Hells Canyon : Backpacking The Seven Devils Loop

For Labor Day Weekend, I decided to head over to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Since visiting the area last year, doing a large hike has been on my list of things I’ve been wanting to do. With some research, I decided to do the Seven Devils Loop, looping around the Seven Devils Mountains on the Idaho side of the canyon. Along with taking several side trips along the way, I had a difficult but amazing weekend of backpacking.

After finishing some work Friday morning, I packed up camp in Ketchum and hit the road. It was a long 6 hour drive through familiar to me area, marked by the occasional view of plumes of wildfire smoke rising into the air. Alas, I turned onto Seven Devils Road and took the long, narrow, steep grade gravel road all of the way up to Windy Saddle. The Seven Devils Campground was already full, but I snagged a spot at the Windy Saddle Trailhead and setup camp for the night.

Day One : Dry Diggins Lookout and sheep lake

Waking early Saturday morning, I put together my pack and set out on the trail around 7:30 AM.

The trail begins through a large area of burn scar, scattered with wildflowers and new undergrowth. Most of the wildflowers were well past their blooming season at this point, but the views down Hells Canyon afforded by the lack of fullness in the trees made for its own enjoyment. Coming up and over one of the first ridges, I could clearly see a small wildfire that the rangers had told me not to worry about. While the sky was rather clear for what I expected, it was a perfect highlight of the smokey conditions I have been seeing in the recent weeks spent around Idaho.

Continuing along, I was surprised to go through some thick, green forest. While the views within weren’t quite as dramatic, it was an unexpected, beautiful way to hike all of its own.

Alas, it didn’t feel like it really took long before I came to the junction leading towards Bernard Lakes and Dry Diggins Lookout. Making the turn, I headed out along the way. Bernard Lakes were surprisingly beautiful lakes, but even more, the views that began to open up as I made the climb to the lookout absolutely impressed me. Looking back, a wonderful view of the Seven Devils Mountains looming over Bernard Lakes was incredible, and looking forward, the Snake River carving its way through Hells Canyon was simply overwhelming.

I stopped and ate lunch on the steps of the lookout, enjoying the wonderful views in every direction around me. I took the time to climb up the lookout and walk around on the rickety and somewhat sketchy feeling walkway all around it, taking in all of the different views before packing back up and setting back up to loop back onto the main trail.

Reaching the main trail, I turned back North, headed towards the junction with a trail leading to Sheep Lake. I actually ended up passing the junction without realizing it, but quickly realized it and set up the way.

After stopping to enjoy Basin Lake, I ended up deciding to skip Shelf and Gem Lakes, heading instead straight to Sheep Lake. At Sheep Lake, I was surprised to see tons of other people. Most of my hike to get there, I saw very few other people out on the trails. However, trying to find a campsite around Sheep Lake proved nearly impossible due to the surprisingly large number of people around. Apparently, most had taken a route from Seven Devils Campground, around Mirror Lake, to get there; the route is significantly shorter and easier than what I had done to get there, and thus it had quickly filled from those arriving via that route.

Although my original plan was to camp at Sheep Lake for the night, it didn’t take long for me to deciding that hiking another couple of hours back to Basin Lake, which was completely empty when I stopped by earlier, was worth it over dealing with the stress of the absolutely crowded Sheep Lake. It would also shave off a few miles that I planned to do the following day. Sure enough, arriving back at Basin Lake, it was still empty, and I was able to set up a quiet camp to myself for the night.

Overall, on the day,  I did 18.81 miles, with about 6780ft of elevation gain and over 7000ft of elevation loss.

Day Two : To Baldy Lake and More

Waking up Sunday morning, I had what I expected to be a relatively easy day planned. Hike to a stop at Echo Lake and He Devil Lake before continuing along to camp at Baldy Lake for the night. Having started at Basin Lake instead of Sheep Lake, it was going to be an even easier, shorter day, so I took my time and didn’t get going until about 8 AM.

The way to Echo Lake was easy enough. Mixed forest and burn scar with some beautiful views, I simply enjoyed the way through a pretty easy hike. Turning up towards Echo Lake, the path turned steeper through burn scar, but I enjoyed the path, and enjoyed the initial views of Echo Lake.

Continuing the climb up and over a ridge, I reached a small pond. For some reason–I’m really not sure why–I was convinced that this was He Devil Lake, and it was just significantly less impressive than I thought it would be. I turned back and found a nice spot at the top of the ridge to stop for a small break. It was here that I realized I actually had not gone all the way to He Devil Lake, as I could see it through the trees a brush. Alas, I decided I was happy with what I saw here, and after sitting for a short time, I headed back down to the main trail.

The way to Baldy Lake turned out to be surprisingly rough. Between the exposure of the hot sun beating down on me and rather unmaintained trail along the way that felt more like a bushwhack mixed with climbing over many downed trees, the hike proved difficult. The occasional amazing view consoled my way, despite the difficulty. At one point, I realized I had dropped my new jacket on the ground and ended up turning around to find it and pick it back up, adding another mile or so onto the morning.

As I reached the point that my map seemed to suggest the trail to Baldy Lake was, there was no trail at all. I wandered back and forth a bit as I drank the last of the 4 liters I started out the day with. I considered just bushwhacking for a moment, but instead decided to head onward, hoping for any water source at all, if I failed to find the trail to Baldy Lake regardless.

