- Date: November 20-21, 2017
- Location: Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
- Start: Freezeout Trailhead
- Distance: 16 miles
- Duration: 2 days
- Type: Out-and-back
The search for a snow-free area to go backpacking in the Pacific Northwest can get a little tough by late November. I had originally wanted to head out to Utah or Arizona for some desert trekking, but the long drive there and back would’ve cut too much into our Thanksgiving vacation time. Searching more locally, the Honeycombs of the Owyhee Canyonlands were a particularly strong contender, but the notorious drive to reach the trailhead (and our lack of car-related emergency skills) eventually convinced us otherwise.
At the last minute (literally a day or two before we left), we decided on Hells Canyon in Eastern Oregon. It had actually been on our list for awhile, but we’d set it aside as a spring season trip. With our lack of options, we decided to give it a shot. In the end, it was a far from perfect trip (as evidenced by the trip’s duration and type, which was originally supposed to be a three to four day loop). However, despite the relatively minor setbacks that ultimately convinced us to turn around, our brief time spent in this rugged and remote section of Oregon only convinced us that we need to come back and fully experience everything it has to offer.
Day 1: Freezeout Trailhead to Log Creek (8 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)
After dealing with the stress of last minute trip/route planning and, thereafter, procrastinating on packing, we arrived at Freezeout Trailhead a day later than expected. My little Crosstrek was the only vehicle there that morning. Maybe it was because it was a weekday. Or maybe we were the only people dumb enough to be out there with rain and high winds in the forecast. At least we’d most likely have the place to ourselves!
The rain started as soon as we hit the trail and we got our first taste of what tread conditions were going to be like for almost the entirety of our hike in. The combination of prevalent horse use and heavy rain transformed the trails into a sloppy, shoe-sucking, mucky mess. Mud caked our boots from the get-go. Scraping it off was futile as it just continued to pile up as we hiked. In addition to the muck, sopping piles of horse shit (Cassie’s favorite trail snack unfortunately) covered our path. Thankfully, we had an expansive view of the area as we slogged up the switchbacks to Freezeout Saddle; a welcome distraction from the miserable aspects.
According to our guidebook map and the signage at the trailhead, Freezeout Saddle is just over two miles in. However, it took us a whole two hours (with almost no breaks except to check our map) to reach it! I found it difficult to believe that we were actually moving that slow. Regardless, it meant we were losing daylight fast and still had a number of miles to cover in order to reach Saddle Creek camp. At this point, I had serious doubts about making it there or even continuing on. I wanted so badly to make our original 30-ish mile loop happen, but I knew it wasn’t likely. Knowing this fueled my desire to just turn around at the saddle, but Mack remained positive and insisted that we at least stay the night and make the most of our trip. I wasn’t thrilled in the moment, but in retrospect I’m happy he convinced me to push on.
In all honesty, we’ve dealt with worse conditions (I’m looking at you Hoh River Trail!), but for some reason, on this particular trip, I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with even the slightest amount of bullshit. If I’m being more honest, I was still feeling bitter about having to forgo our Utah plans (specifically Zion NP, where I’d seen a few friends sharing recent photos of absolutely impeccable trail and weather conditions) for something closer to home and it was messing with my attitude.
The rain had subsided by the time we reached the saddle (and blue skies were even starting to peek out from behind the clouds!), but the wind speed had picked up tremendously. We just couldn’t catch a break! We descended quickly in order to escape the blustery wrath and actually enjoyed semi-decent tread conditions and wind-free hiking for a short while. As we made our way down into the canyon, it felt more like we were journeying deeper and deeper into the heart of a vast mountain range straddling the Oregon-Idaho border. I managed to forget about my worries as I looked around me. Then conditions returned to their previous state just before the junction with the Bench “High” Trail. As if the slop fest wasn’t enough, there were even overgrown sections of tall grass thrown into the mix for an additional challenge.
At the junction, we decided to turn onto the Bench “High” Trail rather than continue descending to Saddle Creek camp. With sunset less than three hours away, our best bet to avoid trekking in the dark on an unmaintained trail was to aim for Log Creek camp, only two to three miles away now. I knew by doing this we’d probably have to scrap the Snake River portion of our route, but I didn’t care anymore. I still half-wanted to turn around and go back to the car, especially when the wind picked up again and practically knocked us over for long stretches of time due to the exposed terrain. The majestic scenery along the Bench Trail managed to pull me back in though.
