After leaving the McCall area we traveled west to follow the Snake River north to Hells Canyon. The Hells Canyon Wilderness has been on our must see list for quite some time. Three dams were constructed on the river by Idaho Power Company (IPC) in the early 1960s, which generate significant power to Idaho. The dams and power plants are so remote that IPC provides company housing nearby each of the facilities.
The good news is that below the last dam (Hells Canyon Dam) the canyon and river remain a protected wilderness – there is no road – no electricity – no water. In order to access the canyon in the wilderness area you have three options – walk, go down river (raft, kayak or jet boat) – access at HC Dam – or fly in utilizing the grass airstrip on the banks of the river by the former Kirkwood Ranch.
Today, Hells canyon is completely uninhabited. A number of families attempted to make a living ranching and mining within the canyon but only a couple of ranches managed to survive for any length of time. The last ranch was abandoned in the early 1960s. There is ample evidence from pictographs that native americans were in the canyon long ago.
Hells Canyon at is deepest point is the deepest gorge in North America (7900 feet). We wanted to experience the canyon from river level, from above, and go as far downriver as possible. Fortunately, we were able to catch a jetboat tour that took us downriver 27 miles to the site of the former Kirkwood Ranch (sheep) before returning to the dam access point. Our river journey provided us with the ability to see the very remote and pristine canyon – we could not possibly have hiked anywhere near that far downstream. The added benefit was the fun of running the numerous rapids on the river between the dam and our turnaround point. We did hike along the river for several miles which gave us the on the ground vantage point. Finally, we drove the Hat Point Road to gain a spectacular view of the canyon and river from an elevation of 6900 feet above sea level.
The Hells Canyon Wilderness is a beautiful, awe-inspiring area, but come prepared as there is very minimal infrastucture anywhere near the area and almost no connectivity.
P.S. Summer temperatures average daily high 100+F!
When we last posted we thought we were heading to Eastern Oregon but…….98-100F temperatures in the Alvord Desert caused us to reconsider. Ultimately, we opted to head north to McCall, Idaho where the daily high temperatures were in the 80F range.
McCall is a summer resort town sitting on the eastern shore of beautiful Payette Lake and nestled at the southern base of the mountainous Payette NF.
The drive north from Boise on the Payette River Scenic Byway is splendid as the road winds north hugging the rapid filled Payette River.
We camped at Ponderosa State Park for the first couple of nights before heading up into the Payette NF ahead of the Labor Day weekend crowd. The night sky from our mountain top campsite in the Payette was absolutely stunning. We were transfixed by the enormity and brillance of the Milky Way, the consellations and the numerous satellites and rockets criss crossing the sky.
Additionally, our stay here was most pleasant since we were able to bike into town from our camping location at Ponderosa SP and drink cappuccino and tea and then cycle back to our campsite.
The highlight of our stay in the McCall area was our kayaking trip on the North Fork of the Payette River. We were treated to great beauty, solitude and the magic of observing deer and birds of prey along the banks of the river.
We honestly never thought we would spend three full weeks in Idaho but it is beautiful and the weather was perfect. Nonetheless, time to move on…..current plan is to head to Hells Canyon on the border of Idaho and Oregon and then explore the northeastern corner of Oregon.
After extending our stay in both San Diego and San Clemente, we are back on the road. Our first stop was at JTNP where the wildflower “super bloom” is at its peak.
JTNP is one of a limited number of National Parks that allows access to back country high clearance 4WD trails. Many of these trails exist due to the significant number of mines (300) that at various times operated in the area which is now JTNP. We took advantage of the opportunity by spending an afternoon traveling through Pinkham Canyon and were treated to spectacular scenery and solitude.
There are a number of great hiking trails within the park. Because this is the busy season at the park we chose several hikes that we thought would be less crowded including Mastodon Peak and 49 Palms Oasis.
An interesting aspect of the park is that portions of both the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert are within its boundaries. While the park is named after the Joshua Tree there are no Joshua Trees in the Colorado Desert area of the park; they are only found in the Mojave Desert area of the park.
JTNP is extremely beautiful at this time of the year and the temperatures are reasonable for hiking. But as this is a true desert environment we would recommend you that you visit between late fall and early spring before high temperatures go into the triple digits!
GTNP is a small NP compared to YNP. The dozen or so peaks that exceed 12,000 feet are a spectacular sight rising straight up from the floor of the Jackson Hole with no foothills. The park is abundant with Elk and Moose feeding along the Snake River.
Over the last several years hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails and paved trails have been added all around the Jackson Hole. You can ride your bike from Jackson all the way to and through way the park. This area is really becoming a biking meca. Aditionally, there are a number of excellent hiking trails of which we were able to take advantage of with the mild day time temperatures and dry conditions.
The town of Jackson has become very touristy and pricey. There has been a considerable influx of foreign tourists coming in large bus convoys. The good news is that despite all the crowds you can still find relative solitude on the trails since most of these groups hop on and off the buses to take photos and then move to the next scenic look out. Can’t help but feel sometimes that the more popular parks feel Disney like in the way they now have to manage transportation and crowds to accommodate up to four million visitors a year. Some of the parks are way to small to handle these numbers and now have waits of hours to get a shuttle into the park.
Excited to be heading west into Idaho to spend some time at several unique national monuments that require backcounty travel capability.
We traveled through Big Horn NF on our way to Yellowstone NP. The weather in Big Horn was cold and windy but we managed to hike out to the Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel is a sacred site for Native Americans, constructed by Plains Indians between 300 and 800 years ago. The various spokes of the circle align to astronomical events.
The weather at Yellowstone NP was cool but mostly dry, so we were able to complete a number of hikes and drive the park loop roads.
We made the obligatory visit to Old Faithful Geyser to see the eruption which we have to say is pretty cool. The thermal activity throughout the park is spectacular, especially in the morning when the air is cool.
Grizzly Bears were out and about while we were in the park. Many folks seem disappointed not to have seen a Grizzly up close however, they clearly do not understand the danger of an encounter with a Grizzly. We did have a terrific view from a safe distance of a female Grizzly by the lake. We also had to wait on one trail while park law enforcement drove off a Grizzly by firing blank shotgun rounds – a little too close for comfort.
The night time temperatures are dipping consistently under freezing so we are heading south towards warmer weather.
We camped one night at Wind Cave National Park just south of Custer Sate Park. We did some hiking, toured part of the cave system and were serenaded by the bugling of the park’s elk herd as we relaxed by our campfire. We were forced to turn back on our first attempt to hike because the bison pictured below would not budge from the trail and we decided ticking off a 2000 pound bison that can sprint at 30 miles an hour is just a bad idea! We were able to instead hike the Wind Canyon trail pictured below.
Wind Cave is the sixth longest cave in the world with 140 miles of cave discovered to date. The cave has three lakes at 600 feet below the surface. We toured with a park ranger and descended to a depth of 212 feet. This cave system is truely a maze with all 140 miles of passage contained within a square mile. The cave is also notable in that 95% of the known boxwork (photo below) in the world is contained within this cave system.