A pale-blue moon beams as it rises over an alpine ridge from the east — illuminating ghostly looking fir snags tangled among granite boulders in Idaho’s formidable Seven Devils Mountains.
In the west, the sun is a fiery ball dipping below blue-gray clouds and just barely touching the rimrock of the Oregon side of Hells Canyon.
In the distance and fading fast into darkness are Oregon’s purplish Wallowa Mountains. To the immediate south, the Seven Devils are turning black in the fading light.
What a magnificent sight to see while hiking late into the evening at 8,200 feet in elevation in summer.
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What’s also magnificent is that getting to this ridge in the western Idaho mountains didn’t take a strenuous 6,000-foot elevation gain on a hiking trail. Instead, and don’t call it cheating, the hiking area was reached on a drive from about 1,900 feet on the valley floor of the Little Salmon River near Riggins. The drive was on a fairly decent U.S. Forest Service gravel road to the high-country trailheads. It was a welcome way to explore Idaho’s high-point hiking adventures.
Idaho has many forest roads from Sun Valley to Riggins and beyond that lead to vistas and trailheads at 8,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation. They are the perfect places for ridgeline hiking, camping and fishing in mountain lakes, or to just veg out in the cool mountain air when the valleys are in the high 90s.
The Sevens Devils Road out of Riggins has it all, from beautiful photography opportunities to hiking.
On a recent camping trip, the temperatures in Boise were nearing triple digits. In the Seven Devils, it was in the low 60s at the camping areas near Windy Saddle and in the 40s at night.
“It’s beautiful,” said Sharon Dowdle of Meridian. She was sitting in a camp chair below Heaven’s Gate Lookout reading a book and taking in the on-top-of-this-world scenery. “I’m so impressed with Hells Canyon.” She relaxed while friends hiked to the lookout.
The area west of Riggins has two campgrounds and several trailheads for a variety in hiking. Located above the Hells Canyon Wilderness, the Windy Saddle Horse Camp is a small campground with five tent pads, picnic tables and fire pits. Campers who pick this campsite like the openness of the ridge. The campground has long camp spurs for trailers, an overflow parking area for stock trailers or day use, hitching rails and a loading ramp.
Nearby Windy Saddle Trailhead is the main access point into the Hells Canyon Wilderness from Idaho. Located on the saddle is also a road going up to Heaven’s Gate Lookout, which offers great view of the Seven Devil mountain range and Hells Canyon area. The trails off the ridge offer 1- to 5-mile out-and-back hikes or 26-mile, weeklong backpacking trips.
Nearby Seven Devils Campground, which is the most popular in the area, has 10 camping spots with tables, fire pits and restrooms. It is a 150-yard hike to Seven Devils Lake, where there is trout fishing and opportunities to photograph mountain goats.
All in all, this area is definitely a cooling-off point for southern Idaho’s annual August heat wave, but make sure to bring water. No water is available at the campgrounds and trailhead.
Getting there: From Riggins, go south on U.S. 95 for 1.3 miles to Seven Devils Road, also known as Forest Road 517. Turn right on Seven Devils Road and go 17 miles to the summit, where there are turnoffs for the Seven Devils Campground, the Windy Saddle camping area and the road to Heaven’s Gate Lookout.
Here are another four places to find high-elevation hiking areas and other fun via forest roads:
Snowbank Mountain is intriguing. Motorists see it to the west while traveling Idaho 55 about 7 miles south of Cascade. Most of the time, it has snow on it. Snowbank Mountain is a large twin-hump mountain in the West Mountains to the west between Cascade and Round Valley.
At 8,322 feet, it’s a quick drive to gain elevation from the Long Valley floor at about 4,700 feet. The mountain peaks stand out because of the Federal Aviation Administration’s radar facility on top. That presence is why it’s a well-maintained gravel road to the top of the mountain, which offers excellent high-point picnicking and hiking opportunities.
