Idaho's Seven Devils and one hell of a hike

Scenic mountains and views into Hells Canyon make it a challenging and rewarding trip.

rphillips@idahostatesman.comAugust 15, 2013 

I was ahead of my time on the whole ESPN 30 for 30 thing. It was 1994, and I was on the verge of my 30th birthday, so I decided to hike the loop trail around Seven Devils Mountains.

The symmetry just worked: 30 years old, 30 miles, three days.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans, because wildfires blocked the trail before I could make my birthday jaunt.

I don’t have an official bucket list, but this trip remained lodged in the back of my mind. I knew my legs weren’t getting any younger; the route around Seven Devils wasn’t getting any flatter.

My backpack had also been embarrassingly underused in recent years, so last winter, a co-worker and tireless trekker, Bill Manny, and I made plans to hike Seven Devils.

Longtime friend and amazing photographer Glenn Oakley, of Boise, joined us at the last minute.

OVERLOOKED PEAKS

Seven Devils peaks loom between the Salmon River and Hells Canyon, and they’re what makes the canyon so deep. The tallest in the range, He Devil, tops out at 9,393 feet, and from there the terrain plunges about 7,700 vertical feet into Hells Canyon and down to the Snake River.

The mountains are muscular and rocky, and each has its own hellish name: She Devil, The Ogre, The Goblin, Twin Imps, Devil’s Throne, Devil’s Tooth, etc.

They’re majestic. And they look scary.

But what they aren’t is crowded. Unlike Idaho’s most famous peaks and mountain ranges, there’s no drive-by viewing. To get there, you have to go there, and it’s about 20 miles (one way) from Riggins on a twisty, mostly gravel Forest Service Road 517.

The drive takes you to the Windy Saddle trail head. From there you have a minimum of a 28-mile hike to complete the loop, which includes at least 6,000 feet of elevation change.

To make things a little more challenging, the 28-mile loop bypasses many of the best destinations, such as mountain lakes and fire lookouts, so you add mileage and elevation for side trips.

AROUND THE MOUNTAIN

After a brief debate, we opted to do the loop clockwise. The tipping point was the advice of Douglas Lorain, author of “Backpacking Idaho,” who advises a clockwise route because it “saves the best scenery for last.”

Sounded reasonable, but what wasn’t emphasized is it also saves the toughest, steepest sections of the trail for last.

SMOOTH AND STEADY

Leaving Windy Saddle, we descended into a cool, shady forest with numerous creek crossings. The trail was surprisingly buff.

If you’re hiking a loop, descending right away sounds warning bells in your head, because obviously, for every foot of elevation you drop, you must regain.

We cruised along the trail, and each of us of felt pretty spry. We kept our packs reasonably light, between 25 and 35 pounds. Not light by modern standards, but we carried the basic camping gear and a few extras to ensure a comfortable, well-fed trip.

On a strenuous scale of 1 through 10, Lorain rated this trip a 5, and simple math said we would be hiking at least 10 miles per day if we did any side hikes.

The trail had only a few blowdowns blocking the route. We made good time, and we arrived at a logical stopping point, Dog Creek, by midafternoon.

We had just hiked nine miles, and ahead of us was a nine-mile dry section between Dog Creek and Granite Creek. There was a nice campsite where the trail and creek intersect, but we also knew there was a mountain lake with more campsites a little more than a mile away.

MAPS DON’T LIE, BUT THEY DON’T TELL THE WHOLE TRUTH, EITHER

The allure of mountain lakes is hard to resist, especially when you pack a fly rod.

The map showed a trail to the lake and also showed a 900-foot climb in elevation.

Guess which was accurate?

The Seven Devils seem to be lightning magnets, and most of the trail wound through burns of various vintages.

Dog Lake Trail also went through an old burn, and the trail almost immediately disappeared into a maze of downed trees that had weathered to gray trunks.

We picked our way through, and when Dog Creek forked, it seemed like a pretty straightforward direction to the lake: straight ahead.

I’m always curious how things get named, and my guess for Dog Lake is it’s short for Dog Leg Lake, which the trail does before you reach the lake.

Unfortunately, we didn’t. The trail was more of a hint than a tread, so we continued up the canyon.

After some discussion, I pulled out my GPS and checked. Sure enough, the lake was up the other leg of the creek.

While the map was inaccurate about the trail, the topographic lines didn’t lie, and after nine miles of fairly gradual terrain on the main trail, the topography pitched sharply upward for the last half-mile to the lake, where we found remnants of the trail in the last few hundred yards.

