
Early summer is a transitional time between whether it’s nicer in the Seven Devils Mountains, on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon, or down in Hells Canyon, where the Snake River forms the border between Idaho and Oregon. June is usually a little early in the Seven Devils, with snow still covering the ground at higher elevations. By late June, it’s normally getting pretty hot in Hells Canyon—it’s typically several degrees warmer than Boise. But temperatures could be fairly comfortable there in early summer; you just have to check the short-term forecast. Call to check whether the road and campground are both open; contact the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, Riggins, Idaho, ranger district, (208) 628-3916; www.fs.fed.us/hellscanyon/.
Windy Saddle is the most-accessible jumping-off point for backpacking trips in the Seven Devils. To reach the campground at Windy Saddle, from 1.3 miles south of Riggins on US 95, turn west onto Seven Devils Road/FR 517, which is narrow and makes a huge climb over 17 miles. On hot days, it’ll be pleasantly cooler there, at 7,600 feet. From that campground, you can dayhike south on the Seven Devils Loop Trail and then turn west on the side trail to Lower Cannon Lake, a nice spot, somewhat popular for dayhikers and fishermen and a fairly easy four-mile hike one-way (eight miles out-and-back). If you’re feeling more ambitious, you can hike cross-country (it’s not too hard) to Upper Cannon Lake, where there may be no people and which is even more scenic, sitting right at the base of craggy peaks called The Ogre and The Goblin.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you’ll see to the northwest of Upper Cannon Lake that it’s possible to hike and scramble off-trail (nothing technical) to the summit of the She Devil, which is over 9,400 feet, basically the same height as the neighboring He Devil; they’re the two highest peaks in the Seven Devils. I saw mountain goats on She Devil. I don’t know of a straightforward way to climb He Devil from Upper Cannon Lake; I’ve scrambled He Devil via the usual route from Sheep Lake (see below).
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Alternatively, hiking in the other direction from Windy Saddle, following good trail, it’s 9.4 miles to Sheep Lake at 7,882 feet, one of the largest lakes in the Seven Devils and a nice spot to camp. There’s also an established Sheep Lake Climbers Route from Windy Saddle that’s more direct, just 3.8 miles, but I haven’t taken it (though I’d like to try it). I’ve heard there are cairns and it’s not too sketchy, but it’s probably not for people who aren’t accustomed to hiking and route-finding off-trail. You could find a description online. It would be a fun, big loop dayhike to take the Climbers Route to Sheep Lake and return via the maintained hiking trail.
He Devil is a fun scramble with some route-finding but nothing really crazy, via the Northwest Ridge from Sheep Lake.
The Seven Devils Loop Trail around the range, which I’ve backpacked, is 27 or 28 miles, but you’d want to plan on extra miles to hike the side trails leading up to some of the lakes (which have the best backcountry camping), like Sheep Lake, Bernard Lakes, He Devil Lake, Baldy Lake, and Cannon Lakes. The map shows a trail to Dog Lake at the southeast corner of the Seven Devils; I’ve backpacked to it, and that trail appears to have been abandoned years ago, so there were a lot of blowdowns and it was difficult to follow. But the lake is beautiful and we had a great campsite there.
Also take the side trip off the loop trail to Dry Diggins Lookout, at over 7,800 feet, which has a sweeping view of the mountains and down into Hells Canyon, more than 6,000 feet below. It’s one of the few spots in the Seven Devils where you can actually see the Snake River.
If the forecast doesn’t call for really hot weather, drive north of Riggins on 95 to White Bird, and take FR 492, which is passable for cars once the road dries out (should be by late June), 17 miles over to Pittsburgh Landing on the Snake River in Hells Canyon. There’s a campground and boat launch there and the northern terminus of the 28-mile Idaho Snake River National Recreation Trail. Hike south on that trail five miles to Kirkwood Ranch, a historic ranch right on the river, now managed as a museum, where there’s usually a volunteer caretaker who can show you around. I’ve camped in their big meadow when backpacking (they allow backpackers). There are some boat shuttle services that will give you a ride upriver and drop you off anywhere along the Idaho Snake River National Recreation Trail, and you can hike back to Pittsburgh Landing, either as a dayhike or backpacking trip.
I’ve backpacked most of the Idaho Snake River National Recreation Trail a couple of times, it’s gorgeous, ranging from right along the river to a few hundred feet above it, and not very strenuous (only a couple sections), though water sources are infrequent—you just have to look at the map and plan your water sources. There are some nice beach campsites.
I’ve also backpacked a 56-mile loop on the Oregon side of Hells Canyon, from the rim down to the river. It is a bit farther drive from Boise, but a really nice hike. See my story about that trip at The Big Outside.
From Boise, the closest access to Hells Canyon (only about a three-hour drive) is at its southern end, at Hells Canyon Dam. I’ve dayhiked from that area on the Oregon side, but I haven’t explored it much.
See also these stories at The Big Outside:
“Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
“My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips”
“10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit”
“10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier”
“7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters”
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