Sunday, March 23, 2014

Backpacking Hells Canyon: Tragedy and Beauty

How can I describe the perfection that is the Snake River Trail on the Idaho side? It winds like an unfurling ribbon along the cliffs and sandy bars lining the river, framed by long grass and mountain mahogany and (just a tiny bit of) poison ivy. It trundles through the permanent creeks and passes by sweet little rock cabins and old plowing implements and pictographs. Love.

Hiker left, Idaho. Hiker right, Oregon.
We hiked in on a Friday afternoon, covering only six easy miles to the campsite at Kirkwood Ranch. There are picnic tables and flush toilets (!) and a lovely old historic ranch house where caretakers live for a month at a time (when I retire, I am totally doing this). There's another mysterious old house about a mile up the gulch which we wandered around looking at, and a museum full of the bits and pieces of people's lives. Starting with the Nez Perce, people have lived in this canyon for hundreds of years. 

The "Carter Mansion"--so named by other canyon dwellers because of its cement foundation and fancy windows and woodwork. Once home to a moonshiner.

Love this little rock cabin! I want to move in.

I  loved that one of the adventure racers turned and came back to show another runner one of the pictographs we had showed her. That's my kind of adventure racer!

The next day we arose without a plan, which turned out to be a good thing. Our vaguely stated goal was to hike upriver as far as we could before turning around. What we didn't know is that an unsanctioned "adventure run" was taking place as well, so we had to annoyingly step aside multiple times for runners. In defense of them, they were all very nice, but if the event folks had followed the proper channels and advertised the run, we could have avoided being on the same very narrow trail with big drop-offs at the same time. That being said, this would be an incredible trail to run. You could get dropped off via jet boat 27 miles up at the trail's end and run back. If I liked to run long distances as much as I liked to hike, I would totally do it. (I'd do a shorter run though. Maybe. But it's hard not to stop with a tent and stay awhile).

My Skyscape X held up great in the wind! There's rain in the forecast and I can't wait to set it up in the yard and test it out. This is Kirkwood. Note the picnic table. Yet you can only reach this spot with a boat or on foot.

On our hike we learned that a tragedy had occurred the night before. A jet boat had sunk in a rapids upriver and one person was unaccounted for. We helped with the search, scanning the shore and hoping to see someone waving us down. Unfortunately that didn't happen. The river will give him up when it wants to.

The Chinook looking for survivors.

Boats were up and down the river. The rapids aren't something to mess with.
We went as far as Pine Bar, a magical place seven miles from Kirkwood, and reluctantly turned back for another night next to the riverbank. It's always good to leave wanting more, and we hiked out Sunday already plotting our next adventure. 

View from Suicide Point. We felt pretty happy, so didn't jump.

Risk and reward, so closely entwined.


  1. Such a good look at the Snake River, pathway and the remnants of people who lived and worked here years ago (including my great uncle and his family). It felt as if we were along on your explorations. Wonderful photos.

  2. What a beautiful place! I need to get up in the NE corner of Oregon/Idaho and do some exploring.

  3. Awesome Mary,
    I can't wait to get back into the wilderness!!!

  4. My bucket list is growing! THANKS for sharing :)


Hello out there. If you liked this post, please leave a comment so I keep writing!