Hell's Canyon Trail
Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area, Idaho




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Length: 12.5 miles
full length: 31 miles
Climb: 440 feet
Trail Uses: Hiking


Description: Hell's Canyon is North America's deepest river gorge. Located along the Snake River between Idaho and Oregon, the gorge and its environs became a National Recreation Area in 1975. For 71 miles the Snake meanders through the 652,488 acre park.

At it's deepest point, the gorge plunges from high atop He Devil Mountain at 9,393 feet to river level some 7,800 feet below and six miles away. The government designates the Snake as a "wild" river through 36 miles of the park, and a "scenic" river through the rest. Much of the river and surrounding rugged wilderness remain untouched.

With nearly 1,000 miles of trails, finding a hike in the recreation area is easy. The Hell's Canyon Trail, one of the more popular trails, follows the river on the Idaho-side for 31 miles from Pittsburg Landing south toward Hell's Canyon Dam. Along the path views of the gorge and river are extraordinary.

The trail can be hiked in many ways. We treat it here as a 12.5 mile day trip to and from Kirkwood Ranch. However, camping is available at Kirkwood Ranch, and it can be used by overnight hikers as a base for other day hikes.

Hell's Canyon Trail continues past Kirkwood Ranch for another 25 miles until it dead ends where an impassible face meets the river. Hikers looking for a long trip may want to consider this 62 mile marathon hike, or a one-way trip can be achieved by placing a car on either end and hitching a ride with a boater from Hell's Canyon Dam to the trail terminus (a ride of about four miles).

The hike starts near Pittsburg Landing, one of the few places where cars can drive down to river level within the gorge. As a result, it's a popular put-in for boaters. A 23 site campground is located at Pittsburg Landing, and makes a great place to stay either before or after the hike. The campground is located on a bluff just above the river with high peaks rising on all sides.

Pittsburg Landing is the site of an old Native American settlement. Remnants of the civilization can be seen on the road that goes from Pittsburg Landing to Lower Pittsburg Landing, where the trailhead is located. A short trail wanders through the rocks that have pictographs and petroglyphs on them.

The trial begins at the end of the road to Lower Pittsburg Landing. Several small parking areas are located toward the end of the road. The trail follows the Snake and is easily found from the end of the last parking area.

As you might expect Hell's Canyon is hot, especially in the summer. Besides being aware of the heat and packing sufficient water, be cautious along the trail as it is lined in many places with poison ivy, and rattle snakes are found throughout the area.

The trail follows the course of the Snake usually remaining within sight of the river. It is fairly narrow, and goes up and down in elevation, but never becomes extraordinary steep (until just before Kirkwood Ranch), nor are the climbs long. The trail spends much of its time about 200-300 feet above river level, and then rises to a little more than 400 feet above the river before descending onto Kirkwood Bar where Kirkwood Ranch is located.

Kirkwood Ranch is located on a narrow flat bank along the river. The bar of land was farmed and/or ranched from the mid-1800's until 1974 when the government created the recreation area. A museum, various buildings, and a large collection of historical farming equipment are on display. Full-time hosts working two month shifts live at the site and provide answers for any questions that you may have.

Camp sites are available at Kirkwood Ranch. If you opt to spend the night, there are many hikes that can be started from the area. The camp hosts are an excellent source for this information. Although both Kirkwood Creek and the Snake River flow past the camping area, there is no clean water supply at the camping area. Bring enough water for the duration of your stay, or be prepared to purify what you'll need.

The return trip follows the same path taken in. The initial climb out of the Kirkwood Ranch area is the longest and steepest climb of the trek. The sun shines on the trail in the afternoon and evening, so plan on higher temperatures and direct sunlight on the way out.

Location: The trailhead at Lower Pittsburg Landing is reached off of US Highway 95. Near the town of Whitebird, turn west off the highway at the sign to Hammer Creek Recreation Area and Pittsburg Landing. Continuing following the signs to Pittsburg Landing. It's about 17 miles and the road is unpaved and steep.

After crossing the ridge and descending into the Snake River Valley the road becomes paved and splits. To reach the campground and boat launch proceed straight. Turn left and follow the road to its end to reach the Hell's Canyon Trail trailhead.

Trail guide by mile marker:
0.0 From the parking lot at the end of the road proceed on to the dirt path that parallels the river.
6.0 After a steep decent the trail passes through a gate into an open field. Camping and picnic tables are available along the river. Continue through the field to reach Kirkwood Ranch. Rest rooms are available in the area.
6.2 Just beyond the bridge over Kirkwood creek is the Kirkwood Ranch Museum. The camp hosts live in the white house behind the museum. Be sure to ask them any question that you may have about the ranch.
6.3 After proceeding past the farm implements display, bear to the right across the lower Kirkwood Creek bridge. Follow the path along the Snake River and back into the field and towards the trail where you entered.
6.5 Begin the ascent on Hell's Canyon Trail.
12.5 Arrive back at the parking lot where the hike started.