To our left, towering above us, was the rim of the canyon on the Oregon side. The Western Rim National Recreation Trail was somewhere up there paralleling our current path. To our right lay the Snake River somewhere far below and the outstretched rolling hills and rocky slopes of the Idaho side. We also happened to be moving in the same direction as a giant herd of elk! Over the course of two hours or so we encountered this large group of 30 to 40 at least four times. Cassie went crazy over them, barking and pulling hard on her leash. They continued ahead when they heard us, moving with grace and ease as a unit over the steep, rocky slopes.
We reached camp around 2:25 pm. (Side note: For those interested in hiking some of this route and camping here, know that this spot is completely unmarked/unsigned. Bring along a good map and be able to find Log Creek on it. The camping spot is a short ways off the trail on a noticeably impacted site.) It wasn’t raining anymore and we were out of the wind. Maybe our luck was about to change? Nope. Instead of getting to relax and de-stress, we were swarmed by gnats. It was impossible to sit outside and enjoy the nice weather and scenery, even if we moved around. They followed us everywhere! I spent our down time in camp swatting them away from my face and picking them out of Cassie’s hair. The gnat attack made cooking dinner an absolute nightmare of course. We barely managed enough to eat because of it.
The only time the swarm finally subsided was when it started to pour again. We were still finishing dinner when it started up. We scrambled to get our food hung and hauled ass back to the tent. Cassie was so desperate to get in she belly crawled under the rainfly and pawed at the tent. She was covered in mud though so she was forced to hold out a little longer until we could wipe her down. She was not happy about this and literally gave us the cold shoulder for the rest of the night. We attempted to salvage the rest of our evening with cocoa and holiday movies as we listened to the rain patter on the tent.
Day 2: Log Creek to Freezeout Trailhead (8 miles; 4 hours, breaks included)
We awoke in better spirits the next morning, although I think a good deal of that can be attributed to the fact that we’d already decided to cut our trip short and hike back out. With the decent weather, the gnats were back in full force as we packed up the tent. Despite being extremely hungry (especially after not eating enough the previous day), we skipped the sit-down breakfast and stashed snacks in our pockets so we could get moving instead. I munched on my Poptart as we hiked once we’d put some distance between ourselves and the gnats.
We hiked a lot faster this time around while still taking moments here and there to appreciate our surroundings. The conditions hadn’t improved of course, but by this point we were used to it and had clean socks and shoes to look forward to back at the car. Freezeout Saddle remained in view for much of the Bench Trail part of the hike. Always getting closer, but still feeling faraway. I wasn’t looking forward to the final climb up to it.
As expected, the two mile climb from the junction back up to the saddle was the most difficult part of the day. On top of that, the wind and rain had returned and clouds had descended upon much of the Idaho side (i.e. no more expansive views). The Poptart I’d scarfed down a few miles back had done little to satisfy my aching stomach. We were getting closer now though. I daydreamed about all the food we had stashed in the cooler in the car and it kept me moving.
The weather (with the exception of the wind) seemed to instantly improve once we began to make our way down the opposite side of the saddle. We had views again! Somehow though Mack and I had swapped places in terms of general demeanor. Now he was the one in a cranky mood, anxious to get back and change out of his mud covered pants and boots. (Oddly enough, I managed to stay mostly mud-free with the exception of the bottom and sides of my boots) Fortunately, this final stretch went by quickly and before we knew it we were back at the car by 1:15 pm, throwing on clean, dry clothes, and stuffing our faces with bagels and other snacks.
As we sat there in the car, resting up before the long drive back home, I actually felt a tinge of sadness that we were leaving so early. Despite the crappy weather, awful trail conditions, and swarming gnats, the beauty and solitude we’d experienced over the past two days were what stood out in my mind (even if they didn’t completely outweigh some of the negative aspects). Well, Hells Canyon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon as far as I know. We’ll definitely be back to explore more thoroughly in the near future I imagine.