I heard hooves knocking steel against stone before I saw the mules, and the man leading them up the steep side canyon. I stepped off-trail to let them pass. The man paused to chat while his dog ran ahead.
“Out for the day?” he asked, glancing at my 25 liter pack.
It was mid-afternoon and I was tired. But I felt a surge of energy (and a little pride), hearing that classic question. A couple years ago, I would have made the same assumption.
“Overnight,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Camped at Bernard Creek last night.”
He nodded. “That’s some good miles.”
“The last few have been a more work than fun,” I admitted.
He grinned. “Well, you got it licked now. Come on, ponies.”
He led the mules past, and I continued down the trail. I did have it licked, I thought, at least for this trip. Forty-five miles in two days. Total pack weight under fifteen pounds, base weight below ten. It felt pretty good.
The Snake River National Recreation Trial 102 runs through Hells Canyon on the river’s Idaho side, from the trailhead at Pittsburg Landing, to Butler Bar 30 miles upstream. By mid-summer the canyon walls are baked brown and temperatures along the Snake climb past 100 degrees. Rafters and jet boats packed with daytrippers make for a busy river corridor, and stiff competition for campsites.
But spring in the canyon is cool and green. Going mid-week April 19 and 20, I had beautiful hiking weather, enjoyed the majestic sight of a big river in full flood, and was able to explore the remains of homesteads and prehistoric settlements in almost complete solitude. I only had two days for the trip, which was intended partly to gather a few last pictures for my thesis monograph, and partly to scout for a rim-to-rim hike I’m planning this summer. Mostly, it was a brief head-clearing break from three years working on a masters degree in architecture.
Here’s a few snapshots from the hike (descriptions below each image):
The road into the canyon. Up high, there was light snow from the night before, but down along the river it was bare and dry. Daytime temperatures in the 50s, partly cloudy, with overnight lows around 35. I was trying my GoLite 1+ season quilt for the first time, and slept comfortably in hiking pants and long sleeve merino top, plus merino bottoms and fleece pullover.
Near the Pittsburg Landing trailhead. No rapids here, but the river is moving fast. Note the tops of hackberry bushes, just above water. Discharge the two days I was hiking was almost 62,000 cfs.
View from Suicide Point, a cliff about 8 miles in and 300 feet above the Snake. For most of its length, the river trail is level or gently rolling, but the section through here is steep and rugged.
McGaffee Cabin near Bernard Creek, a little more than 22 miles from the trailhead. My turnaround point. The cabin was built in 1905 and restored in the 1990s. A plaque in front indicates it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cabin interior. I camped in the meadow a couple hundred yards away.
Prehistoric rockshelter near McGaffee Cabin. By the 1970s, illegal relic collecting had destroyed most of the site’s upper layers. Still, an archeological dig in 1976 was able to find evidence for settlement dating back seven or eight thousand years.
The remains of an ancient meal. This bone fragment has been cracked and cleanly split to extract marrow, and was likely churned up at some point when the site was disturbed. It’s been cleaned and placed on a rock inside the shelter—maybe by some previous hiker? Similar artifacts are displayed at the Kirkwood Ranch museum, located along the trail about 6 miles from the trailhead.
Flannel mullein. This hike was a chance for me to try several new techniques. It was my first trip below 10# base weight, my first solo overnight, and my first hike with consecutive days over 20 miles. Inspired by Mike C!, I also used leaves from this aptly-named plant for another first. The verdict: much softer than anything store bought.
The canyon in bloom. Upland larkspur (I think) on left; prickly pear on right.
More flowers. This might be Bartonberry on the left, which would be very cool, as it is a threatened species and native to only a few spots in the canyon. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a guidebook with me, and didn’t get any good pictures of the whole shrub or leaves. Not sure of the flower on the right: I’m new to this botany stuff.
Thanks for reading. Looking forward to any feedback.