Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Overview
|Rafters taking a break on a trip through Hells Canyon, Idaho/Oregon (John Telford/courtesy, Holiday Expeditions)|
From 9,300-foot alpine peaks to desert-like river bottoms almost 8,000 feet below, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area contains an amazing variety of elevation and environment. Hells Canyon itself is the deepest canyon in North America. You can pedal down trails that traverse open, grassy benches and thickly timbered draws; hike along steep, narrow trails that were blasted into sheer rock bluffs; and raft through churning, frothy white water with monolithic mountains rising up on all sides.
These extremes of elevation create diversity in both plant and wildlife communities. Surroundings range from gentle hillsides colored by clarkia with peregrine falcons flying overhead to rocky bluffs from which spring prickly pear cacti, poison ivy, and rattlesnakes. Hells Canyon hosts the largest free-roaming elk herd in the contiguous United States, as well as bighorn sheep, deer, and mountain goats; areas of rugged terrain also offer ideal habitat for the chukar partridge. Within Hells Canyon, you'll find old-growth boreal forests of ponderosa pine, Engelmann spruce, western larch, and Douglas firnot to mention rare plants such as MacFarlane's four-o'clock as well as some of the most extensive intact native grasslands remaining in the region. In fact, there are 24 species of plants at Hells Canyon that are found nowhere else on earth.
Take on the Snake
Where else but deep and devilish Hells Canyon would you find the most turbulent, raucous whitewater of the wild and scenic Snake River? The first 34 miles (Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburg Landing) promise numerous rapids, including the river's two biggest: Wild Sheep (Class IV) and Granite Creek (IV-V). In addition to the world-class whitewater action, a trip down the Snake offers incredible scenery, wildlife, fishing, and side hikes. Float between dark basalt canyon walls created from lava flows some six million years ago. Gaze upward at mountain peaks that rise over a mile above the river—Idaho's Seven Devils flank one side of the canyon, and Oregon's Wallowas stand sentinel on the other. In the spring, look out for Canada geese and merganser ducks, and, regardless of the season, Snake River visitors may encounter marquee wildlife such as bighorn sheep, deer, and eagles.
Ascend to Heaven's Gate
Looking for a view to end all views? At 8,429 feet high, Heaven's Gate marks the very top of the divide between the Snake and Salmon Rivers, the two deepest river gorges in North America. To the south tower the Seven Devils Mountains, where lingering snow contrasts sharply with the dark basalt peaks. To the west the Wallowa Mountains rise above the Oregon rim. To the east the Gospel and Bitterroot Mountains are often visible above the breaks of the Salmon. And on a clear day, you can see forever—or at least as far as four different states. The trail up to Heaven's Gate is just 660 yards, but the elevation alone can leave you short of breath. The route climbs nearly 300 feet as it winds its way to the crest of the mountain through open stands of white-bark pine and subalpine fir.
Ride to Hell and Back
The Western Rim Trail offers mountain bikers (plus hikers, horseback riders, and motorcyclists) 15 miles of singletrack and Jeep trails, all at an elevation of 5,600 to 6,000 feet. Grind up and hammer down three challenging, steep saddles (Indian Grave, 7 Mile, and 9 Mile). Take frequent water breaks and enjoy spectacular views of the Hells Canyon Wilderness and the Snake River Canyon; check out Somers Point for a memorable look down into the canyon at the frothy waters far below. Varying from gradual to steep to gradual again, Windy Ridge Trail rewards mountain bikers with panoramic views and wildlife sightings. Be aware that some side trails off of Windy Ridge's nine miles of singletrack require technical skills to manage very steep ups and downs.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication