Seven Devils Mountains, Hell’s Canyon Wilderness area
July 7th, 8th, 9th, 2004
Glen Liberty and I attempted a loop hike around the Seven Devils in September 2003. We were turned back by blizzard conditions shortly after reaching Iron Phone Junction. The details of that (miss) adventure can be found in my account titled: “When Hell(‘s Canyon) Freezes Over.”
I had been waiting anxiously all winter and spring for another chance to hike the 27 mile loop trail. The hiking season in the Seven Devils is very short, usually late June through early September, due to the high elevation and the snow. Early on the morning of July 7th, 2004, Steven and I left Boise on our way to Riggins.
One of the things that makes a hike from Windy Saddle different from other hikes is the location and the starting elevation. Many hikes begin from a trailhead that is at a lower altitude. The trail then climbs, usually following a stream, creek, river, or some kind of dried-up drainage for a considerable portion of the uphill. The destination of the hike is usually considered to be "up there" somewhere. Some trails, however, begin at the high point or near it and then descend into a canyon, the destination of the hike being considered as *down there* somewhere. Examples of this type of trail can be found at the North Rim or South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, Crater Lake in Oregon, and Bryce Canyon in Utah. Examples of the low starting point climbing to a higher one abound. Hiking around the Seven Devils Mountains from the Windy Saddle trailhead begins at a high elevation and then dips immediately down whether you begin to the north or begin to the south.
The drive to Windy Saddle begins one mile south of Riggins, Idaho. Turn off highway 95 onto 517 which is a one-lane road with asphalt pavement for the first three miles, then graded gravel with turn-outs for the remaining 14 miles. The road is actually a greater width than two lanes for significant portions, but it well deserves its one lane designation. There are plenty of places where two cars passing are a very tight squeeze. Steven and I left Boise around 5:50 am. We got to the Windy Saddle trailhead parking lot at 10 am. Due to our early start I wanted to lean my seat back in the car and take a short nap….so we did.
We started our hike at exactly 10:30 am. The weather forecast called for a slight chance of thunderstorms on Wednesday. There were a few wispy clouds blowing in from the west. Since we were around 8000 feet in elevation some of the clouds were floating by the cliffs just above us. We started from Windy Saddle following the same trail in the same direction that Glen Liberty and I had hiked in September 2003.
My plan for completing the hike was for three days and two nights. Simple division of the 27 mile total into 3 days of hiking yields an average of nine miles per day. My starting pack weight was around 30 pounds. My first weigh-in said 29 pounds, but then I discovered that my 50 pound fishing scale was off by two pounds from zero and I couldn't figure out how to adjust the tare to zero. In order to help Steven with the backward sag in his new pack I carried his tent in a stuff bag tied onto to one of my pack straps for the entire hike. I just let the bag dangle from my strap and it banged against my legs with almost every step. Sounds annoying but I got used to it. I wanted to ensure that Steven wouldn't get bogged down by the weight and that he would succeed in this hike. I was also carrying a fanny pack with two full bottles of water. The fanny pack had about three pounds inside plus the weight of the water bottles. In my hand I carried my newly constructed Polama pvc pipe hiking pole. All told I'm guessing that I was packing about 35-40 pounds between pack, the fanny pack, the extra tent, and the staff. This was a heavier load than I wanted to deal with, but I did it.
FIRST DAY 9 miles
(Windy Saddle to Baldy Creek)
We started at Windy Saddle, stopped for lunch at Sheep Creek, and kept going in the afternoon up the switchbacks to Iron Phone Junction. Just a few hundred yards past IPJ was where Glen and I made the wise decision to turn around in the blizzard and descend back into the trees where it was not snowing, only wet. Steven and I reached this point in good shape. The weather had changed from cloudy to absolutely fantastic. The promised thunderstorms spoken of never materialized, and the sky was a beautiful blue with temps in the mid 70's and cool breezes....great hiking weather. We passed by the turn to Hibbs Cow Camp and continued on to the junction with the trail to Echo Lake and He Devil Lake. Continuing on past the turn, we entered the most difficult section of our hike for the day. We thought we might be able to make it to Baldy Lake for our first night's camp. The section between Echo Lake all the way to Baldy Creek had many blown down trees across the trail and a lot of thorny undergrowth. This section came in the late afternoon when we were already tired. Perhaps it wouldn't have seemed so insurmountable to us had we been fresh and rested.
