“I believe much trouble would be saved if we opened our hearts more.”
– Chief Joseph (Hinmatóoyalahtq’it)
Two years ago I lived near Joseph, Oregon, a place where spring comes late and the high mountain snow doesn’t melt out until early July. Fortunately, Hells Canyon is to the east. At a river elevation of 900 feet, early season warmth and flowers are nearby. Getting there from the Oregon side is a challenge though.
A paved road extending northeast from Joseph, passing through Imnaha, and then a bit further gets you to the start of a dirt road that winds down the lower Imnaha River canyon and eventually to Dug Bar along the Snake River. But this is the only direct access to the bottom of Hells Canyon. If the weather is wet, if the road hasn’t yet been patched together after the winter has done its damage, getting down (and back up) the dirt road can be difficult.
And the end of this road has limited bikepacking opportunities. Upstream of Dug Bar is designated Wilderness so no bikes. A rideable trail peels off just before the Cow Creek bridge and follows the Imnaha River to its confluence with the Snake River and is a real treat. You can follow a faint trail further along the Snake River but that shortly ends in sheer cliffs.
I had heard stories about old trails that once tied the upper portions of Hells Canyon north of Joseph to the Imnaha River confluence. But the high point was over 5000 feet in elevation and it was only mid-April. I knew that the Forest Service hadn’t maintained trails in Hells Canyon for decades but the aerial photographs seemed to show some kind of route. What the hell, I just picked a three-day window with perfect weather and took my chances.
The best bikepacking trips are ones that start at and end at your back door and this was one. I rode down the hill to town and ordered a preventative hot chocolate at Arrowhead Chocolates.
I headed out of town past Chief Joseph Mountain and then north up the road through Zumwalt Prairie, past the Nature Conservancy property with its prancing elk, and rode gravel among hawks who were busy giving the ground squirrels a hard time.
Here, the going was easy – smooth, rolling hills, and roads to myself.
Favorable conditions continued as I crossed into the National Forest and climbed a bit further to the high point, which was Buckhorn Lookout. From there I could see the terrain I would be traveling through. It looked something less than easy.
I had come across only scattered patches of snow getting up to the lookout but when I headed down Cherry Creek Road to the north I realized that I wasn’t going to get off easy. Winter had left its mark — I began walking my bike through the snow.
Two miles later I had scrubbed off enough elevation that the dirt surface of the road was exposed and the rest of the downhill along Cherry Creek was fast and furious. At an elevation of 2500 feet the road abruptly ends at the old Cherry Creek Ranch. An unmaintained ATV track crosses the creek and continues on for two miles to the northeast, ending at a ridge overlooking the inner gorge of Hells Canyon. Here, I was hoping to pick up a trail that took me to the confluence of Idaho’s two greatest rivers — the Snake and the Salmon.
Hells Canyon is two formations: the terrain above 2400 feet in elevation is layered basalt and has eroded into moderate slopes interspersed with sheer bluffs. The elk move easily through this terrain along interconnecting benches. The old hiking trail system also follows these benches. The terrain below 2400 feet in elevation is basement geology and those rocks contain the minerals that attracted miners a century ago. Here, it is overwhelmingly steep with the only flat areas being near the Snake River.
Between the river and I were those cliffs and it would have been a tough walk with a bike. And since I would be coming back to where I was standing anyway, I just leaned my bike against a rock, grabbed the gear I would need for the night, and started walking.
The old trail to the bottom was hard to find and so I wandered around the edge of the break for a long while. Finally, I spotted the remnants of a trail prism snaking down a rocky spine and committed to the plunge. At the bottom, I hiked across the broad bench next to the river that doubles as a primitive airstrip and camped on a gravel bar where the Salmon River eases into the Snake River without much fanfare.
The early spring flowers were amazing.
The next morning, after a peaceful sleep, I gathered up my bags I started back up the hill in search of my bike.
Reunited, I rode down the ATV track to Cherry Creek Ranch and then back up the dirt road towards Buckhorn Lookout. Halfway along that leg, about where Old Man Creek enters Cherry Creek, a Forest Service map shows a trail that climbs steeply to a ridge, drops down to Knight Creek, and then contours over to Eureka Creek. A trail down Eureka Creek would then spit me out at the confluence of the Snake and Imnaha Rivers. Simple.
The trail turned out to be a challenge to follow through the grass. Riding was rarely possible because of the steep inclines and rocky surface. Nevertheless, it was one of the most scenics places I’ve ever taken my bike for a walk.
Riding downhill to Knight Creek was difficult too and so I got to walk more. I should have brought the full suspension bike rather than a hardtail.
But some of the trail was just sweet for riding.
These slopes are far removed from the road hunters that circle the canyon rim and the jet boat hunters that buzz along at river level so the wildlife is abundant.
I got in a few more miles of riding before reaching Eureka Creek and then the difficulties started. Recent fire had scorched the vegetation along Eureka Creek and that just riled up the species you don’t want growing next to a trail, such as hawthorn and poison ivy. I react strongly to poison ivy so I stopped to put on all my clothes as protection and started thrashing through the brush. But it was all over in a mile and I was back at the Snake River. Here, was my second place to spend the night.
Magpies flirted around me the next morning as I rode the six miles of Imnaha River trail.
When I reached the trailhead at the Imnaha River Road I came across a couple from Moscow, Idaho, who were lingering over their morning coffee. I stopped to talk and they plied me with coffee and hiking advice. I steered them away from Eureka Creek. I had a long day ahead so I started up the bumpy road along the river. It just might be the most scenic road in all of northeast Oregon.
The ride was made even better when I passed a small tree with a plastic bag dangling from a limb overhanging the road. The Moscow couple had left me with a bag of food and a note saying, “Ride hard!” I must have looked hungry back at the trailhead. And I was. I seem to underestimate my need for food on these trips.
By noon I had reached the Imnaha Tavern, an outpost for hamburgers and wolf opinions, still 30 miles removed from Joseph.
The isolation of the last two days had its worked magic at opening up my heart. I felt it close down some as I rode the pavement to Joseph. The occasional RV and flatbed truck roared past my ear and created dissonance. In retrospect, I should have turned onto Camp Creek Road 1.2 miles west of Imnaha and followed it up to Zumwalt Prairie and eased back into civilization along that scenic route.
So, 116 miles. Here is a GPS track of my route, minus the hike down to the confluence of the Salmon River.
I know why Chief Joseph was so reluctant to give up this land to white people. It was a generous land full of spirit and grace. You can still find those remnants in Hells Canyon if you are willing to walk (and ride) for it.