By Michael Lanza
The sound barely registers inside the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag. It’s different—softer—than the anesthetic patter of rain that lulled me to sleep hours ago. Working slowly, like a cranky old PC, my brain powers up to identify the source: snow. In April.
I crack an eyelid to check for daylight. The tent is intensely dark, like the recesses of a cave. I shut down for a few more hours of deep unconsciousness, the gentle brushing of snowflakes on my nylon roof as effective a narcotic as the rain.
At daylight, I step outside on urgent business and discover a landscape that has transformed overnight. Visibility is 50 feet, and three inches of wet stuff blankets the ground. Perfect fat flakes flutter down from a ceiling so close it’s almost claustrophobic. There’s no wind, no sound. I’ve been in many whiteouts, but stepping so abruptly into a space so blank gives me a disorienting rush of vertigo. After a few moments, my eyes and equilibrium adjust, and I begin to relax—and appreciate the emptiness. My little white bubble is as peaceful as the world gets.
When I hit the trail an hour later, the clouds lift enough to reveal the looming cliffs, deep side canyons, and steep, sage- and grass-covered slopes of Hells Canyon, all whitewashed by the storm. I chuckle to myself at the fickle notion of seasons here in North America’s deepest river gorge, where weather ignores the calendar. I’ve seen snow on the 4th of July, and sunbathed in the first week of March. The canyon is big enough to make its own weather, but its climate is mostly a function of elevation change, something the canyon has in greater measure than many U.S. mountain ranges.
This is a place defined by extremes—of scale, solitude, grandeur. Perhaps more than any wild land I’ve known, this canyon fills me with a sense of having dropped out of time, of diving, wide-eyed, into Alice’s rabbit-hole. The biggest disconnect? That a place so unblemished and diverse could attract so few visitors. But the explanation for that is simple logistics: Hells Canyon is far from anyplace where people live, hard to get to, and harder to get around in once you’re there. It calls to mind a colloquialism that Mainers like to say about the travails of traveling around that rural state: Ya can’t get there from here.
Which is exactly why I’ve returned for a four-day, 56-mile spring hike, during which I’ll loop from the top of Hells Canyon down to the Snake River and back up again, sampling every part of the canyon’s geography. And what a geography. Hells, as some locals call it, is a 70-mile-long chasm dividing western Idaho from northeastern Oregon. Over eons, the Snake River and its tributaries have carved a vast, complex topography of side canyons and draws branching from the main gorge like the roots of an old cottonwood.
On the Oregon side, where I started yesterday, the rim rises 5,500 feet above the river. The relief on the Idaho side is even more dramatic. More than 8,000 feet separate the river from the top of the Seven Devils Mountains, making Hells deeper then the Grand Canyon by more than half a mile. The canyon is arid—nearly a desert—and largely treeless, except at higher elevations, where snowfall nurtures conifer forests.
But the harsh environment doesn’t prevent the canyon and its surrounding peaks from being one of the richest wildlife refuges in the Lower 48, home to more than 350 species, including bighorn sheep, black bears, bald eagles, and mountain lions, plus river otters and scads of rattlers. For all of these reasons, Congress in 1975 designated the 652,000-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area; today, the area includes 214,000 acres of wilderness.
My loop hike will lead me on a wild tour of the seasons—sometimes multiple seasons in a single day. I began yesterday afternoon in “summer,” marching nearly 2,000 feet uphill on the Saddle Creek Trail. After 50 switchbacks on a sunbaked slope, I’d sweated through my T-shirt like I was at an outdoor concert in New Orleans. At 5,448-foot Freezeout Saddle, I stepped abruptly into autumn—a chill wind and patches of snow. Even the view raised goosebumps. Snowcapped mountains rose in two directions—the Seven Devils to the east, Oregon’s Wallowas to the west. The great gash of Hells fell away so far below I couldn’t see the bottom. Then it was forward into spring, as I descended 1,500 feet of switchbacks beneath a warm drizzle and a vibrant rainbow.