For the next two hours we fought our way over, under, around, and through obstacle after obstacle. Since I was hiking in shorts my legs got very scratched up in the process. Steven fared better because he was wearing jeans. Scrambling over a fallen tree while wearing a bulky pack presents a challenge, especially when the trail is cut across a slope that leans from high inside to low outside. Thorny bushes or other fallen trees at the sides of the trail often complicate an easy detour around the tree on the one side, and a drop-off on the downhill side of the tree often prevents a detour around the tree to that side.
We finally came around the shoulder of Potato Hill and encountered a descent along a creek. Here the creek BECAME the trail, and was interspersed with fallen trees across and parallel to the creek By this time, I had a cut on my left knee and my energy and enthusiasm were flagging. We stopped to filter water into our water bottles from the creek. Our prospects for the evening did not look encouraging from my viewpoint. We were in an area of tangled blow-downs, brush, rocks, and undergrowth. There wasn't a place in sight with enough flat space that looked inviting for establishing a sheltered campsite. It appeared that we would need to push on around the next mountainside and try to locate Baldy Lake. However, it was late in the day and our daylight would be almost gone by the time we reached the lake (if we indeed reached it).
The Bible verse came to my mind that God knows what we need before we even ask Him. Something about the timing of that verse at that point in time and at my point of need resonated with me. I felt my faith combining with the Word. At that point I felt that prayer was in order, not only for a campsite to rest at but for my discouragement and weariness. Here is something close to what I prayed with Steven, "Father, here we are. You know where we're at and that we're getting very tired. We're asking You to please provide us a sheltered flat space where we can camp and be safe for the night. Thanks for helping us get this far. Give us the strength to continue on." It was a heartfelt prayer breathed out of a time of being tired and disheartened, but I felt a peace after I prayed that assured me that I had placed the matter at the feet of my Savior and that He would answer.
We packed up again and started crossing over a big tree on the other side of the creek. I had prayed the matter into the background and now just felt better from the relief of giving the situation over to my Abba Father. We had only gone about 100-200 yards around the curve of the trail when we came to another large tree across the trail. “Oh great!” I thought, then I looked beyond the tree. And then understanding hit me. A small clearing was directly on the other side of the fallen tree, with several other fallen trees cut cleanly with a chainsaw forming a rough outline on three other sides. There were two bare places mostly devoid of brush where some tents could fit. There was also a small creek flowing nearby.
Steven in his own state of exhaustion didn't understand my excitement at first. This flat space framed all the way around by big logs was exactly what I had just prayed for. It was such an immediate answer to prayer, and it met our needs for the coming night perfectly. What a relief it was to stop!
Doesn’t look like much, but this was our miracle in the wilderness.
I always find the house-keeping part of camping to be a tedious chore especially at the end of a grueling day of hiking when all you want to do is collapse on the ground. Getting everything out of the pack…setting up the tent…airing up the mattress…rolling out the sleeping bags or quilts…staking down the tent…securing the guy out lines…hanging up damp clothing…throwing a line for a bear bag....all these things are more difficult to do at a high altitude, and when you are exhausted on top of that it's even harder. The space was tight between two of the large logs but we got our small tents set up. I shared some of Steven's stakes since that was an item I forgot to bring for my tent. I tied one of his side guy-out lines to my tent and secured my line from my vestibule flap to his side guy-out which made both tents more secure. About every five minutes I breathed another prayer of thanks for this place where we could rest. There weren't any suitable trees for throwing a bear bag line and I was too tired to go hiking to try to find one. I finally settled on a compromise solution which I have used in the past. Neither of us felt like eating dinner. One of the side effects of altitude on me is slight nausea. I didn't have much of an appetite during this entire hike and only ate because I knew I needed the energy. I went about 50 yards back up the trail and placed the food bag on a boulder. I had to climb up to the rock shelf and there were about three fallen trees in front of the shelf at differing angles.
