Hells Canyon Hikes

Location Map of Hells Canyon Hikes
Straddling the Snake River in Oregon and Idaho, Hells Canyon is simply immense, at more than a mile deep, 10 miles wide and 80 miles long. Beyond its physical size is its dramatic, rugged beauty — dark contorted chasms, massive basalt cliffs and ever-changing light and shadow. Fortunately for hikers, over 650,000 acres of this canyon were set aside as a National Recreation Area in 1975, with a third designated as Wilderness. Astounding, panoramic vistas are a feature of nearly every hike in the canyon. But the price paid for this grandeur is long drives to remote trailheads, plus steep elevation drops for day hikes from the 6,000'-high rim. Gas and supplies can be found in the towns of Joseph and Enterprise.

Surprisingly, Hells Canyon was not created by gradual down-cutting of the Snake River. About 13 million years ago, regional faulting and uplift blocked the river and created a massive lake over southern Idaho. When local stream cutting breached this lake, the waters of the Snake poured out in a mega-flood toward the Columbia River, eroding through 4,000' of layered basalt into the jumbled sedimentary and volcanic rocks below. Though this geology is most prominent, small herds of elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats can also be spotted from miles away with binoculars. At higher elevations, coniferous forests and alpine meadows hold wildflowers into mid-Summer. With the homesteading and mining history of the canyon, it all adds up to a superb hiking destination.

Download (PDF, 800 KB): Location Map of Hells Canyon Hikes
Download (PDF, 831 KB): Photos of the Hells Canyon Area

Because the canyon is so vast, multi-night backpacking and horse trips are a common way to visit. But day hikes are also a good option, as long as one is prepared for the dramatic elevation changes. The old joke is that day hikes from the rim are "three miles down and six miles back!" Descending in the cool of the morning, hikers need to be certain they have the stamina to make the return climb in the heat of the afternoon.

  • Eureka Wagon Trail
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Less-demanding day hikes do exist at lower elevations in the canyon along the Imnaha and Snake Rivers, but here one has to deal with scorching summer heat, poison oak thickets, jet boats and river rafters. We feel the cooler temperatures, better views, wildflowers and solitude of hikes from the high rim justify their increased difficulty.

The easiest of our day hikes is along McGraw Rim, a 3.6-mile (one way)
cross-country ramble on semi-forested game trails with good views. Our three moderate hikes — the Eureka Wagon Trail, Summit Ridge Trail and Temperance Creek Trail — all drop 1,100'-1,700' over 2.5-3.5 miles to spectacular viewpoints below the rim. The most challenging hike is the Buck Creek Loop, descending 1,800' over 3 miles to great viewpoints of the inner gorge, but with faint trails and steep, 20% grades in places.

Eureka Wagon Trail
Temperance Creek Trail
Summit Ridge Trail
Buck Creek Loop Hike
McGraw Rim Hike

Clickable map of Hells Canyon hikes:

Hells Canyon Clickable Map Hells Canyon Clickable Map Hells Canyon Clickable Map Hells Canyon Clickable Map Hells Canyon Clickable Map

Page last updated: 12/10/14