Once you’re on top of the Snowbank ridge, there are hiking opportunities on several cattle trails and some hidden trails to alpine lakes. Just hiking the granite ridgeline with views of Oregon to the west and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness to the east makes it a wonderful scenic day trip from Boise.
Getting there: From Boise, take Idaho 55 north toward Cascade. About 7 miles before Cascade, look for the restaurant at the Clear Creek turnoff. Turn left onto Cabarton Road and follow it until it crosses the North Fork of the Payette River. Just a short ways is another left turn onto a forest road. There’s a barn at the turnoff. From there continue up the Snowbank Mountain Road about 10 miles to the top. The road can get very washboarded and dusty by August. Before reaching the top is the trailhead for Blue Lake, a 1-mile hike to a mountain lake that is well worth the time.
Blue Lake is considered one of the best beginner hikes in southern Idaho and is especially good for children.
The Trinity Mountain Recreation Area, north of Mountain Home, is very popular in summer because nearby Trinity Lookout is the highest drivable point in Idaho, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Trinity peaks soar out of the Boise Mountains at more than 9,000 feet in elevation. Trinity Mountain is the tallest in the range at 9,700 feet and very impressive. It’s an area that is unforgettable.
The recreation area, located between the drainages of the South and Middle forks of the Boise River, offers fishing, hiking, backpacking and camping. For example, there are 17 campsites on Big Trinity Lake and there are more sites near the incredible smaller lakes in what is called Rainbow Basin. If you’re an avid hiker, there are hikes to at least a dozen alpine lakes in the area.
The only drawback to the area is that the long drive on bumpy Forest Service roads makes it a challenge, but it’s well worth it.
Getting there: From Boise, take Interstate 84 to the second Mountain Home exit for U.S. 20. Head north and east toward Sun Valley. At 35 miles, take the turnoff to Pine and Featherville. The Forest Service says travel 29 miles on Forest Highway 61 to Forest Service Road 172. Go 15 miles northwest to Forest Service Road 129. Continue 3 miles to the Forest Guard Station junction. It’s a long drive but a great extended weekend trip.
If you need a good paved highway to reach your high-point hiking goal, nothing beats Idaho 75 north out of Sun Valley to Galena Summit. You go from about 5,800 feet in Ketchum to Galena Summit at somewhere around 8,900 feet.
On the entire drive you’ll see the Harriman Trail, which runs right along Idaho 75 north of Sun Valley and offers several trailheads along a 23-mile route. Elevation varies from 6,200 to 7,200 feet with easy hiking along the Wood River.
Stop at Galena Lodge at the northernmost end of the trail for a gourmet lunch and craft beers. Galena Lodge also has a trail system in case you want to stick close to the lodge.
Once on top of Galena Summit, you’ll find the Titus Lake trailhead. This is a moderate hike to an alpine lake and is great for beginner hikers and children. You’re at high elevation already, and you only need to take a mild hike with a little downhill to the lake. This is a great opportunity to enjoy Idaho’s Smoky Mountains.
Getting there: Drive north on Idaho 75 from Sun Valley. You can’t miss Galena Lodge or the summit.
TRAIL CREEK SUMMIT
Trail Creek Summit rises about 8,200 feet in elevation from Sun Valley and is a quick day hiking area from the resort town.
The Trail Creek area has several campgrounds and lots of undeveloped camping in base areas for hiking many of the mountain peaks in the Boulder and Pioneer mountains.
It’s truly a gateway to this wonderful mountain region east of the Sun Valley area, including favorite places like Pioneer Cabin, The Devil’s Bedstead and Copper Basin, to name a few.
It would take all of August to explore the mountain peaks in this area, many of which reach 11,000 feet or more in elevation.
Getting there: Simply take Trail Creek Road out of Sun Valley to the top and start exploring all the way down to the Lost River and U.S. 93. The road can be very dusty and washboarded late in the summer.
Pete Zimowsky (aka Zimo), retired outdoors writer from the Idaho Statesman, just can’t put down his camera and continues to write occasionally about adventures around Idaho and the Northwest.