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 about 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, mice-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.
The short-lived homesteading boom peaked around 1910, when more than 100 families scraped by on scattered 160-acre plots along the Snake. But life was hard and the climate not amenable to raising crops or livestock. As one settler put it, “The government bet you 160 acres that you couldn’t live there three years without starving to death.” Before Anglo settlers came, the Nez Perce had more success: Drawn to the canyon by its mild winters and abundant wildlife, their pictographs and petroglyphs are found on rock throughout the canyon.
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 practically straddles the creek, forcing you to ford it 21 times in three miles. I change to hiking sandals and splash down the frigid stream, my feet quickly going numb.
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 upriver and 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 water.
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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. Today, no trace remains of whatever house and buildings stood here. My only neighbors are wagon wheels and a plow slowly sinking into the earth—though a gaggle 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 on the Snake River 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.
This story first appeared in the June 2007 issue of Backpacker Magazine.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR reasonably fit, experienced backpackers capable of managing big swings in temperatures and weather and finding their way on trails that are sparsely marked and sometimes disappear in tall grass for long distances. Potential campsites are infrequent in the higher terrain, but more numerous along the river, though you’ll compete with boaters for riverside sites, especially in late spring and early fall. Self-sufficiency is critical; you may not see another person.
Make It Happen
Season With 8,000 feet of relief and several microclimates, you can hike somewhere in Hells Canyon just about any time of year. Spring and fall are best for lower-canyon hikes like the above rim-to-river-to-rim loop, although elevations over 5,000 feet, like Freezeout Saddle, can receive snow from October to June. Temperatures in the canyon bottom usually top 90° F. and sometimes 100° F. in summer. Trails and peaks in the Seven Devils Mountains, which lie within the Hells Canyon Wilderness, are typically snow-free by mid-July. While the canyon bottom rarely sees any snow, it receives very little direct sun during the short days of mid-November through mid-January, so it can stay quite cold down there.
The Itinerary This 56-mile, four- to six-day route entails 6,000-plus feet of elevation gain and loss. From the Freezeout Trailhead parking area, follow Saddle Creek Trail’s arduous, nearly 2,000-foot climb to Freezeout Saddle, at 5,448 feet; start this two-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 the trailhead. From there, 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. Floods, blowdowns, and long lags in maintenance may render some trails faint or completely obscured; call ahead for info, bearing in mind that the ranger district office may not know the latest conditions.
Getting There 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 then turn left onto Road 4230, which forks almost immediately; bear left. Follow to its end at the Freezeout trailhead, which is accessible most of the year, but occasionally blocked by snow; check conditions with the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center (see below).
Permit A backcountry permit is not required, but a parking pass is required at the Freezeout trailhead lot. Accepted passes include a National Forest Recreation Day Pass ($5/day), Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annually), or Interagency Annual Pass ($80 annually).
Maps The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area map ($6) can be purchased from the Hells Canyon NRA website (below). The USGS quads that cover this hike are Sheep Creek Divide, Hat Point, Old Timer Mountain, Kirkwood Creek, and Temperance Creek.
Guidebook Hiking Hells Canyon and Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains, by Fred Barstad, $18.95, Falcon Guides, falcon.com.
• Water availability varies greatly with season and location; call a ranger district office to check what they know about tributary-creek water levels, and plan accordingly.
• Avoid consuming water from the Snake River, because it carries agricultural chemicals and other pollutants.
• Warmer temps bring out scores of rattlesnakes; be careful, and carry a snake-bite kit.
• Watch for poison ivy along creeks; wear pants.
Contact Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, fs.usda.gov/detail/wallowa-whitman/recreation/?cid=stelprdb5238987. For Oregon info, including road and trail conditions, call the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center, in Enterprise, OR, (541) 426-5546. For Idaho info, call the Riggins, ID, ranger district, (208) 628-3916.