I finished making a sleeping quilt for my youngest daughter Miriam the other week, and a trip to try it out seemed in order. She negotiated a day off from school, promising her fifth grade teacher a presentation on the trip when she returned. We spent a day or two wrangling gear and food, and 10:30 Friday morning found us at the trailhead, ready for three days hiking in the Hells Canyon Wilderness.
Spring hiking can be challenging in our part of the country, at least in the upper elevations, but conditions are often ideal down along the Snake River in Hells Canyon. Daytime temperatures are moderate, the canyon walls are green and studded with wild flowers, and views up to the snow-capped canyon rims are breathtaking.
Although my family and I go on frequent day hikes, it’s been a few years since Miriam’s last backpacking trip. She’s always been a pretty solid hiker, happily covering miles and terrain that would be challenging for some adults. She seems to take real pleasure in hiking and being outdoors. Still, I hadn’t made any big plans for this trip—I figured we’d walk until she wanted to stop, and see what there was to see along the way. On the three hour drive to the trailhead, I did mention there were pictographs, an old cabin and an ancient rockshelter pretty close to the far end of the trail, but that getting there and back would be quite a hike.
We’d packed light—Miriam’s starting pack weight was a little less that 10 pounds, and mine weighed about 13 pounds. She carried all her gear, her food and water, and the bottle of stove fuel. I carried a shelter for the two of us (the shaped tarp I usually use solo was snug, but workable). We each carried one of my trekking poles.
The trip was a joy from the start. Six miles in, we arrived at the historic Kirkwood Ranch, a popular day hike destination. We spent an hour poking around the little museum, talking with one of the caretakers, and eating lunch in the shade by Kirkwood Creek.
Another two miles took us up to Suicide Point, one of the highest section of the Idaho Snake River Trail, with a dramatic view up river and a 300 foot drop to the river below.
By dinner time, we were nearing the twelve mile mark. We’d maintained a pretty constant pace, with short breaks every forty-five minutes to an hour. Our packs were no burden, and frequent creek crossings meant we had little water weight to carry. Still, the north end of the river trail is rocky terrain, exacerbated by horse traffic, and both of us were somewhat foot-sore. I suggested we stop and cook dinner, then decide if we wanted to keep going. There was good camping at Pine Bar (two miles further on), and we still had a couple hours of daylight.
A hot meal gave us renewed energy, if not quite the same pace. We arrived at Pine Bar with about a half hour of light left. I set up the tarp and hung the food, and soon both of us were burrowed into our quilts.
The next day we decided to shoot for the pictographs at Bernard Creek, nine miles away. That would have to be our turnaround point, and would make the whole three day trip about 45 miles. If necessary, we could camp a couple miles up river from Pine Bar on the way back, making each day more or less the same number of miles. Or again, stop any time we felt too tired and forego Bernard Creek—as long as a person is willing to dry camp and doesn’t need trees, there are plenty of camping opportunities in the canyon.
For whatever reason, Day Two was even better than the first (could be the multiple canyon-themed games of Grandmother’s Trunk, or inventing some of the most ridiculous lyrics imaginable for “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain”). We passed a couple parties of rafters, camped at Sheep Creek Ranch and hauled up at Johnson Bar, and their reactions were a big ego boost for Miriam. We made Bernard Creek by lunch time, and then all the way back to Pine Bar for the night—eighteen miles for the day, and better than thirty for the trip so far. Miriam had led the whole way, with high spirits throughout.
Sunday morning we broke camp early, having decided stopping for a spaghetti dinner on the way home would be our reward if we made the trailhead by mid-afternoon. It was another nice day, a little warmer than the first two, and a brilliant blue sky brushed with high, thin clouds. A mile and a half from the trailhead, we passed a trio of heavily-laden backpackers, sweating and straining as they headed out on their own three-day trip. They hoped to make it as far as Kirkwood Ranch (another 4.5 miles) but at that point were looking for something closer. I pointed out a few possibilities on the map, and then Miriam and I headed off down the trail, ready to soak our feet in the icy water of Corral Creek before the drive home.
Crossing Big Bar:
Miriam figuring out our trail location with map and compass:
Pictographs near Bernard Creek:
Cartwheel over the bridge at Bernard Creek:
Paintbrush and Snake River Phlox:
Climbing a tree at Pine Bar:
Plenty of prickly pear in the canyon:
The inevitable pinky hang: