Hells Canyon: Hiking, Backpacking, Camping and Sight-seeing

Written by guest blogger Steve Stuebner.

It’s been a long winter. A lot of people have cabin fever. We’re all eager to get outside and enjoy some spring activities. The only problem is, the weather doesn’t want to dry out. We’re lucky to get even two days of nice weather in a row in SW Idaho and then it rains again.

People in Seattle would probably say “get over it!” Put on your rain gear and go.

Well, another possibility is to go hiking, backpacking and camping in Hells Canyon. A friend of mine, Denise Lauerman, and two of her friends backpacked 6 miles from Lower Pittsburg Landing to the Kirkwood Historic Ranch recently, and came home with lots of great photos. Many thanks to Denise and her friends, Teri Stiburek and Peggy Jordan, for sharing their pix.

“It was a great trip — I can’t wait to go back,” Denise said.

Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America at over 7,000 feet, stradles the Idaho-Oregon border for more than100 miles. The mighty Snake River flows through the heart of Hells Canyon and continues on to Lewiston. Hells Canyon is usually the warmest spot in Idaho, and it’s also drier than many areas, so it’s a good bet for a spring trip. Ditto in the fall. In the middle of the summer, it gets sizzling hot; hence, the name.

I’ve written about floating through Hells Canyon, certainly the cushiest way to visit the area, but not everyone has all of the whitewater gear. So hiking, backpacking and camping are universal activities that anyone can enjoy there.

The trip starts with a 4.5-hour drive from Boise to Pittsburg Landing, the trailhead, via ID 55 to New Meadows, U.S. 95 to Whitebird, and then a well-maintained gravel road from Whitebird over Pittsburg Saddle to the trailhead at Lower Pittsburg Landing. Signs will guide you the whole way from Whitebird. Four-wheel-drive is not required to get there.

It’s 6 miles from the trailhead to Kirkwood Ranch. Denise and her friends drove in on a Friday, backpacked to Kirkwood in the afternoon (allow 2.5-3 hours travel time) and base-camped on the grass next to the Kirkwood Museum, where former Idaho Governor Len B. Jordan and his wife, Grace, ran a sheep ranch in the 1930s.

The museum is definitely worth visiting. Behind the ranch, there is a two-track gravel road that climbs Kirkwood Creek for more than 3,000 feet to a high saddle. This is a great side-hiking opportunity that Denise and her friends climbed on Day 2, seeing all kinds of cool wildlife and landscapes along the way.

On Day 3, they side-hiked to Suicide Point along the Snake River, came back to Kirkwood, strapped on their backpacks, and hiked out. Suicide Point provides great views of the river canyon.

The cool thing about Hells Canyon is that it has many sloping ridge lines that climb up to the mountains above. I have
side-hiked many of them over the years, sometimes chasing chukars. The big benefit is that you get to see how the landscape changes in Hells Canyon — from the dry environment with cactus, poison ivy, rattlesnakes and hackberry trees down by the river to much wetter environments higher up, eventually giving way to a forest environment, rocky peaks and high mountain lakes.

I don’t mean to scare people but you should watch out for snakes, depending on how hot it is when you go. I’ve almost stepped on rattlers bird hunting along the river in the late fall, so they do hang out in the rocky talus slopes and basalt rocks.

One of the highlights of Denise’s trip was that they had a bobcat in camp. “On the second night, it was outside our tent. Some other people heard it and saw it.” The caretaker at Kirkwood Ranch saw the critter, and another party camping there had a dog, so it knew something was up. Guess Denise and her friends were tired enough from their hiking activity that they slept well.

To see Denise’s full reel of photos on Facebook, here’s the link.

For more information, go to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area web site. You can purchase maps at the Hells Canyon NRA office in Riggins.


– SS

Steve shares his weekly outdoor tips with Ken and Tim on 94.9 FM The River each Friday morning at approximately 7:10 a.m. If you miss the program, you can hear the segments on River Interactive.com.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1053629801 Karen Jensen Fitch Ballard

    Nice article, thanks Steve

  • http://www.hillwalkscotland.com/ Tom Smith

     Nice post, Hiking is such an adventurous sport. A
    good hiking backpack is one of the important things, which you must have at the
    time of hiking. It is necessary that at the time of hiking you will carry fewer luggage.