The dawning of the spring season in Idaho's rugged Hells Canyon country is a glorious time, perfectly suited to escaping to warmer weather while the rest of the state is still predominantly encased in winter's icy grip.
For a number of years I've kicked off each year's hiking season with a ritual March or April excursion into the depths of Hells Canyon. Springtime hiking in the 8,000-feet deep chasm—North America's deepest river gorge—is an excellent way to unwind from winter, get those hiking legs moving and delight in the year's first greenery.
While much of the high Hells Canyon country remains snowbound in spring, the lower, more desert-like river corridor often feels like early summer, temperatures often reach 70 degrees. Such weather means you won't be alone in the lower depths of Hells Canyon in the spring. Everywhere you look wildlife abounds: various species of waterfowl root around on the banks of the Snake River, mule deer and elk graze the nearby hillsides and bighorn sheep clamber around on steep rimrock faces.
So, just as I have so many springs before, I left town this past weekend (along with my wife Elizabeth and dog Bailey) for an overnight backpacking trip up the Snake River Trail into the 213,993-acre Hells Canyon Wilderness.
From our start at the trailhead at Pittsburg Landing (elevation 1,210 feet) on Saturday, Elizabeth, Bailey and I headed upstream and south into the heart of Hells Canyon. Our desired destination for that night was Pine Bar, upriver 13 miles along the winding, narrow and sometimes near-vertical Snake River Trail. Pine Bar is, as the name suggests, covered in a large grove of ponderosa pine trees beneath a towering multicolored cliff face.
As it turned out, Saturday brought with it a rainstorm of tremendous ferocity late in the day. Just a few miles short of Pine Bar we took refuge in an old abandoned dugout in a nearby hill hoping the rains would subside. They didn't, and we eventually headed back out into the storm and made our way to camp. Fortunately, the weather on Sunday was much nicer as we hiked the 13 miles back to the trailhead at Pittsburg Landing. The local wildlife must have appreciated the weather, too, as we saw far more critters out and about.
While its stunning wilderness qualities are themselves reasons enough to visit the area, Hells Canyon's lengthy and varied history worthy of note. From the earliest known Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, Northern Paiute and Cayuse peoples to the explorers, hard rock miners and homesteading families that have lived in its depths, Hells Canyon has long been the scene of a remarkable human drama.
The evidence of this drama is displayed in a myriad of ways. Beautiful pictographs and petroglyphs grace hidden rock walls, mining debris lies scattered in insolated locations throughout the canyon and abandoned homestead cabins reside as if in wait for their inhabitants to return home.
Along the way to Pine Bar hikers pass several of Hells Canyon's historic homestead sites on both the Oregon and Idaho sides of the river, including the historic Kirkwood Ranch. Perhaps the most significant of all of Hells Canyon's numerous homestead sites, the Kirkwood Ranch is now open to the public as an interpretive historic site maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. Of particular interest at Kirkwood is the Sterling Cabin, now maintained as a small visitor's center with displays of historic Hells Canyon artifacts and photographs reflecting the history of the area. Located just five miles from the trailhead at Pittsburg Landing, the Kirkwood Ranch is within the reach of most able-bodied dayhikers.
Unique history, exquisite wilderness and an abundance of wildlife, these are just some of the many reasons people visit Idaho's Hells Canyon country.
Early season hiking in Hells Canyon
The route to Pittsburg Landing is the only road maintained on a year-round basis that reaches the Snake River on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon. The trailhead at Pittsburg Landing can be reached by driving approximately 20 miles southeast of White Bird, Idaho, on the Deer Creek Road, a year-round well-maintained dirt road that crosses over Pittsburg Saddle on its way to the Snake River and Pittsburg Landing.
Additional information on visiting Hells Canyon can be found by calling the Hells Canyon Recreation Area's Idaho office in Riggins at (208) 628-3916, or going to their Web site at www.fs.fed.us/hellscanyon/.