To Hell and Back Across North America’s Deepest Canyon
Published February 15, 2013
• 7 min read
42 miles, 18,000 feet of climbing, and a swim across the Snake make North America’s deepest canyon a lofty goal.
The Grand Canyon gets all the attention: it’s dramatic, beautiful … a natural wonder. It’s well deserved. But here in Idaho, we know that Hells Canyon is steeper and deeper, taking home the prize for North America’s deepest canyon. Scratching the itch, I dug a little to find it hasn’t been run before. More so, it hasn’t been done out-and-back. I was game to find out why.
The adjacent rims sit at just over 8,000 feet (Idaho), and at 5,600 feet (Oregon), spanning a void of 10 miles. Sitting inside a National Recreation Area, getting to either rim requires a committing approach: eight miles from the Windy Saddle trailhead in Idaho and another two or so from Hat Point, Oregon.
The “route” itself tumbles down a staggering five ecosystems with a mixed bag of manicured alpine trails, trailless bunchgrass, and scrubby desert canyon scrambles. Point-to-point, Idaho to Oregon will run you 21 miles, 8,000’ of climbing, and a bonus 10,000’ of knee-jarring descent. Out and back, well, you get the picture…its a big ditch!
And then there’s the river. Though dammed, the Snake drains all of the Snake River Plains, drawing from the Owyhees, Jarbidge, Sawtooths, and Tetons. In spring, it can flow upwards of 60,000cfs. Fall, with depleted snow reserves, is much more forgiving at 15,000cfs. But its drought waters still run swift with Class III and IV rapids. Navigating the Snake requires a boat or swim … or if you are lucky, hitching a ride with passing-by jetboat.
Going for the double was fairly ambitious and included an unplanned bivi under the shelter of thunderheads. A more reasonable trip would be for two parties to start simultaneously at either side and make the high-five key-swap at the river. The crux? Hells Canyon is a Roadless Wilderness—a 200-mile drive separates the 10-mile gap.
Deep, hot, and abundant with wildlife (we spotted mountain goats, rattle snakes, elk—enough shed antlers to assemble a lodge chandelier—bear, and a llama), to “Hell and back” was a memorable traverse and well worth the trip. If dramatic elevation is your currency, then this might be your sort of top-down economics.