There is a hidden treasure here in Oregon that I believe needs to be shared with hiking enthusiasts such as myself, and that is the Hells Canyon wilderness in Easter Oregon. Hells Canyon boasts activities such as hiking, camping and for the extremists out there, whitewater rafting on the Snake River (which runs along the bottom of the canyon). If you have the time, gear and a vehicle, my suggestion is to pack up and make you’re way out to this remote and beautiful countryside.
A good friend and I spent two nights in mid July hiking this massive landscape. The late snow this year, coupled with cooler weather in the Northwest offered wonderful conditions for a visit. Under normal circumstances, May through early June is probably the best time to visit. Water can be hard to find later in the summer season, and temperatures can be very hot in the sun exposed environment.
If you want to experience the wilderness in its entirety, you will need to hike all the way to the bottom where the Snake River flows. In the process you will experience over 5,600 feet of altitude loss. The views, vegetation, and climate will change during your trip. Normal hiking or backpacking gear applies. However, there are a few items I strongly recommend that you may not always pack.
Due to the limited water, and the potential for very hot weather, a high capacity water filter, and extra water storage containers are highly advised. I use the MSR gravity filter with a 6 Liter platypus bag at the bottom. The nice thing about this filter is that you can carry up to four extra liters of unfiltered water in the top loading bag. Then filter it later when you need it. I also prefer the gravity system over pumping because it can sometimes be awkward with a pump finding the right spot to sit, perfect place to position the hose, and tiresome to pump for other hikers in the group. Additionally, on more than one occasion, I’ve had to pump water in mosquito infested areas, which is miserable. The gravity filter is great. Just fill the top loading bag, take it to a nice place to rest then let gravity filter it for you. The speed, comfort, and ease of this system if far superior to the hand pumps. Just remember to back flush frequently to avoid clogging the filter.
The only other piece of gear I felt was essential and unique for this environment was a durable, lightweight pant. The trails are not maintained very well, and the desert plants are abrasive. Additionally, the grass fields can feel scratchy and leave barbs, seeds, and debris on your skin. As you near the bottom, you will also find large quantities of poison oak. Pants will help alleviate these obstacles. The best pant for the job is a good soft shell pant which is thick enough to protect, soft enough to remain comfortable, and breathable enough to help cool.
If you haven’t been to Hells Canyon yet, consider visiting next year. The varied terrain, wildflowers, solitude, and scale will entice you to return. Find a fun driving route and make it part of a road trip. The name Hells Canyon correctly implies that this is a very harsh landscape. However, if you time your trip correctly, you will find perhaps Heaven’s Canyon would suffice as well.
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