Hells Canyon and Slate Creek

Idaho is truly remarkable!  The diversity in geography and topography are even more stark when one drives about 40 miles and goes from one canyon, up 3000′ then down 3000′ into another canyon then shortly finds themselves driving along a creek that belongs on the extreme West coast.  Not to mention being just a few miles removed from driving at almost 8000′ while bisecting a mountainous wilderness area.  This was all accomplished by me in about half a day–I drove from Pittsburg Landing along the Snake River to the Gospel Hump Wilderness in central Idaho.

I had a small window of opportunity with my class schedule and decided to check out Hells Canyon.  It was about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Moscow to Pittsburg Landing.  The gravel road is well-signed and well-maintained.  There are many steep sections and hairpin turns but the road’s condition was very nice.  My one night at the landing was spent hiking around trying to find a good composition for sunset.  I believe I headed the wrong direction as I was shooting almost directly into the setting sun (the sun had long since disappeared behind the hills).

Late Afternoon light over Hells Canyon

The following morning I woke up at 5:45am and drove down to the trail head for the Snake River National Recreation Trail.  This is a lengthy trail (25+miles I believe) but I only hiked about 3/4 of a mile.  I was taking a pretty good pace as I wanted to capture a certain before sunrise.  I didn’t quite accomplish that but the sun was completely clear making the expansive photo dull.  As the sun rose higher and higher the reflected light onto the Snake River provided me with many photographic opportunities.  Including hiking time, I spent over three hours along the trail.  Here are a couple shots that I like from that morning.

Sunrise at Pittsburg Landing

Snake River shoreline

Morning reflection along the Snake River

After packing everything up and leaving the landing, I stopped at Hoot’s on US HWY 95 just south of White Bird, ID for some lunch.  I highly recommend this place to anyone!  After eating too much (I had to have some homemade apple pie) I headed south to take FS 354 (Slate Creek Rd).  This road is boring at the beginning passing by many rural residences, but as you enter the Nez Perce National Forest the real beauty begins.  The one downside is the amount of brush along the creek’s bank; it made it difficult to get a clean view of the creek.  I stopped once or twice and was unable to get a clean shot but a couple other times I was more successful.

Slate Creek and forest

Slate Creek

The adventure finally ended as I made my way slowly from 3500′ to 7800′.  FS 354quickly gains elevation towards a junction with FS 221.  I had the added experience of driving through a fresh forest fire with thick smoke and some small branches and twigs still flickering.  (I passed by seven FS trucks, three equipped with hoses and water tanks.)  In retrospect I should have stopped and taken a picture because the smoke had transformed the midday sun into a reddish soft glow throughout the forest.  after emerging at FS 221 I head to the turn-off for the Gospel Hump Wilderness.  This road has a much more straightforward ascent with just two or three switchbacks.  The whole road is well-maintained (graded) but some portions are still a little rocky.  What I found interesting about this road is that is bisects the wilderness.  At one point you can stop and look down at a nice mountain lake buried in a cirque!  Here is the video evidence to prove I’m not exaggerating.

I didn’t keep track of the mileage from Pittsburg Landing to the Gospel Hump Wilderness but I would guess it’s between 40-50 miles.  A few notes about the names:  Gospel Hump contains two mountains named Buffalo Hump and Gospel Peak.  Buffalo Hump is descriptive of the mountain’s shape.  Gospel Peak is so named because N. W. Know gave an impromptu sermon here in 1899 (having been invited to camp with surveyors and prospectors).  Pittsburg Landing is likely named after the same landing on the west bank of the Tennessee River (Battle of Shiloh site).  (This information is from Idaho Place Names, by Lalia Boone.)

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3 thoughts on “Hells Canyon and Slate Creek

  1. I was first introduced to this area by Backpacker Magazine and then the Man vs. Wild TV show. Both showed how rugged the terrain was and how unforgiving it could be. Your black and white photograph really shows a sense of mystery of what lies ahead. In the second photograph the viewer can see how vast the canyon walls can be. I just love the hanging moss in Slate. Hope to get to see Hells Canyon with my own someday. Great write up on the place Aaron.

  2. Thank you for the compliment Steve. I saw a little of the Man vs. Wild episode too. Hells Canyon is an extremely rough place and even home to the Seven Devils where there are peaks of 9000’+. I suppose it’s that difference that gives it the distinction of being the deepest gorge in the US. I converted the one pic to B&W due to the lack in color to begin with but it gave me more ability to show the depth in the receding hills. I’m glad you like it and the write up!

  3. The Gospel-Hump is an area I’d love to explore more. I’ve only ever seen it from the bottom, via the river. The contrasts are amazing in that western Idaho canyon country, with all those harsh desert slopes hiding lush riparian canyons. You can even find old-growth yew trees in some of them. Love that second Slate Creek shot, and the two reflections!

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