I figured that *whatever* wanted to eat the food would have to climb up to get it and would be hampered by the tight space caused by the fallen trees, or that *whatever* would have climb above the bag and reach down to it which would have been equally difficult. Everything inside was packed in plastic bags or sealed in plastic but in an effort to mask any food smells that might emanate from the bag. With the food stashed away it was time to bed down. The sun had faded behind the mountains and our daylight was waning fast.
Day Two 11 miles
Imagine an oval race track.
Now, in your imagination, place a mountain range of roughly 3 miles wide by about 7 or 8 miles long inside this oval. Now give the oval a slight tilt to the right, with the top part pointing slightly northeast and the bottom part pointing slightly southwest. This should give you a basic idea of the hike around the Seven Devils. It seems simple enough, doesn’t it? A walk around the mountains should only involve going around the race track. If the *race track* were as elliptical as the shape shown above, the same elevation all the way around the oval, smooth, free of obstructions, and un-crossed by flowing streams, a circuit around the track would be relatively simple.
Our *race track* around the Seven Devils, however, was none of these things. The smooth elliptical oval shape, in actuality, resembles more of a tilted diamond shape on the map. Rather than a gradually curving arc, the trail follows more of a sine wave pattern, turning northward, curving to the west, turning 180 degrees back to the east, veering south, turning northward again, etc. Not only does the trail make all these turns, but it also drops several hundred feet, then climbs back up, then drops down a thousand, then climbs back up several hundred feet, and on and on. Factor in the reduced oxygen available in the air at elevations ranging from 7,000 to 8,000 feet for that out-of-breath feeling. Now add in a creek crossing about every two or three miles, and for added spice, toss a 1 to 2 foot diameter pine tree over the trail at odd intervals. You should now have a better appreciation of the reasons why this hike is rated *Difficult* in the guide books.
Before retiring for the night, I had taken a look at the trail immediately ahead of us. We had indeed been given a small oasis for the night. It was literally a wide spot on the trail, and our tents were pitched only about 2 or 3 feet off the trail. A small creek (Baldy Creek) bordered one corner of our campsite, and immediately in front of the creek were two fallen trees at about chest height. They would necessitate a crawl to get to the creek bank. There was less than three feet of clearance beneath the trees and they had several branches covering the opening beneath. After rock-hopping over the creek, the trail began to climb once again toward the west and on around the shoulder of Potato Hill. Several trees blocked the trail, so I knew the going would once again be rough as soon as we started walking.
The sky began to lighten a couple of hours before the sun began to rise. We both slept well. The morning air was brisk but it had not reached freezing. I went back to sleep until the sun had risen fully above the mountain peaks and high cliff walls. Then I rose and began the tedious process of breaking camp and packing everything back up. I retrieved the food bag from the rocks where I had placed it. Fortunately, it was intact; none of the smaller creatures had chewed holes in the side to get to the food. An hour and a half later, we were packed up and ready to go.
The first task after we had gone under the two fallen trees was to top off our water bottles. Filtering water is a chore, but a necessary one when in the wilderness. Even the clearest, freshest looking streams can carry the microscopic nasties that can wreak havoc on the digestive tract. Had I known what a long dry stretch lay ahead of us, I would have also filled up one or both of the Platypus 2 liter flexi-packs that I was carrying. It would have been more added pounds, but it would have been nice to have later in the day. That, of course, is hindsight.
We ascended through another mile of switchbacks and multiple fallen trees over the trail. Once we reached the western face of the mountain and began to turn southward, we were high enough to once again regard the Oregon side of Hell’s Canyon. Yesterday evening the massive face of the western wall had been veiled in shadow. This morning it was revealed in stark relief by the morning sunlight. I snapped a few photos but I knew that my tiny camera could not take in the scope of the massive landscape before us. Though not as massive as the Grand Canyon, it is still a very deep and awesome canyon.
We had a long way yet to walk to get to Horse Heaven, which was the southernmost intersection at which we would turn to the north, to begin our traverse of the eastern face of the Seven Devils and our return to the car at the Windy Saddle trailhead. I had hoped that we would reach Horse Heaven by noon, since we started this morning earlier than we did the previous morning leaving the trailhead. As with many of our other expectations on this trip, the walk to Horse Heaven took us longer than we anticipated.
Another hard section of hiking came as we traveled along the slope of the Twin Imps, and continued on up toward the ridge near Devils Farm.
