Snake River


Forest Service Trail #102

Why? Great canyon available early and late

Season: Technically, year round. The access road could be interesting in the winter, though it is kept plowed.

Ease: Easy to difficult, depending on the length of the hike. The trail is fairly flat. It’s 6 miles to Kirkwood, about 26 miles along the Idaho side of the Canyon to Granite Creek, where the maintained trail pretty much ends.

There’s no question in my mind that the best way to see Hells Canyon is on foot, and the more you put your feet down, the better your sense of the place. Walking from campsite to campsite over a period of a few days give you a true feel for the size and grandeur of this canyon, something that doesn’t come on boat rides or day hikes. I think the boats move too fast, and even hiking in to Kirkwood from Pittsburg – which I won’t discourage you from doing – doesn’t really do the job. In fact, I think it just whets your appetite for more.

Luckily there’s 26 miles of trail available on the Idaho side, from Granite Creek to Pittsburg Landing. They make a fine early or late season hike, and you don’t have to walk them both ways. You can take a boat in and be dropped off and just hike out down river if that’s all you have time for.

The trail will take you through grassy fields and in and out of draws, some of which are bright green with streams that become cool respites for the hotter months. There are narrow sections cut into basalt cliffs with dropoffs to the river. Suicide Point, about 8 miles from Pittsburg, comes to mind. Ups and downs are mostly gentle over the 26 miles, though every so often there's a steep bit to keep you honest.

What will you see as you hike? You'll see a vast, river-carved canyon, sometimes several miles of it all at once. At its bottom is the Snake River with rapids and eddies.

The sides of the canyon are basalt cliffs or breaks with fields on top where you might spot a few elk. Sometimes the granite below the basalt shows. Or the sides might be steeply sloping open fields, rising hundreds of feet above the river. There are flat grassy areas next to the river like Johnsons Bar and Big Bar and High Bar, some over a mile long. And there are small sandy beaches.

You’ll find groves of hackberry, spaced by nature but looking like abandoned orchards, and occasional Ponderosa pine. In the spring, there are wildflowers.

What I haven’t seen is much wildlife, either in fall and spring. The elk and deer were out of sight on top of the valley. The mountain sheep stayed hidden except during a March trip, and most mountain goats are further up river in the Seven Devils area.

I’ve heard more canyon wrens than I thought existed, more chukar too. I’ve seen bald and golden eagles, and in the fall, rattlesnakes. One spring I watched a pair of Canada Geese unconcernedly ride rapids backwards.

The downside is that even in March, this is not a wilderness hike, nor will it bring much solitude. You’ll meet other hikers, though few past Kirkwood, and the canyon is easily reached by jet boat – as you know if that’s how you got up the river.

Kirkwood Bar is the site of historic Kirkwood Ranch. While no longer a working ranch, it contains several well-preserved and restored buildings. One is a small museum which features artifacts and photographs illustrating the area's history, flora and fauna. Another is a well-outfitted blacksmith shop that looks ready to fire-up. There also are year-round resident hosts to answer questions and chat. And perhaps show you the unusual bathtub in the house, one Grace Jordan talks about in her book, “My Life in Hells Canyon.”
Notes: Expect poison ivy, especially in the wet areas, and rattlesnakes if the weather is right. On the plus side, expect plenty of flat areas for camping or picnicking, no matter how far or from where you hike.
The last six miles of trail that you see noted on the maps, from Granite to Brush Creeks, is difficult to follow and has a portion that is under water when dam releases are high. These miles are not maintained.
If you decide to make a multi-day trip out of it, there are camp spots at roughly 7-mile intervals from Granite. Be sure to camp at least 200 feet from water. In addition to protecting water sources, a camp close to the river could flood following an increased water release from the dam.

Name Note: The Snake River was named for the Snake tribe of the Shoshoni Indians.

Directions: Turn right at the brown sign on Highway 95, south of Whitebird just past Hoot's Cafe. Follow more signs across the Salmon River and to the left after the bridge. Then it's 17 miles up and over Pittsburg Saddle (4,200 feet) on a good single lane gravel road with turnouts.

The trailhead is at the upper landing and is reached by taking a left at the sign before you reach the campground. It's at the end of the road, almost a half mile further than the trailhead parking area.

Information: Hells Canyon NRA Office, Clarkston, (509) 758-0616.

For information on riding a boat into the canyon and then hiking out, call Snake River Adventures at (208) 746-6276

Maps: USGS Squirrel Prairie, Hat Point, Old time Mountain, Temperance Creek, Kirkwood Creek and Grave Point, Idaho (in order from the dam to Pittsburg Landing); Forest Service Hells Canyon National Recreation Area map.

Alternate Way to Hike Hells Canyon: It’s also possible to hike the trail along the Oregon side of the Snake river, from a few miles below the Hell’s Canyon Dam at least to Pittsburg Landing. The Snake side is the more traveled.

Hiking the Oregon side adds a couple of complications to the outing. First, you can’t just drive there – not unless you’re willing to drive to Dug Bar, a long process that would leave you walking a trail I don’t even know exists and in a part of the canyon that’s far downstream from Pittsburg. So, you boat in. And because you’re on the opposite side of the river from Pittsburg, you also have to boat across sometime toward the end of the hike. And there are a couple of fairly interesting stream crossings, Sluice Creek in particular the first year I did the hike.

However, if you can overcome these complications, then you have a fine hike to enjoy and pretty much guaranteed solitude except for river traffic. The trail is less distinct in places, but all in all, it’s in good shape. There are enough camping areas along the way to make for reasonable days with possible side trips up small streams. And there’s one section of trail that’s cut into the rock sort of like a tunnel open on the river side.

It’s a fine hike, well worth working out the details of getting on and off the trail, at the start and end, respectively.

When I did the hike, we used Snake River Adventures to take us up to Saddle Creek. At the end, one of their captains ferried us back across the river at Kirby, leaving about 4 miles to still hike to get to Pittsburg.