MY OLD PALS THE CUTTIES

Getting to mountain lakes is typically more challenging than catching fish when you get there, and Dog Lake was no exception.

We pitched our tents near its outlet, and I rigged my fly rod. There were brief rain showers, and we sat under a tree waiting for one to dissipate when we started seeing trout rising.

I landed about a 12-inch cutty, and it was like a reunion. I was back in the mountains, fly fishing a scenic lake, and the cutties were exactly where they should be.

HORSE HEAVEN CAN WAIT

We departed Dog Lake the next morning and tried to piece the remains of the trail back together, but had similar luck.

It took about an hour to go a little more than a mile and get back to the main trail.

After the so-called trail to Dog Lake, we welcomed the quality of the main trail and the mild grade. But we also realized we had a lot of real estate and topography ahead of us.

We had roughly 21 miles to cover in two more days, and that didn’t include side trips. We also had nine miles to hike that day before we hit another water source.

The trail alternated between forest and burned areas that were lush with wildflowers.

The contrast between granite mountains, green forests and regrowing burns dotted with red, blue and yellow wildflowers provided spectacular scenery.

We rounded the southern tip of the trail and turned north, continuing to the intersection with Horse Heaven Trail, which descends into Hells Canyon.

Horse Heaven Lookout loomed above us, and we could see a trail zigzagging up the mountain that led to the lookout.

It was tempting to check it out, but also risky. We needed to average at least 10 miles each day. That meant at least 11 miles that day to stay on schedule. We skipped the lookout.

‘TRUDGERY’

As we left Horse Heaven, we got our first glimpse into Hells Canyon. The trail traversed the mountains at around 7,000 feet, and the slopes fell away more than 5,000 vertical feet to the Snake River.

Glenn and I have both floated Hells Canyon, and the perspective between floating and hiking is an interesting juxtaposition.

When you’re rafting or kayaking, you’re effortlessly floating downstream, and the challenge is navigating big rapids.

When you’re hiking, progress is earned step by step, not carried by gravity and flowing water.

The trail miles seemed to stretch, and Manny coined a term for our relentless pace on the trail: trudgery.

The trail changed from a ribbon of dirt to a sun-baked traverse across scree fields. The temperatures were surprisingly mild thanks to the elevation and a breeze, but 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 away from Granite Creek. The GPS showed less than a mile. No problem, I thought.

I rounded a corner and saw the trail plunge down a series of steep switchbacks on rocky slopes.

“Holy ----,” I blurted under my breath.

I didn’t mean to curse. It was a natural reaction.

Oakley came up behind me a moment later.

“Holy ----,” he said.

Exactly.

Five out of 10 on the strenuous scale? My legs begged to differ.

I checked my GPS. The cursor had barely budged from where I first checked it, despite hiking for several minutes. The creek didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

We descended the tight switchbacks knowing every inch downward meant a corresponding climb ahead.

NO TURNING BACK

We were roughly halfway through the loop. Not that any of us considered turning around, but at that point, doing so would have been pointless.

As the trail skirted Hells Canyon, it looked and felt like a different landscape. We still had the peaks looming above, but Granite Creek looked like a giant gash in the mountainside, falling toward the hidden river below.

I must have checked my GPS a dozen times while we hiked, but Granite Creek still wasn’t getting any closer. I started wondering about weak batteries or some electronic malfunction. Or maybe a malfunction with ... me?

Eventually, we made it. We dropped our packs and dipped our hands into the frigid water cascading down from one of the devils. It was heavenly.

Glenn pulled off his boots and dipped his feet in the water, and I did the same. Even as hot as our feet were, we could only briefly submerge them in the icy water.

I dipped my feet into the creek again and looked downstream, where Manny was using his water filter to refill his bottles. I realized I was sending liquified foot funk his way.

“Oops. Sorry, Bill.”

Hope he didn’t skimp on that water filter.

Just in case, he made sure to filter water upstream of me the rest of the trip.

ARE WE THERE YET?

We checked the map. There are limited camping options on the loop, partially because you’re mostly in ridiculously steep country.

One option was trying to reach Bernard Lakes, still several miles away, with an 8,000-foot pass between.

I remembered those brutally honest topo lines to Dog Lake. We climbed out of Granite Creek to a trail junction to Echo Lake.

