1 – Limbo. On the Idaho side, getting to the rim requires eight miles of trail time over the well-maintained Seven Devils Loop trail. Looking for something less committing than the out and back? The 26-mile Seven Devils Loop is spectacular and worth a trip in its own right. Photograph by Steve Graepel
42 miles, 18,000 feet of climbing, and a swim across the Snake make North America’s deepest canyon a lofty goal.
The Grand Canyon gets all the attention: it’s dramatic, beautiful … a natural wonder. It’s well deserved. But here in Idaho, we know that Hells Canyon is steeper and deeper, taking home the prize for North America’s deepest canyon. Scratching the itch, I dug a little to find it hasn’t been run before. More so, it hasn’t been done out-and-back. I was game to find out why.
2 – Lust. Ten miles as the crow flies, the route is anything but direct. Rarely visited, the official trail braids into game trails and is obfuscated by washout and overgrowth. Expect aimless navigation through Class II bushwhack after the McGaffe Cow Camp at 5,600 feet. Photograph by Steve Graepel
The adjacent rims sit at just over 8,000 feet (Idaho), and at 5,600 feet (Oregon), spanning a void of 10 miles. Sitting inside a National Recreation Area, getting to either rim requires a committing approach: eight miles from the Windy Saddle trailhead in Idaho and another two or so from Hat Point, Oregon.
3 – Gluttony. One way, traversing from Idaho to Oregon will cost you 21 miles, 8,000 feet of climbing and 10,000 feet of knee-jarring descent. Trekking poles aren’t a bad idea. Photograph by Steve Graepel
The “route” itself tumbles down a staggering five ecosystems with a mixed bag of manicured alpine trails, trailless bunchgrass, and scrubby desert canyon scrambles. Point-to-point, Idaho to Oregon will run you 21 miles, 8,000’ of climbing, and a bonus 10,000’ of knee-jarring descent. Out and back, well, you get the picture…its a big ditch!
4 – Greed. People have tried to eek out a living in the canyon’s basin for over 11,000 years: Ppehistoric, Native Americans, homesteaders and most recently ranchers. In the end, the canyon takes it all back. Photograph by Steve Graepel
And then there’s the river. Though dammed, the Snake drains all of the Snake River Plains, drawing from the Owyhees, Jarbidge, Sawtooths, and Tetons. In spring, it can flow upwards of 60,000cfs. Fall, with depleted snow reserves, is much more forgiving at 15,000cfs. But its drought waters still run swift with Class III and IV rapids. Navigating the Snake requires a boat or swim … or if you are lucky, hitching a ride with passing-by jetboat.
5 – Anger. The Snake River is the watershed for much of southern Idaho, northern Nevada, and the Tetons. Even in fall, it can flow as much as 15,000cfs. If you are lucky, hitch a ride across with a float crew. But be prepared to swim it well above objective hazards. Photograph by Steve Graepel
Going for the double was fairly ambitious and included an unplanned bivi under the shelter of thunderheads. A more reasonable trip would be for two parties to start simultaneously at either side and make the high-five key-swap at the river. The crux? Hells Canyon is a Roadless Wilderness—a 200-mile drive separates the 10-mile gap.
6 – Heresy. The view from Hat Point lookout tower gives bragging rights and dramatic perspective. Most parties will tackle the traverse in three to four days. Going for it in a day required an unorthodox approach…stripping gear to the bare minimum. We walked out with one bar between us. Photograph by Steve Graepel
Deep, hot, and abundant with wildlife (we spotted mountain goats, rattle snakes, elk—enough shed antlers to assemble a lodge chandelier—bear, and a llama), to “Hell and back” was a memorable traverse and well worth the trip. If dramatic elevation is your currency, then this might be your sort of top-down economics.
7 – Violence. Before it went wild in 1975, the region was ranch land. Remnants of its ranching history can still be found on the middle slopes of Hells Canyon and, in this case, posed a tragic end for one member of the nation’s most robust elk populations. Photograph by Steve Graepel
8 – Fraud. Climbing out of the canyon on the Oregon side poses some significant objective hazards, including route finding over trail less rocky terrain and patches prickly pear cactuses. Photograph by Steve Graepel
9 – Treachery. The canyon is home to abundant wildlife. We saw mountain goats, elk, bear, rattlesnake, wild turkey, grouse, hawks, eagles, and a llama …. Photograph by Steve Graepel