This part of the trail, beneath the Twin Imps, traveled through a section of rocky slopes where the trail was no longer a dirt path, but golf-ball and softball sized hard rocks, broken by thousands of years of wind, water, ice, snow, and the force of gravity. Scenically speaking, I enjoyed this section immensely, though I was out-of-breath for the hard three mile climb up to the ridge.
Small pikas, chipmunks, and ground squirrels darted in and out of the rocks as we passed by. Steven would get ahead of me by fifty or a hundred yards, since I was carrying more weight and generally slow down to a crawl when I am ascending a long section of trail. Just below the top of the ridge, we had to cross a couple of sections with snow over the trail. A steep fall onto hard rocks awaited us if we slipped. Fortunately, the snow was still crunchy and granular in composition and was not glazed over with ice. Someone had been there to cross before us, so there were already some footsteps across the snow banks. We just took our time and chose our footholds carefully, using our poles for balance. We crossed the snow banks un-eventfully and finally made it to the top of the ridge.
A mile-long section of smooth sailing trail flew by as we coasted slightly downhill toward Horse Heaven. We could see the lookout station perched on a mountain directly ahead. It appeared that the trail took another sharp upward tack on its way to the lookout. I didn’t want to have to climb another hard hill again. From the topo map, it appeared to me that our trail did not require us to climb the hill, but my eyes were telling me something different. We reached Horse Heaven at what I estimated to be around 1 p.m. by my *sundial.* A little later than I had hoped but not bad considering the tough section we had just finished. The trail up to the lookout station turned out to be an extra-curricular activity that we elected not to do. The intersection was a wide saddle between two mountain peaks. We took pictures at the signpost and rejoiced that we had made it over halfway on our circuit of the Seven Devils.
Our trail now turned to the north. We began the eastern segment of our loop. We could see a long, rocky downhill section of trail before us of over a mile. It made a few switchbacks as it descended toward the forest. Would we once again enter a section of numerous blown-down trees that made the going rough? Well, no matter for the moment, as the trail right in front of us was smooth sailing. We passed through another area of heavy rock slides and the occasional twisted and gnarled lone pine tree. You have to be a tough, survivor-type of vegetable to last in this harsh environment.
Before we reached Horse Heaven, I was down to about two inches of water in my second water bottle. There had been no smaller creeks flowing down from the lakes above. There was no creek at Horse Heaven, so the next best hope would be a stream coming down from one of the lakes high on the eastern side. Steven still had almost a full bottle left, but even that would be gone before we were to reach the next water source.
Once we descended from Horse Heaven through the rock falls and entered the forest, the trail resumed as a dirt path. There was the occasional fallen tree over the trail, but it became apparent as we walked along that the eastern side of the Seven Devils loop was a much better maintained trail than was the more remote and isolated western side. We moved along at a very fast clip, compared to our pace of the day before and this morning. Mostly I was driven by the thought of reaching the next water source, as I was down to empty. I drank about an inch out of Steven’s now dwindling bottle. I wanted to make sure he still had some left. If we had been desperate, we would have had to scramble up the steep mountainside above us to try to reach one of the high lakes above us, perhaps Horse Heaven Lake. I wasn’t reaching the critical stage yet, but I was sure thinking a lot about a cold drink of water.
It was around 4 p.m., I estimate, when we reached a small stream across the path. I thought it might be Dog Creek, but this was not the case as we discovered later. There is a tendency to over-estimate your mileage and how far you have come when backpacking. It just feels like a lot more miles than you have actually covered. The stream would not ordinarily have been my first choice as a water source. It was very shallow and not very free-flowing. In fact, there was a small stagnant pool across the trail. The trail was muddy on both sides of the stream and had many deer prints where they had come down to the stream to drink. Just above the small pool was a deeper pool which had some slow-flowing water. It was clear and clean. I placed the suction end of my filter in the water and began pumping. After filling all our bottles, I drank down a full bottle and then re-filled it, so as to replenish my water level. Got to stay hydrated in the mountains! We were getting tired so we rested awhile on the other bank. Steven ate some of his snack foods, and I had a Power Gel. It boosted me back up so that I felt ready to go on.
