RIGGINS, Idaho — I don’t have an official bucket list, but the loop around Seven Devils, a range of peaks that looms between the Salmon River and Hells Canyon in Idaho, has been lodged in my mind for years.
I knew my legs weren’t getting any younger and the Seven Devils were not getting any flatter, so co-worker Bill Manny and I hiked the 30-mile loop last summer with friend Glenn Oakley, of Boise.
The Seven Devils are what make Hells Canyon so deep. The tallest in the range, He Devil, tops out at 9,393 feet, and the terrain plunges about 7,700 vertical feet into Hells Canyon and down to the Snake River.
Each mountain has its own hellish name: She Devil, The Ogre, The Goblin, Twin Imps, Devil’s Throne, Devil’s Tooth, etc.
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And they look scary. But what they aren’t is crowded.
Unlike Idaho’s most famous mountain ranges, there’s no drive-by viewing along a highway. You have to go about 20 miles (one way) from Riggins on a twisty, mostly gravel Forest Service Road 517.
That takes you to Windy Saddle trailhead, where you have a minimum of a 28-mile hike to complete the loop, which includes about 6,000 feet of elevation change.
To make things more challenging, the loop bypasses many of the best destinations, so you add mileage and elevation for side trips.
Around the mountain
We opted to do the loop clockwise based on the advice of Douglas Lorain, author of “Backpacking Idaho.” He advises clockwise because it “saves the best scenery for last.”
Leaving Windy Saddle Trailhead, we descended into a cool, shady forest with numerous creek crossings. On a strenuous scale of 1 through 10, Lorain rated this trip a 5.
The trail was mostly clear, and we arrived at a logical stopping point, Dog Creek, by midafternoon and feeling spry. There was a nice campsite where the trail and creek intersect, but we also knew there was a mountain lake about a mile away.
Maps don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole truth, either. The map showed a trail to the lake and a 900-foot climb in elevation. Guess which was accurate?
Dog Lake Trail went through an old burn, one of many on the loop, and the trail almost immediately disappeared into a maze of downed trees.
Getting to mountain lakes is typically more challenging than catching fish when you get there, and this was no exception. I rigged my fly rod during a brief rain shower, and we sat under a tree waiting for it to dissipate when trout started rising.
I landed about a 12-inch cutthroat, and it was like a reunion. I was back in the mountains fly-fishing, and the cutties behaved exactly as I’d hoped.
Horse Heaven can wait
The next morning, it took about an hour to wade through brush and downfall and get back to the main trail. We had roughly 21 miles in two more days, not including side trips. We also had nine miles before another water source.
The contrast between granite mountains, green forests and regrowing burns dotted with red, blue and yellow wildflowers was spectacular.
We rounded the southern tip of the trail and continued to the intersection with Horse Heaven Trail, which descends into Hells Canyon. Horse Heaven Lookout loomed above, and a trail zigzagged up the mountain.
It was tempting, but we needed to average at least 10 miles each day, so we skipped it.
Soon after, we got our first glimpse into Hells Canyon. The trail traversed at around 7,000 feet, and the slopes fell more than 5,000 vertical feet to the Snake River. The trail miles seemed to stretch, and Manny coined a term for our relentless pace: trudgery.
The trail changed to a sun-baked traverse across scree fields. The heat of Hells Canyon crept up the slopes.
My water supply was dwindling, and I checked my GPS to see how far we were from Granite Creek, which showed about a mile. No problem.
I rounded a corner and saw the trail plunge down a series of switchbacks.
“Holy —-,” I blurted.
I didn’t mean to curse. It was a natural reaction.
Oakley came up behind me a minute later.
“Holy —-,” he said.
Five out of 10 on the strenuous scale? We descended the tight switchbacks knowing every inch downward meant a corresponding climb.
Eventually, we made it to Granite Creek. We dipped our hands into the frigid water cascading down from one of the devils. It was heavenly.
Are we there yet?
There are limited campsites on the loop because of the steep country. We wanted to reach Bernard Lakes, which was still several miles away and over an 8,000-foot pass.
We climbed from Granite Creek to a trail junction to Echo Lake. Camping at another lake was so inviting, but it would put us behind schedule.
So more trudgery.
Afternoon blurred into evening, and reaching Bernard Lakes was doubtful. As we discussed it, a swarm of mosquitoes buzzed our heads, and seemed to grow. Hiking suddenly seemed better than being strafed by squadrons of mosquitoes.
The guidebook described the next campsite as “horsy,” but at least we would add miles before more involuntary blood donations.
Diggin’ the view
In the morning, we cleared a pass and descended into the intersection between Bernard Lakes and Dry Diggins Lookout.
Most fire lookouts have amazing views; that’s the point of them, but this exceeded most others.
Dry Diggins stands at 7,800 feet on a rocky point jutting over Hells Canyon. We could see a sliver of the Snake River flowing in the bottom of the canyon. Turning 180 degrees, we could see several peaks of Seven Devils, and see all the way across Hells Canyon to Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.
We lingered at the lookout, then hiked on to Bernard Lakes and ate an early lunch there as we watched trout cruise beneath lily pads and snatch mayflies out of midair.
The trail zigzagged down a steep, rocky slope and into the forest, and waaaaaay across the valley we saw a line traversing what was the mirror image of the steep slope we were about to descend.
“There’s the trail over there,” Oakley said.
It felt like we were staring at a trail on another planet. Unfortunately, there would be no rocket ride.
We descended into the forest. I told myself that wasn’t the trail, it was another side trail. Nope. That was it, and when we finally reached it, we had dropped to 6,700 feet. A glance at the map showed we had to climb back to 8,000 feet.
To compound the endorphin rush, it was the hottest day of our trip. We filled our water bottles for the final leg of the hike.
The trail was an impressive bit of engineering, considering it was blazed across an expansive mountain of loose, broken rock.
After reaching the truck, we all did the same thing: dropped our packs, exchanged our hiking boots for sandals, and grabbed a cold drink from the cooler.
That trail was a five? Remind me never to hike a six.