Imnaha River Backpack, Hell’s Canyon, Oregon

     It had been nearly two years since I had shouldered my pack and wandered into the wilderness. Nothing brings me back to my core being like a backpacking trip into a remote slice of heaven, it has always been my zen. Until recently an ankle injury had kept me sidelined. Almost six months ago I had a surgical repair to my talar bone in my left ankle, going through my recovery part of me wondered if I would ever hike again, let alone set out for an overnighter with a 30+ pound pack. I worked hard and listened to the people around me, and especially my body. So you can imagine the excitement I have being able to do again what I once loved the most.

    Over the years I had taken up whitewater rafting, which is an amazing way to travel through a remote landscape but doesn’t quite do it for me like backpacking. Life can be complicated on the river, the logistics including shuttle, river flows, camps, permits, meals, and everything else takes away from what the simplicity of a backpacking trip can offer.  Looking for a spring destination I had it down to two locations, both in Oregon. The primary along Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge and the backup along the Imnaha River through canyon country into Hells Canyon on the Snake River. When rain crept in to the forecast we decided to abandon the gorge for Hells Canyon and dryer weather.

     Cole and I got a late start out of Spokane on Friday night, hitting the road around 11pm. The drive south through the monotonous rolling hills of the Palouse was much more pleasant at night, it can feel like forever driving through the waste land of wheat before descending the Lewiston grade to the tamed and neglected slack water of the Clearwater River valley. We picked up the rattlesnake grade winding high above the Snake River before blinking and missing the disheveled town of Anatone. Soon we dropped to the swollen Grande Ronde River where we found a sliver of public land behind Boggans Oasis to squat for the night in the bed of the truck.

    The alarm went off at 7:30 and we quickly evacuated the cold of the truck bed for the warm cup of Joe and a hearty breakfast at Boggans Oasis. With full bellies the truck crawled away, high above the Grande Ronde and toward the spectacular snow capped Wallowa Mountains and blue skies. After having someone else fill my tank for me in Enterprise we made our way to Joseph and eventually the charming town of Imnaha. After crossing the river we turned left where the pavement eventually ended and our kidneys took a beating for 15 grueling miles of dirt road to an eerie redneck tent encampment at the Cow Creek Bridge, sure felt like a “Hills Have Eyes” experience to me but the simpletons proved harmless and were pleasant enough.

    After shoulding packs with provisions for the night Cole and I picked up the unsigned dirt trail heading downstream on river left. The Imnaha River is a popular steelhead destination and we met a few flannel clad scraggly bearded keystone packing roughnecks strung along the first 100 yards of trail all casting with a hope and a prayer. Before long we came across a small waterfall at an unknown creek, and eventually a double waterfall descending a side canyon at another unknown creek. Across the river was the first significant rapid on the river just below Cow Creek. The Imnaha River canyon is one of beauty, even during the shoulder season amongst dormant trees and vegetation. About a mile down the trail the canyon narrowed forcing hikers to walk around and below overhanging cliffs blasted through shear rock to allow hikers passage. At two miles Cole and I decided to take a break below circling birds of prey in a rock outcrop with a commanding view of the raging Imnaha. We basked in the sun whenever it broke through the coulds enjoying the peace and solitude our surroundings had to offer.

    After our short break we were back on our way. It felt good to be on the trail again, the familiar feeling of gravity bearing down on my shoulders, sipping warm water as I stumbled down the dirt path, occasionally tripping over the usual suspects. Six months ago my orthopedic surgeon gave me my life back and it felt good to be able to appreciate the little things associated with backpacking that I used to take for granted.

    A while further along the trail near a giant slide we spotted a herd of sheep grazing and laying atop a grassy flat tucked into the canyon wall. Behind us the river ragged, as it morphed from a fun looking class two river to a solid class three run and now a heart pounding class four torrent. Being a river runner this canyon is not one to take lightly, a swim in the lower canyon of the Imnaha would be ill advised. Eventually the trail made its only significant climb, which was well worth it. Standing there, perched atop a rock, surrounded by trail lined with rock and mortor we were greeted with an impressive upstream view of the magnificent canyon of the Imnaha. I couldn’t imagine the amount of work and skill involved in the construction of such an amazing trail through such rugged terrain. Shortly after our descent we were greeted with a view of the confluence on the Imnaha and the mighty Snake River. After crossing a couple of sturdy bridges we had arrived at Eureka Bar below the sun bathed canyon walls of Hells Canyon. A short walk downstream along a gravel bar we discovered a perfect camp amongst a grove of trees and green grass.

    The panoramic view from our bench above the river was awe inspiring, and to think we had this all to ourselves, how did we get so lucky? After a shirtless break atop a perfect lunch rock chores had to be done. With filter in hand we collected our water bottles and made our way downstream, passing below remnants of buildings belonging to a long forgotten era, it was hard to believe this bar was once home to 2000 down on their luck rowdy miners looking to strike it rich. Wilderness persists here and mother nature has reclaimed what was once hers. We made our way in and out of rock outcroppings and few ups and downs before reaching Eureka Creek, a torrent this time of year, I was thankful we didn’t have to cross it, an untimely fall would definitely not end well here. We relaxed, allowing the gravity filter to do its work, such a relief not to have to pump 12 liters of water, and because our water source is a mile from camp we were gonna get it all now. Back in camp we pitched the tent and gathered enough drift wood to warm a small tribe. With the chores done we settled in for the night, taking in the views, listening to music and just relaxing. When the sun left the canyon walls the fire was a welcome relief.

    The next morning we quickly got a fire started and soon after the coffee, and eventually breakfast, we had our priorities in line. We mingled a while, and hoped the sun would eventually come out, it didn’t. We packed up, said our goodbyes to Hells Canyon and returned the same way we came, this time up hill. The hike out was good, passed a few more fisherman but this time they were catching fish, even got a chance to watch one guy land a native steelhead that he was forced to return. Eventually the sun did come out, and the canyon grew warm, it even seemed if things were a little more green today and than the day before, life was good. We made quick work of the trail, but made the same long brutal drive out over dirt road to the town of Imnaha, where we found a well deserved beer at the Imnaha Tavern, a genuine slice of americana built in 1904.  In Joseph we visited Total Gravity Brewery as well, good times and good company before making the brutal drive home which was well worth all the effort. We hiked about 12 miles with perhaps 250 feet of elevation gained mostly on the way out. For more pics check out my link.


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