Hells Canyon: Zumwalt Prairie

On the last day of our trip, before driving home, we visited a place that is near Hells Canyon, but is not in the Hells Canyon Recreation Area. Zumwalt Prairie is north of Joseph and is owned by the Nature Conservancy. It encompasses 33,000 acres and is part of the largest remaining intact Pacific Northwest bunchgrass prairie in North America.

From the little community of Imnaha we drove east on 350 then turned right on county road 676. This lovely stretch of road follows Trail Creek upstream.

Beautiful drive

Beautiful drive

You can’t tell from the pictures, but the road gets very rough in spots. There were a few water fords, one of which was down in a ditch. My Outback would not have made it down this road and I’m glad we had the high clearance truck.

We saw cows and calfs grazing alongside the road:


We stopped at the trailhead for the Canyon Vista Trail and set out. It follows an old road up through the trees:

Old road

Then in climbs up out of the trees and up onto the plateau where the views start opening up.


We later learned that officially the trail takes a sharp turn and sort of doubles back, angling to the northwest to a slight summit. But there were no signs and the old road we were on continued on to the southeast toward a communications tower, so that’s where we ended up hiking.

Radio tower

We saw a few cows, one of which had a bird on its back:


This is prairie smoke, a wildflower I’ve never encountered before:

Prairie smoke

More wildflowers:


Off in the distance we saw a herd of elk. Thanks for standing there in front of the Wallowas, elk! Made for a great photo!


We finally reached the communication tower:

Radio tower

We could see the top part of the Seven Devils to our east:

Seven Devils

And of course the Wallowas to the south:


Prairie all around us:

As far as the eye can see

We could see the little town of Imnaha far below us:


We hiked back to the truck and after enjoying a snack we headed over to Duckett Road. More wildflowers along the road here:



Prairie Smoke

Parked along Duckett Road:

Rough roads

We headed to the Duckett Barn Information Center, which turned out to be a covered collection of interpretive panels:


We learned:

  • This grassland remains one of the largest ecologically-intact prairies of its kind because the shallow rocky soils, high elevation, and rugged canyons made it unsuitable for crops.
  • The Zumwalt grasslands harbor many mammals, over a dozen native bunchgrasses, more than 100 native wildflower species, and 20 birds of prey.
  • The Nature Conservancy leases Zumwalt pasture to area ranchers and uses the preserve as a model and testing ground for compatible grazing. They are studying the effects of grazing to better understand how conservation and production go hand-in-hand.
  • The Nature Conservancy pays their property taxes even though they are a tax-exempt organization. They also donate elk hunting tags to local charitable organizations which use them as fundraisers.
  • The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is working to reintroduce the sharp-tailed grouse to Zumwalt Prairie.

There are other trails to explore in this vast preserve, but we still had a six-hour drive back to Portland, so we headed out. I definitely want to come back. I’d love to see the lupine blooming here. Check out this photo from Donnelly-Austin Photography. I don’t know what time of year the lupine bloom like this, but I hope I can see it someday. Wow.

<< Thursday: Freezeout Saddle

Hells Canyon: Freezeout Saddle

On Thursday we got up at 5am, broke camp at Hells Canyon Camp, and hit the road. We really enjoyed our stay at that campground. Maybe it’s a different story on the weekend, but it was pleasant and quiet mid-week. They had flush toilets and showers and we even discovered they had a wi-fi hot spot, which was a big surprise.

We stopped at a little store and gas station and when the guy found out where we were headed he told us to watch out for wolves. “That Imnaha Pack is aggressive,” he warned.

We headed north on Road 39 and passed a lot of trees and branches along the side of the road. Looks like they had quite a mess to clean up after the winter. With the cleared trees and no snow, it was smooth sailing. We took a short detour up to the Hells Canyon Overlook. Unfortunately it was a cloudy day, but we could still see the views.

Hells Canyon Overlook

Seven Devils


Looking across to the Idaho side of Hells Canyon:

Hells Canyon

From Road 39 we picked up Upper Imnaha Road (County Road 727). This turned out to be quite a scenic stretch of road. There are farms and ranches all along the canyon, so it’s not exactly wild, but the hills were green and the river was gushing with snowmelt.

