Hells Canyon: Exploring the Deepest Gorge in North America

Views from the deepest gorge in North America, Hells Canyon.
Views from the deepest gorge in North America, Hells Canyon. Nan Palmero
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Slicing the earth on the border of Oregon and Idaho, Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America—deeper than the Grand Canyon, in fact. Alongside it, the Snake River Trail winds around countless granite outcroppings and past steep drop-offs plunging hundreds of feet toward the river, swollen with early runoff. In the distance is nature's spectacular artwork: Oregon's gray-brown rimrock dotted with greening bunch grass and Idaho's stark, snow-covered Seven Devils Mountains.

Appropriately enough, there's no snow deep in Hells Canyon, where the elevation is a little more than 1,100 feet. That, and the spectacular landscape, along with the fact that you're almost guaranteed to have it to yourself, make Hells Canyon one of the only places in Idaho and Oregon to go backpacking in late February and March. Plus, this wild and rugged terrain, as part of the 213,906-acre Hells Canyon Wilderness that spans both states, is only about four hours from Boise.

Everything about the canyon is massive, making hikers feel miniscule. Its west rim (located in Oregon) rises 5,632 feet above the river; the east side (in Idaho) reaches to 8,043 feet. At certain points, the canyon stretches to 10 miles wide. Wherever the trail goes south along the river, hikers can see parts of it cutting across bluffs about two miles off in the distance. Any other hikers on the trail, uncommon this time of the year, look like dots. It's a land of cactus, colorful wildflowers, squawking wild chukar partridge, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife.

As rugged as the canyon is, trailheads are accessible by roads that are open year around, giving hikers plenty of opportunities for exploration. And the earlier the better: Late February and March are the best months for hiking or backpacking in Hells Canyon. Temperatures can range from the high 30s at night to almost 60 during the day. It's not uncommon to be hiking in shorts and a T-shirt by afternoon. Plus, poison ivy hasn't yet sprouted over the trails, ticks haven't come out yet, and it's still too early for rattlesnakes. Bottom line: It's far from hellish this time of year.

Hikers itching to get out and explore this captivating place, with some of the most wild, rugged terrain in the United States, will find a getaway well-suited to them, whether it's a weeklong, 25-mile backpack adventure; a shorter, 12-mile backpacking trek; or even 2- to 3-mile day hikes. However you do it, hiking or backpacking in Hells Canyon is ideal this time of year. Here are three options to enjoy the canyon.

Backpacking in Comfort

Hikers are tiny dots along a trail in massive Hells Canyon. The Snake River Trail is one of the earliest places to go backpacking in Idaho.
Hikers are tiny dots along a trail in massive Hells Canyon. The Snake River Trail is one of the earliest places to go backpacking in Idaho. Pete Zimowsky

Flush toilets while backpacking in seriously rugged wilderness? No kidding.

A backpacking trip to the U.S. Forest Service's Historic Kirkwood Ranch in Hells Canyon offers backpackers a campsite with restrooms (and, yes, flush toilets), tent spots, picnic tables, fire rings, and a water supply. It's pretty cushy backpacking, and the ranch campground is a good jumping off point for day hikes farther up the canyon.

A tour of Kirkwood Ranch with its pioneering history of the canyon is well worth it while resting after the hike in. From the campsite, plan day hikes further up the river or on the two-track trail heading up in elevation from the ranch toward the ridge between the Snake and Salmon rivers.

To get there, head about 150 miles north on Idaho Highway 55 and US 95 to the town of Riggins, where you can pick up last-minute supplies. Continue north on US 95 for 27 miles and take the Deer Creek Road west over Pittsburg Saddle to Pittsburg Landing on the Snake River to the trailhead. A sign on US 95 clearly marks the turnoff.

Snake River Trail No. 102 heads south along the Snake River on the Idaho side of the river from the Upper Pittsburg Landing trailhead. It has moderate ups and downs as it winds through ravines high above the river. There's no need to carry a lot of drinking water in early spring, when the side creeks are running; hikers can filter water as they go.

As hikers approach Kirkwood Ranch, at about 6 miles, they drop about 400 feet to the valley floor near the river where campsites are located.

Weeklong Treks

Hikers can be trekking in shorts in February in Hells Canyon because of the canyon's low elevation.
Hikers can be trekking in shorts in February in Hells Canyon because of the canyon's low elevation. Pete Zimowsky

Hikers who want to venture a greater distance upstream can continue on the trail from Kirkwood Ranch, which goes more than 20 miles upriver before dead-ending just past Sheep Creek Rapids. (There is no trail on the Idaho side of the river from there to Hells Canyon Dam.)

Typical backpack-style camping awaits once you leave Kirkwood Ranch, and it's important to find campsites near water. The trail continues for miles on bluffs overlooking the river, and if the creeks aren't running (they usually are in late winter and early spring), hikers will have to hike up to a mile down to the Snake River for water. Most of the good camping areas are located along the trail above the river, so plan accordingly.

Hikers need to remember that the distance they hike upriver is the distance that they have to return. However, some backpackers coordinate their hikes with jet-boat shuttles. Several outfitters, including [Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association](www.ioga.org), will take or pickup hikers at various points in the canyon to tailor the trek to specific distances.

Explore the Canyon on a Short Hike

Hells Canyon is so expansive, it spans two states.
Hells Canyon is so expansive, it spans two states. BLM Oregon/Washington

One of the easiest ways to experience Hells Canyon is to pack a picnic lunch and hike the Stud Creek Trail on the Oregon side of the Snake River, just below Hells Canyon Dam. The trails starts at the Hells Canyon National Recreation Visitors Center, where mountain goats can be spotted on the Idaho side of the river.

The trail is 2.4 miles round trip. Although it's a beginner's way to see Hells Canyon, keep in mind that the trail is steep, with drop-offs and no railings along the edges. Hang on to your kids and dogs.

To get there, drive I-84 west from Boise to the Hells Canyon exit. Head north on US 95 to Cambridge. From there take Idaho Highway 71 to Brownlee Reservoir. Continue past Brownlee and Oxbow reservoirs to Hells Canyon Reservoir and Hells Canyon Dam.

It’s a 6-mile hike one-way and a good warmup for the backpacking season. Another bonus? While some parts of the country are buried under several feet of snow this time of year, weather in the canyon can be mild, with temperatures reaching into the 60s during the day (though dropping to the high 30s at night).

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