Hells Canyon, North America’s Deepest River Gorge

Wild, remote Hells Canyon on the Snake River is the deepest river canyon in North America. Located along the border of eastern Oregon and western Idaho, with spectacular views and rugged terrain, it’s an adventure worth considering while waiting for the snowpack to melt in all the usual places.

Hells Canyon is more than a quarter of a mile deeper than the Grand Canyon, a fact that’s surprising to many. At its highest point, the rim is roughly 8,000 feet above the canyon floor. The river and much of the surrounding terrain are wilderness and national recreation areas.

Freezeout Trailhead provides entrance into the Hells Canyon Recreation Area and Wilderness in the early spring and summer. The road to the trailhead is currently closed to motor vehicles because of repairs, but not to foot traffic. Hikers can park along the Imnaha River, on County Road 727, and walk 4 miles up to the trailhead.

©Diana Vann

The Canyon is a place of climatic extremes. In summer, temperatures often reach 110 F. According to average temperature records, July and August tend to be the hottest months, so a good time to visit is early in the season, when canyon walls are green and wildflowers are plentiful. Regardless of when you choose to visit, you should be prepared for all weather conditions.

Our trip started on the first Saturday in June, and for the first two days Hells Canyon lived up to its name. It was hot and dry. On the third day the temperature fell, and we experienced thunderstorms and periods of heavy rain. By the end of the trip snow was falling at the higher elevations.

The Canyon is home to many species. Some of those our party encountered included eagles, bluebirds, elk, deer and mountain goats. The Canyon is also habitat for black bears, cougars, and bighorn sheep.

Rattlesnakes are abundant, too, and we happened upon several of them. During my earlier visit to a Forest Service office in Joseph, Oregon, a representative had shared her view that the vibration from hiking poles helps to warn snakes of your approach. True or not, that thought comforted me as we started encountering snakes in close proximity to the trail.

 

At this time of year ticks are an issue that you cannot avoid in Hells Canyon. They’re everywhere, both on and off the trails. They cling to the vegetation at the side of the trail, and it’s not possible to pass by without brushing it. They hide in deadfall, so fallen tree stumps, normally a great place to sit for a rest break, can harbor them. During our trip, my companions discovered numerous ticks crawling up their clothes, and one estimated that when she returned to her tent to change her clothes, she found about 25 ticks crawling on her clothes and her body. Another member of our party discovered a number of ticks on his clothes and body, and three of them were partially embedded. My strategy for remaining tick-free (which proved to be successful) was to wear gaiters and short pants, which I covered up with a pair of very inexpensive, throwaway rain pants. A couple of days beforehand I sprayed (saturated) the pants with bug spray that contains 33% DEET, and I hiked in them for the entire trip. I found only one tick that had crawled up my rain pants, and that occurred after the lower pant legs had been shredded by brush and dead tree limbs. The underlying fabric of the rain pants had a texture on which the ticks could easily crawl, and it was not sprayed with DEET. After finding the tick I trimmed off the shredded parts of the pant legs, and had no additional hitchhikers. I observed that in general those who wore pants made of the rougher fabrics collected the most ticks.

©Diana Vann

Poison ivy is present in Hells Canyon, too. Upon the recommendation of a Forest Service employee we carried Tecnu scrub for washing the oils off clothes and hands if necessary. But it wasn’t as thick as we’d been warned it might be, and it was possible to walk around it.

The Western Rim Trail follows the Summit Ridge along the western edge of the Canyon, and a second trail follows a mid-canyon route about halfway between the Snake River and the Summit Ridge. We had planned to hike a loop on these two trails, but we had to do some backtracking because of creeks at flood stage and snow on the Summit Ridge. Though we planned to stay on the established trails, we had to do a fair amount of bushwhacking because of a large number of downed trees.

Many streams flow across the trails early in the season. It is possible to cross some of them without getting your feet wet. But you might consider wearing well-draining trail shoes or think about bringing spare shoes to change into for crossings. The more mellow creeks are easy to cross, but some of the larger streams were at flood stage when we were there. Eventually we encountered a stream that we decided was too dangerous to cross. At that point we returned to an established campsite at the junction of three trails we’d passed earlier and set up a base camp.

©Diana Vann

From there we made day trips down to the Snake River and up toward Hat Point Lookout. On the trail up to Hat Point, in places we had to work our way around snow fields. Because of the snowpack, we were not able to make it all the way to the lookout tower, but we got within about 500 feet of it.

©Diana Vann

As the snow melt progresses, it may be possible to reach the Hat Point Lookout tower. But whether or not you can make it all the way to the top, the views up there are nothing short of spectacular.

Helpful links:
NASA Satellite Image
US FS Freezeout Trailhead

 

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About the author

Diana loves the wilderness. She started exploring wilderness areas with her father at a young age, and has continued throughout her lifetime. Between backpacking trips and kayaking expeditions, she spends a large percentage of her time in the backcountry. She has hiked and/or paddled in diverse settings throughout the U.S., such as Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Wind River Range, Yosemite, the Emigrant Wilderness, Denali, the Kenai Fjords, Glacier Bay, Wrangell-St Elias, and in many other locations around the globe, including Baja, Scotland, Peru and Canada. High on her list of places left to explore are New Zealand and Costa Rica.

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