Imnaha River

We reached the trailhead at 10:20 and hit the trail at 10:45.

Saddle Creek Trail

This is definitely the perfect time of year to do this hike. The grass was green and the flowers were in bloom! Hiking Hells Canyon & Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains mentions a junction with the old trail and that we should bear right on the “reconstructed trail.” I guess it’s been long enough that this old route is no longer visible and we never saw the junction. The topo map and our GPS still had the old route, even though it was apparently decommissioned more than 15 years ago.



Wildflowers and mountains

We saw a kestrel hovering overhead:


We reached Freezeout Saddle 3.5 miles later at 12:40. The views were pretty awesome. A panorama of the Wallowa Mountains:


Another shot of the Wallowas, including the trail we just hiked to get up here:


Looking down the drainage of Saddle Creek:

Hells Canyon

The trail we hiked up continued down the other side and along that Saddle Creek drainage all the way to the Snake River. We had earlier passed a backpacker on his way back to the trailhead. He had hiked down that trail to the river and said it was pretty overgrown and brushy. Just that morning he had nearly stepped on a rattlesnake that he couldn’t see because of all the brush. Yikes.

From the saddle we headed south along Summit Ridge on the Western Rim National Recreation Trail, which would soon traverse that forested slope ahead:

Western Rim National Recreation Trail

Then we traversed several bunchgrass meadows:



Looking northwest down into the Imnaha River Canyon:

Imnaha River

We saw plenty of birds, including this beautiful blue guy:


The trail was steadily gaining elevation and we finally got high enough that we hit snow:


We lost the trail under the snow but we navigated in the general direction we were supposed to go. We crested Summit Ridge and got a good view of the Seven Devils to the east:

Seven Devils

Where the snow had melted the glacier lilies were blooming:

Summit Ridge

Not sure what these are, but they were blooming too:


We finally picked up the trail again where it crossed over to traverse the east side of the ridge:


We soon hit snow again:


We found our trail junction in a big snowy meadow. A left would have taken us to Bear Mountain and Black Mountain. We turned right to head to Mark’s Cabin:


Snowy junction

More snow. I was getting pretty tired by this point, even though we had many more miles before we reached the trailhead:


We saw a deer:


We found and lost the trail a few more times before finally losing enough elevation to leave the snow behind. Just before reaching Mark’s Cabin we had this nice view of the Wallowas framed by a fence:


The trail passes a place called Mark’s Cabin, a cowboy cabin that wasn’t being used when we visited:

Shortly past the cabin we should have hit a junction where we picked up the Freezeout Creek Trail, which starts zigzagging downhill back to the trailhead. But the trail was faint and every time we hit a meadow we lost it, so we somehow missed this junction and didn’t realize it right away. We consulted the GPS, cut across this pasture (yes, it’s federal land, but cattle graze here), then headed straight downhill through the steep pasture to pick up the trail far below. That’s Deb way below me:

Steep descent

Throughout the whole hike we had seen evidence of horses. It looked to me like horses had come through during the mud season, because the trails we’d been on so far had dried into a hard-packed but uneven tread that contained many horse hoof prints. But this last stretch of trail took the cake. It was in an appalling condition and been so badly churned up by horses that it was practically un-hikeable. Unlike the earlier part of the hike this part had not hardened and it was loose and crumbly.

I was getting really tired by this point which was unfortunate because the last couple miles were rather lovely, with lush grass and majestic ponderosas. I didn’t have the energy to take photos, except this one:

Ponderosa forest

Just before getting back to the trailhead the trail got close to the creek, which was running so high that it had covered the trail. That water between me and Deb? That’s where the trail is. We had to clamber up the bank to get around it:

Flooded trail

Boy was I glad to get back to the trailhead. It was just before 7pm. There was one picnic table and fire ring and we claimed it and started setting up camp and making dinner.


Our stats for the day: 9 hours, 12.4 miles and 4,000′ elevation gain.

Freezeout Saddle Track

Neither of us were able to stay up very late. We were both pretty beat after the long hike!