Camping at another lake seemed so inviting. But it would have put us way behind schedule.

SKEETERS ARE MOTIVATORS

So, more trudgery.

As afternoon blurred into evening, we realized reaching Bernard Lakes was doubtful. When we arrived at the next decent camping spot, we regrouped.

Staying would mean a longer-than-anticipated final day, but we had just spent about eight hours hiking. We were tired. We needed to call it a day.

As we discussed our options, a swarm of mosquitoes buzzed our heads, and seemed to grow. Hiking to a better spot seemed the lesser of two evils compared to being strafed by squadrons of mosquitoes.

But optimism was not high. The guidebook described the next campsite as “horsy,” but at least we would add some mileage before becoming the main course at the skeeter banquet.

We arrived at Hibbs Cow Camp and found a chimney that was the main remnant of where a cabin once stood.

There was a trickle of a stream running through camp. While the camp was hardly bug free, there were much fewer of them.

We pitched our tents and toasted our temporary home with a taste of fine spirits.

Someone had nailed a small square of plywood to a round of firewood for a makeshift table, and we commandeered it for our kitchen. We sat around it while eating our freeze-dried dinners and imbibing more liquids that buoy spirits.

TOPO CHALLENGED

During my long backpacking sabbatical, I seemed to have lost my knack for navigating the backcountry, despite having both a GPS and a map.

Manny and Oakley had no problems and mostly led the way.

But in the morning, we all were wondering who’d moved the trail.

Seemed like a pretty straightforward proposition to hike a few hundred yards from camp and intersect it.

So where did it go?

I dug out my GPS; it showed the trail ahead. I hiked over the next rise to find it; still no trail.

Most of the way, the trail was well defined, but in a few spots, it looked like it was two weeks away from disappearing into the vegetation. We’d managed to start our day on one of those sections.

DIGGIN’ THE VIEW

We cleared an 8,100-foot pass and descended into the trail intersection between Bernard Lakes and Dry Diggins Lookout.

We dropped our packs and started climbing to the lookout. We missed Horse Heaven Lookout, but we weren’t going to miss the highlight of the loop.

I’ve never been to a fire lookout that didn’t have an amazing view. That’s kind of the point of them, but this exceeded most others.

It stood at 7,800 feet on a rocky point jutting over Hells Canyon, and we could see a sliver of green that was the Snake River flowing in the bottom of the canyon. Turning 180 degrees, we could see the most prominent peaks of Seven Devils rising toward the blue sky, and also see all the way across Hells Canyon to Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, about 30 miles away.

We lingered at the lookout, then reluctantly grabbed our packs and continued.

OVER AND OUT

We dropped into Bernard Lakes, which were postcard perfect, so we ate an early lunch there.

I’d hiked to Bernard Lakes on my first trip into Seven Devils nearly 20 years ago, and the one thing I remembered was how brutal it was getting there.

But as we ate our lunch and watched trout cruise beneath lily pads and snatch mayflies out of midair, that didn’t seem to matter.

It was our final day on the trail, and we were on the most scenic stretch.

The trail zigzagged down a steep, rocky slope and disappeared into the forest, and waaaaaay across the valley we could see a line traversing what looked like the mirror image of the scree slope we were about to descend.

“There’s the trail over there,” Oakley said, pointing across the broad canyon.

It felt like we were staring at a trail on an opposite planet. Unfortunately, there would be no rocket ride.

We descended the switchbacks and dipped into the forest. I kept telling myself that wasn’t the trail we’d seen ahead, 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 elevation.

To compound the endorphin rush, it was afternoon on the hottest day of our trip.

We filled our water bottles to prepare for the final leg of the hike.

I turned on my GPS, not because I needed it to navigate — the only direction to go was up — but so I could use the altimeter to track my uphill progress.

The trail was an impressive bit of engineering, considering it was blazed across an expansive mountain of loose, broken rock.

The guidebook described the climb as a “gently graded, but tiring ascent.” Those nonchalant trail descriptions were annoying me. That climb is an ass-kicker.

We topped out and could actually see vehicles at Windy Saddle. Unfortunately, Seven Devils hadn’t played its last trick.

We dropped into one last canyon and had to climb several hundred vertical feet to get back to the trail head.

After reaching the truck, we all did the same thing: dropped our packs, exchanged our hiking boots for sandals, and grabbed a locally brewed Payette Outlaw from the cooler.

That trail was a five? Remind me never to hike a six.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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