I’d stopped at the Hells Canyon Visitor Center in Riggins a few days previous but found information seriously lacking regarding the Snake River Trail. Thus while at my friend’s house in Boise, I took time to plan this trip as well as the next leg of my travels.
I’ll admit I resisted and wasn’t all that excited about hiking Hells Canyon. While in northeastern Oregon last fall, I visited a couple of the overlooks and it appeared like boring brown hills bordering a meandering greenish grayish river. As I researched, I felt even less inclined.
This is from the USFS web site:
Advisory: Most of the trails Hells Canyon are in rattlesnake and poison ivy country! Water on the trail is scarce and unsafe to drink if not previously treated.
Difficulty level: Many sections of the trail are ‘more difficult’ due to short steep sections, uneven rocky surface and narrow sections against rock outcrops.
Ticks are another known issue so I treated my clothes and gear with Permethrin using Section Hiker’s Soak Method. Tip: if you use this method, I recommend a good rinse before first wear to prevent sweat or rain induced skin contact, or contamination of wilderness water sources.
However, several respected friends kept telling me how much they loved the area. I enjoyed my Rogue River hike, and figured the Snake River Trail might be similar. Since I was in dire need of a long hike and timing was right, I knew I’d regret passing up the opportunity. So decision made, I pulled together the resources and supplies I’d need, and with no permits required, I had flexibility as to start date and time. Not knowing how long my intended 56-60 mile trip would take, at my anticipated leisurely pace, I packed 5 days of food.
At first glance, you think it’s a monochromatic pallet. This is why when I took a peek last fall and saw the landscape covered in dry grasses I wasn’t all that interested in exploring further. At least now it’s tinged green. For reference, Idaho is on the left side, Oregon is on the right, and the Snake River separates the two.
The trail was rarely flat. There were lots of elevation changes with a few visits all the way down to the river otherwise plenty of skirting around and over topographical obstacles. This is the profile for the first 10 miles to give you an idea of the not-so-flat terrain.
Kirkwood Ranch, pictured below and at about the 6-mile mark on the profile graph, is a place where boaters and hikers share the beach and compound, including flush toilets, a fresh water creek, lush grass and picnic tables.
A highlight of my trip was meeting the volunteer caretaker of Kirkwood Ranch. She not only maintains the grounds, the restrooms and house, but also is the museum docent and ranch welcome committee. Her first stent was last July and August, during which she turned 80. Yes, that’s right, 80 years young! She’s back . . . this year for May and June. What an inspiration. During our conversation I found out she and her husband had a cattle ranch not far from my home base. What a coincidence and truly special encounter. Dare I mention there are not roads, so she’s here 24 x 7 for those two months. The only resupply is via the ranger, mail boat or through a little trail magic via jet boaters and rafters.
The museum at Kirkwood Ranch is quite large and well stocked. It appeared to be in great condition but the caretaker informed me that major foundation repair is scheduled. The park expects her to pack the contents. Seriously? Like she doesn’t have enough to do, not that she was complaining.
When I stopped in at the Hells Canyon NRA Visitor Center in Riggins to gather resources and inquire about conditions etc., a staff member told me I might get my feet wet if the releases from the Hells Canyon Dam were too high. When I asked what too high meant, she said about 60 or 65,000 cubic feet per second. I checked with Idaho Power online before leaving and also found a flow monitor at the Pittsburg Landing Boat Launch. The photo below shows trail proximity to the Snake River. I didn’t think much about it as I crossed this spot.
The views from Suicide Point were probably my favorite. YES, I think I found GREEN spring! It’s hard to believe rain was expected. I overheated quickly and was thankful for my sunbrella by 9:30am. All creeks were running and I took the opportunity regularly to wet my shirt and head.
Temperance Creek Ranch is a private holding on the Oregon side. The adjacent Idaho side hosts an unmaintained landing strip, which is I’m sure quite convenient for ranch access. It’s a bit hard to imagine living without road access, especially in what you would think would be inhospitable climates. My guidebook indicated this flat is an excellent place to see large herds of elk in the mornings.
It started raining just as I finished packing, sans the tent. It rained hard for an hour or so. Since I wasn’t in a hurry I relaxed, read and waited out the rain. The rain took a break around 8am and I quickly finished packing and got on trail. This is the view from my campsite. It sprinkled until about 10am.
According to the USFS web site, “The yellow-stained rocks mark a mineralized zone along a fault called a ‘gossan’. Deeply weathered parts of the gossan form alurn deposits.”
This is the Sand Creek Game Warden Cabin on the Oregon side. According to the USFS web site, it’s an “Administrative cabin used by Idaho and Oregon Fish and Wildlife agencies and Oregon State Police.”
Look across the river at the slice in the rock. That’s the trail on the Oregon side. It was by far the most interesting feature I’d seen. Observing the trail for so many miles I couldn’t help but be curious and wonder about condition and whether it’s maintained and used to the same degree. I might just need to add to my spring 2018 hike list. It’s Snake River Trail #1726. Per the USFS web page, “During the winter of 1947-48, a Forest Service crew cut through the rock overhang above the river, creating the stretch of trail known as the ‘Eagle’s Nest‘ because there was once an eagle’s nest above the trail.”
Sheep Creek Ranch is another historic park holding managed by a caretaker. The one in attendance during my trip was doing an exceptional job with landscape and maintenance chores but lacked in the social department. He avoided me during both visits. According USFS web page, Sheep Creek was “Homesteaded in 1884 by William McLeod, a Scotsman and Civil War veteran. After his death, the county sold the place to Fred and Billy McGaffee, who traded it to Lenora Barton for her place on the Imnaha River in 1 935. Sold to Bud Wilson in 1952, then to the Forest Service in the 1970s.”
The bear grass was just beginning to bloom. The tall thick grasses made for not only wet feet hiking after the rains but also required attention to avoid hidden obstacles especially rattlers. You can also see why ticks have made this their home. Thankfully after treating my clothes and gear, I was free of those invaders.
I couldn’t find any history about Johnson Bar, but there was evidence of old rock foundations nearby and according USFS web page, “a Mr. Johnson bought Temperance Creek Ranch in the 1930’s and it was in his family until the 70’s.”
Besides snakes, the canyon is known for poison ivy. I’m not sensitive to poison oak and was a little concerned about it’s cousin. Thankfully it seems I’m lucky in that regard also . . . at least for now as I’ve heard you can lose that immunity. If you don’t know the saying, you best learn it. “Leaves of 3, Let it be.”
Bridges make me happy, especially when snow melt is causing them to run fast and full such as this one over Bernard Creek.
My guidebook says, “and soon come to the nicely restored McGaffee Cabin. The upstairs loft and the porch are good spots to lay out your sleeping bag for the night.” I borrowed the book from a friend and am left to wonder about copyright date.
Camp my second night was south of McGaffee Cabin where I watched a couple of mountain goats on a nearby peak grazing. A few things I learned (1) the river has an unpleasant odor so avoid camping in too close of proximity; (2) I wouldn’t want to take a dip in the river nor use for drinking water; (3) if you’re noise sensitive, don’t camp near rapids; (4) the canyon walls provide shade during both sunrise and sunset; and, (5) be prepared for rain and wind.
I met a group of four who’d been dropped off by the boat I’d seen earlier. They’d just crossed this creek and said it’s about knee height. If I hadn’t met them, I’d have turned around. My guidebook said, “splash through Three Creek.”
And then I arrived at the end of road. The group I’d crossed paths with earlier told me their boat driver said the trail near Granite Creek was under water about neck deep. Well it seems I found the spot, just south of Granite Creek Rapids. Neck deep is a little more than getting my feet wet as implied by staff at the Hells Canyon Visitor Center.
I checked the stats when I returned from my trip. I’d been told be aware of crossings when releases were above 60-65,000 cubic feet per inch. Well that needs to be revised to something closer to 40 or 45,000 if you want to hike south of Bernard Creek. I was there on May 6th when flows were at 50,000, at least 4′ too high for my comfort.
Had I known about this dead end, I wouldn’t have crossed Three Creek. Twice in one day was pushing my luck.
On my return trip, I found a few panels of pictographs. According to Wikipedia, “The earliest known settlers in Hells Canyon were the Nez Percé tribe. Others tribes visiting the area were the Shoshone-Bannock, northern Paiute and Cayuse Indians. The mild winters, and ample plant and wildlife attracted human habitation. Pictographs and petroglyphs on the walls of the canyon are a record of the Indian settlements.”
These Chukar partridges were the most plentiful living creature on the trail. I think they need to be called the Heart Attack bird. Hidden from view, they waited til the last minute to take flight. My heart jumped several times. This was the rare time one stuck around long enough for me to photograph. Birds in general were plentiful along the trail. I loved waking to their songs and listening to their chorus of sounds as I walked the trail.
My fourth and final night was back on Little Flat near where I’d stayed my first night. On this trip I experienced quite a range of temperatures. The first day was full sun and hot for me, but probably only in low to mid 80’s. By 7pm it had dropped to 65, and the overnight low was 52. With cloudy skies and intermittent showers the second day, it was a bit cooler but overnight it only dropped to 55. On my 3rd night the temperature was 57 by 5pm and held steady only falling to 52 overnight. The overnight low on my fourth night was 36. At 8pm the temperature was 46. While a little chilly to sit around in, it sure made for more comfortable sleeping but resulted in heavy dew from the recent rains. In fact I’d made an amateur move by sleeping without my rain tarp, which meant awaking to a very damp sleeping bag.
So the question remains, was it more heavenly than hellish? I think you know my answer.
And now I can say I’ve been to hell and back 🙂
Date(s) Hiked: May 4-8, 2017
Spring 2017 Road Trip: Days 67-71 (out of 78)
- If you don’t want an out and back hike, you can hire a boat to take you upstream from Lewiston or downstream from Hells Canyon Dam. I met a group of 4 who’d been dropped off and were hiking toward Pittsburg Landing. Another option is to hike upstream and float downstream with a whitewater rafting transporter.
- Dispersed and Campground camping is available at Pittsburg Landing. There are also a few dispersed sites on the road to Pittsburg Landing.
- USFS – Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
- USFS – Hells Canyon NRA, Idaho
- USFS – Snake River National Recreation Trail #102