<< Wednesday: The Dam | Friday: Zumwalt Prairie >>

Hells Canyon: The Dam

We fell asleep last night to the sound of crickets and an owl. So awesome! The stars were also amazing:


On the advice of our campground neighbors, Wednesday morning we drove up the Kleinschmidt Grade. This road on the Idaho side of the canyon has been around for quite awhile. It was built by entrepreneur Albert Kleinschmidt in the 1880s so he could haul copper and gold from the Seven Devils area to the Snake River. That venture didn’t pan out, but the road still exists. It’s steep and narrow in places, but it’s in good shape and is doable in a passenger car. We stopped at this lovely pullout part of the way up. The landscape and vegetation changes pretty quickly as you climb up and away from the canyon:

Kleinshmidt view

Kleinshmidt Grade

Before driving up to the Lynes communication tower we checked out the little community of Cuprum, which seemed to mostly consist of vacation cabins and a handful of year-round residences. According to Donald C. Miller’s 1976 book Ghost Towns of Idaho, “Cuprum was in the Seven Devils Mining District, about twenty-eight miles northwest of Council, located among still reportedly immense, untapped copper deposits. The town still exists, but as a logging and summer cabin settlement, rather than as a mining town.”


Then we drove up the road to the communication tower. This two-mile stretch was pretty rough and rutted. The Outback probably could have made it, but I was glad we had the truck. It was DEFINITELY worth the drive up, because the 360 degree views were spectacular!

Some of Idaho’s mountains to the southeast:

More mountains

The communication tower (we had a great phone signal up here):

Communication tower

The Wallowa Mountains to the west:

Wallowa Mountains

Looking south down into the canyon:

Hells Canyon

Mountains directly to our north:


The phlox was blooming like crazy up there:


We could just make out the lookout on nearby Horse Mountain:

Horse Mountain

Looking back at the road we drove to the summit:


We soaked up the views, looked at things through the binoculars, identified mountains with the PeakFinder app, and generally just enjoyed the scenery. It was beautiful and sunny with only a bit of a breeze. After hanging out up there for awhile we headed back down. I shot this picture of the river on the way down, which shows the green Idaho side and the less-green Oregon side:

Kleinshmidt Grade

Looking down on our campground from the road above:

Hells Canyon Park

After a bite to eat at our campsite, we drove up the riverside road to the Hells Canyon Dam. It’s actually quite a scenic drive this time of year! Once we reached the dam we drove across it to the Oregon side and parked at the visitor center.

Hells Canyon Visitor Center

Idaho Power operates this dam along with Brownlee Dam and Oxbow Dam. The original dam proposal was for one 710-foot-high dam with a reservoir that would have extended 89 miles upstream. But that plan was abandoned and the three smaller dams were built instead. The dams were built without fish passages. According to the Native Fish Society, “The Snake River was once one of the most important rivers for the spawning of anadromous fish-—which are born in the headwaters of rivers, live in the ocean for most of their lives, and return to the river to spawn-—in the United States. The river supported species including chinook salmon, coho salmon, and sockeye salmon, as well as steelhead, white sturgeon, and Pacific lamprey. It is known that before the construction of dams on the river, there were three major chinook salmon runs in the Snake River; in the spring, summer and fall, totaling about 120,000 fish, and the sockeye salmon run was about 150,000. The historical barrier to fish migration on the Snake River was Shoshone Falls, a waterfall that occurs as the Snake River passes through the Snake River Plain.”

At a picnic shelter near the visitor center I heard squeaking. I looked up and there were a bunch of bats roosting up there. Cool!


There is a mile-long riverside trail on the Oregon side and we meandered down that way:

Downstream of the dam

This jumble of rocks is known as Rush Creek Rapids, the remains of an enormous 400-foot-high landslide 10-15 thousand years ago. Wow!

Rush Creek Rapids

Looking back at the dam:

Hells Canyon Dam

I think we encountered more poison ivy on this hike than all our other hikes this trip:

Poison Ivy

It was pretty cool to see the Snake River as a river and not a reservoir. We stopped at a big flat rock with a fine view and stayed to soak up the view for awhile. It was incredibly beautiful!

Snake River

We hiked back to the truck and drove back across the dam to the Idaho side. On that side is the Deep Creek Stairway, which was built in 1989 to provide safe river access for Idaho anglers.

Deep Creek Stairway

It’s a crazy stairway, going up, over, and around the rocky cliff face. I hoped it had passed inspection in the recent past:

Deep Creek Stairway

At a muddy spot on the trail we saw a bunch of butterflies:


And here’s the view of the 330-foot dam from below:

Hells Canyon Dam

We made the scenic drive back to the campground where we enjoyed a calm windless evening. All we could hear were the birds and crickets. It was so peaceful. New neighbors arrived at about 8:15. It looked like they were grandparents with their young grandkids. They had this massive old-fashioned canvas tent that must have been hell to put up. But at least they were quiet neighbors.

<< Tuesday: Eckels and Allison Creeks | Thursday: Freezeout Saddle >>

Hells Canyon: Eckels and Allison Creeks

Last Monday Deb and I drove from Portland out to Hells Canyon. We scoped out Hells Canyon Park as a possible campground and decided to stay. It’s run by Idaho Power and is not set up like a traditional campground with individual sites that each have their own little driveway. The tent area was a big grassy area with trees and picnic tables and site numbers and you had to walk a short distance from your vehicle. No worries. It totally worked for us.


Monday evening we saw some Canada Geese and their fuzzy goslings. Cute!


The campground is situated on the Snake River, but since this spot is upstream of the Hells Canyon Dam the river is actually a reservoir at this point.


It got pretty cold Monday night and I could not get warm even in my toasty sleeping bag. I put my hiking pants on over my long johns, along with four layers on my torso (one of which was my down jacket), and then I finally was able to sleep!

Tuesday morning was VERY VERY windy. Even with our wind-blocking efforts it took half an hour to boil water for tea because the burner on the gas stove was so wind-blown.

We decided to hike up Eckels Creek, traverse north on the Kinney Creek Trail, then descend on the Allison Creek Trail. We hit the trail at 9:40 and started hiking up. We were surprised by how green it was here!


We saw quite a few wildflowers:



The trail left the high slopes and got closer to the creek. This section was extremely brushy.


Creek crossing

It was a relief to leave behind the brushy creek canyon and climb back up to the meadowy slopes. at 11:30 we stopped for a break at those trees ahead.

On the slopes again

Looking back down:

Snake River

The trail kept climbing a bit more until we reached a junction with the Kinney Creek Trail, which travels north while traversing the open slopes high above the Snake River. There was a spiffy new-looking sign at the junction. The junction, by the way, is in the wrong spot on the topo map.


The Kinney Creek Trail was pretty spectacular and we passed through fields of wildflowers while also getting great views of Hells Canyon. The weather turned overcast and very windy for awhile along this stretch.

High above




Lupine and paintbrush

Hells Canyon

We left the Kinney Creek Trail at another well-signed junction.


From that junction we had pretty nice views of the mountains rising to the east.



Then we began the long descent back down to the road.



We hiked through more wildflowers.



And we got a view of a cave we would pass once we got down further.


The cave is in a big limestone outcropping known as The Flatiron.


Descending to Allison Creek we entered more brushy areas, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the sections along Eckels Creek had been.


Creek crossing

Once we got to the cave, a short side trail led to the entrance.


Deb decided to explore.


From there we were quickly back to the road, albeit at a different trailhead. We briefly checked out the Big Bar campground across the road from the Allison Creek Trailhead. There were a few RVs, but it was pretty quiet. There’s a little boat ramp into the reservoir.


It was less than a mile to walk back to the Eckels Creek Trailhead where we had parked. Along the way we passed an interpretive sign and a gravesite. The sign explained that the graves were those of Archibald Ritchie and John Eckles, who had an orchard at the site that is now the Big Bar Campground in the late 1800s.


We were camped next to a very nice and friendly couple from Boise and they had told us when they hiked a ways up the Eckels Creek Trail they had picked up quite a few ticks on their clothes. We were super paranoid about this and tucked our pant legs into our socks and our shirts into our pants. The only tick we saw the whole time was one on Deb’s pants when were at the cave. Other than that, no ticks. There was LOTS of poison ivy on this hike and it’s so ubiquitous that it’s totally impossible to avoid. Long pants and long sleeves are highly recommended.

Wednesday: The Dam >>