Thankfully, the trail to Baldy Lake simply proved to be another quarter mile or so up the trail, but I still had another mile to hike, without any remaining water, to get there. And the trail, again, was a difficult traverse. But before long, I finally made it to an absolutely stunning Baldy Lake and was able to catch water. Again, no one else seemed to be at the lake, just as I had seen very few people along the trail the entire day. A small group day hiking directly from Sheep Lake did arrive while I was filling up on water and grabbing lunch, but the lake remained mostly quiet and wonderful.

Still being early afternoon, I decided at the spur of the moment to keep going. It would be another 10 miles or so to reach Dog Lake, on the East side of the loop, but there seemed to be some promise that I may be able to find a site before that with water, if I went slower.

The path from Baldy Lake to the southern junction of the loop proved to be one of the most spectacular sections of trail I’ve hiked. With absolutely amazing views up and down Hells Canyon and constantly evolving views of the Seven Devils Mountains, I was in awe more than not. The hiking remained somewhat difficult, although mostly just due to a large variety of terrain from talus and scree fields to steep meadows. I lost the trail at one point while trying to find a way around some downed trees but was able to quickly find it again and continue on. Just before the southern junction, I peaked out at a ridge on the shoulder of Pyramid Mountain, which gave absolutely amazing panoramic views and a wonderful sense of accomplishment.

Finally, I reached the junction on the southern end and began to turn back North, along the East side of the loop. The views in this first section, as I began a traverse down a large talus field, were quite stunning. Unfortunately, by the time I reached near the bottom, it was clear that sunset was coming quite quickly, many miles before I would be reaching even the junction to the side trail leading to Dog Lake.

Shortly after 8 PM, looking at my GPS and my map, I realized there was a small lake named Haas Lake just up and over a ridge from where I stood. There was certainly no trail of any kind leading there, and not even any clear cairns up the talus seemed to suggest any route existed. Nonetheless, I made the decision and began the scramble/bushwhack to the lake.

First seeing Haas Lake was surprisingly pleasant. The sun was nearly set already and there didn’t seem to be any obvious campsites along the side of the lake, but I made my way down and explored. I couldn’t find any obvious, established sites, but I found a small clearing that worked well enough. I set up camp. I was intrigued by some cool, small salamanders floating in the water, along with several other little critters. It was a wonderful experience to have this lake to myself, especially knowing it’s one most people probably never bother seeing.

For the day, I completed 17.78 miles, with about 6129ft of elevation gain and about 6237ft of elevation loss. While the numbers suggest an easier day than the day before, the terrain was significantly more difficult.

Day Three : Finishing The Loop

Waking up Monday morning, the plan was simple: finish the loop back to the trailhead, seeing the East side of the loop. Unfortunately, there was one very clear difference for this day, over all of the days before. The smoke from the large number of wildfires in the region had finally blown back into the area. The sun glowed orange in the sky, and the views that I could still vaguely see the night before were obscured.

While I could feel the presence of the smoke in the air the two days before after putting in such mileage, breathing this felt much more difficult. But looking at my map, I would have a relatively short day ahead, and I figured that it seemed reasonable to hope for it to be much easier. So I continued onward.

I passed by both the junction to Dog Lake and the junction to Cannon Lake, opting not to visit these on the way. I had set my mind on simply arriving back to the trailhead as soon as I could. The hiking was easy, although the views were obscured by the smoke. At least until about the last mile or so, when a long, steep slog up to the trailhead finally began.

I finished the hike shortly after noon, happy to see Tivona sitting at the trailhead undisturbed. I grabbed a cold beer out of the cooler and hung out with another backpacker who arrived at a similar time from doing a much shorter trip.

I totaled 10.37 miles on the day, with about 3020ft of elevation gain and about 2682ft of elevation loss. Much easier than the days before, even if the slog at the end kinda sucked!

Before long, I packed up the car and headed back down to Riggins. On the way back down the dirt road, Tivona’s TPMS light came on, and sure enough, a rock had punctured the rear passenger tire. Parking in the first turn out I could find, I took down the full size spare and propped up the flat tire, taking it off. Unfortunately, it turned out that the stock Subaru jack didn’t get me enough clearance to put the spare on easily at all. Thankfully, just as I began deflating the spare, a couple of guys in a truck stopped by with a much larger jack and helped me out, lifting Tivona high enough to get the spare on without totally deflating it.

Thankfully, I already booked a hotel room in McCall for the night, so I headed right there. McCall is a beautiful small town. I stopped at the local grocery store to buy some beer, and ordered some pizza from one of the local pizza shops–it was delicious. With a shower and clean clothes later that night, it was an absolutely wonderful time!

Tuesday morning, I headed to the tire shop in town, who was absolutely packed with people needing flats fixed from the long weekend. It took a couple of hours for them to get to me, but they fixed her up and sent me on my way without a charge!

To finish it all up, I decided to head back to a campsite outside of Ketchum again. It’s an area I’m familiar and comfortable with, and that just felt like a wonderful idea after the long weekend.


2 thoughts on “Hells Canyon : Backpacking The Seven Devils Loop”

  1. The phrase “vicarious living” comes to mind. Not that I would ever try to live vicariously through your wonderful travels. 🙂

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