Tucked into the remote northeast corner of Oregon along the Idaho border is a special place; Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area. There are over 650,000 acres of canyons, forests and wild rivers and more; to the east the Wallowa Mountains rise abruptly over the Wallowa Valley to almost 10,000 feet, to the east the Seven Devils Mountains tower 9,000 feet above the wild Snake River to form the deepest gorge in the United States. Combined with the Wallowa Mountains and those in Idaho, and the adjacent forest lands of the Wallowa-Whitman and Nez Perce National Forests, there’s millions of acres of public lands to explore.
This is the land of Chief Joseph who led his people in heroic battles in the waning days of the old wild west; his father’s grave at Wallowa Lake still an active shrine to the Nez Perce People. The canyons are home to bighorn sheep, mountain goats, cougars, bears, elk, eagles and lately, wolves as a few have drifted in from Idaho. The small towns of Enterprise and Joseph in the ranching country of the Wallowa Valley west of the canyons are the last stops where you can buy gasoline and supplies. After that, you’re on your own.
Unlike the bare rock of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Hell’s Canyon is covered in open forest, meadows and grass. But like the Grand Canyon there is a wild, whitewater river running through it and guides can take you through the Class III and IV rapids of the Snake River. Even the tributaries of the Snake, like the Salmon and the Grand Ronde, are wild rivers themselves with their own wilderness trips. I’ve skied into the Wallowa Mountains in the dead of winter to snow camp in sub-zero temperatures, but I like summertime backpacking into the canyons best. And though snow comes early and leaves late in Hell’s Canyon country, summertime is hot.
My partner John and I climbed over Freeze-Out Pass on the canyon rim in a steady, cold rain. We dropped off of the rim and into the upper canyon reaching a fork in the trail. We took the road less travelled and were soon bush-whacking our way down a faint, unmaintained trail towards the Snake River over 2,000 feet below. We followed a small stream flowing alongside the trail and made camp for the night to wait out the rain.
The next morning broke clear and sunny and we continued battling our way down the brushy trail reaching the banks of the Snake River by mid-morning at an abandoned homestead in a meadow. There were old wooden wagon parts and rusty iron equipment lying around, artifacts from bygone days. It was a delightful spot with the warm sun shining over the large flower-filled meadow and a clear, bubbling stream flowing by, so we took a leisurely lunch and nap. Then we hiked a few miles down-river along the river’s edge on a well maintained trail to a fine camping spot in some boulders along the river. We enjoyed an afternoon of sunning on the boulders next to some impressive, roaring rapids in the Snake River.
Next morning it’s time to start the 3,000 foot uphill pull back out of the canyons. Along the way I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and looked to see a coyote about 25 meters away watching us from behind a rock. He followed us for the next ½ mile, keeping his distance, but not hiding either, until he suddenly turned and trotted off into the meadows overlooking the river far below. As evening was falling we entered a vast meadow of scattered pines. There was a large camp of bear hunters with their horses and mules and we soon discovered they were more interested in relaxing in camp and drinking beer than shooting bears. They shared their steaks, cold beer and shrimp salad with us, an unexpected treat from our backpackers’ freeze-dried fare.
Next day we hiked back to the trailhead and drove to the small outpost of Imnaha still deep in canyon country. We arrived at Imnaha around 11 in the morning to find most of the locals well into their beers inside the combination grocery store, bar and post office. We ate a burger with them and continued driving up, up , up and finally out of the canyons to the artsy town of Joseph at the tail of Wallowa Lake. Here we gassed up and began the four hour drive to Richland, Washington with Seattle another 3 ½ hour drive after that.
Getting to Hell’s Canyon is a long, long drive from anywhere but that’s what keeps it so nice – its isolation. To reach it by road, there’s only one reasonable way in and out – through the Wallowa Valley over an hour away from La Grande, Oregon which itself is a long way from anything. But the reward is worth the effort and I always thought Hell’s Canyon was a strange name for so fine a place – should be called Heaven’s Canyon.