After about another mile we finally came to a much larger, swift-flowing creek. The sign said it was Dog Creek. This became our stopping place for the night. We considered trying to go on to Hanson Creek, since we discovered there was already another group of hikers camped out at Dog Creek. We didn’t see them at first. Their tents were not visible from the creek crossing, and we only saw them when one of the ladies stood up to put on a sweatshirt. There were two large flat areas for camping, one on each side of Dog Creek. They had the north section occupied with two tents. The south section was empty and looked inviting. I was reluctant to set up camp directly opposite from the other group, but it looked more and more inviting as I considered it. Steven and I went over to look at it. Should we stay? Should we try to press on?
I crossed the creek to talk to the other group of hikers. They were two couples and were very friendly. I greeted them and asked if they would mind us camping on the other side? I know when I’m in the wilderness I want to feel un-crowded and I didn’t want to make them feel as if we were crowding in on them. At the same time, I was tired and didn’t really want to go on to Hanson Creek if I didn’t have to. They said they were heading for Horse Heaven and then on to Baldy Lake. I shared the trail conditions with them and told them that the section between Baldy Lake and Echo Lake had been extremely difficult for us. They shared that Hanson Creek was about another hour ahead of us, even though the trail map said it was another 2.5 miles. They were friendly and didn’t *seem* to be put out that we were going to camp across the creek from them, although I’m sure at first they were disappointed when they saw us and probably said, “there goes the neighborhood.” Steven and I talked it over and decided that we would put down roots for the night here at Dog Creek. In parting I told the group “We don’t have any boom boxes and we will be quiet!” They laughed. We wished each other a good night’s rest.
Setting up camp went a little smoother this evening than the previous evening. With Steven’s help I got a proper bear line thrown over a tree that was up the hill a ways from our camp. We hoisted his pack filled with the food up about 15 feet off the ground and tied off the guyline to two adjacent trees. The party *next door* had a Rottweiler and said they didn’t expect that we would get a bear visit, but said that the rodent population was quite aggressive and might chew their way into the food. They hung theirs, so I figured it would be wise to hang ours. Lights out came for me and Steven while it was still an early evening. We were very tired but thankful once again for a place to stop for the night. The group across the creek had a campfire going and talked and laughed and had a good time together, but not obnoxiously so, for a while into the night. We had covered 11 miles on our second day, and only had 7 left to go to get back to the Windy Saddle and our ride back to civilization.
Third Day—7 miles to the Finish Line
Dog Creek to Windy Saddle
Sometime during the night I had gotten up for the usual bathroom break and a drink of water. I carry Benadryl on my hikes because it makes me very drowsy which helps when sleeping in an unfamiliar place with uneven ground beneath. A full moon had risen and was lighting up our small clearing. Since we had gone to bed at about 9 p.m. I figured it was the early morning hours around 2 or 3 a.m. I didn’t want to toss and turn for several more hours until daylight, so I fumbled through my stuff and dug out another Benadryl. This one really put me out, because the next thing I knew the sun was up above the trees. Wow, what a good night’s sleep for being out in the wilderness. I have been on other hikes where I haven’t slept very well, and believe me, this way was much better. Perhaps I’m finally getting the hang of doing this.
Before they left to head up to Horse Heaven and beyond, the two couples from across the creek came over to our side and asked if we would take a group picture of them, which Steven did. We wished them a safe journey and they headed up the trail. One of the guys had an ENORMOUS load, a great big 6000 cubic inch capacity pack that was filled up and also had numerous attached articles on the outside. He also had legs that looked like tree trunks, “Thunder Thighs.” The other guy and the two gals had more reasonable loads on smaller packs.
Seven miles remained from Dog Creek back to the Windy Saddle. I knew that the end was going to be a hard climb back up to the saddle. I just didn't know how hard the climb was going to be. The first segment from Dog Creek to Hanson Creek went very quickly. We covered 2.5 miles in a little over an hour. The trail was wider and better maintained as it was getting closer to its origin. There were only occasional trees over the trail.
It was another couple of miles to Cannon Creek and Bridge Creek. Somewhere along the trail this morning we heard a roar coming from the south. It was the sound of a military jet. As we looked to see it coming a gray ghost of a shape streaked from behind a forested mountain and went screaming by about a mile in distance away from us and just slightly higher than our altitude. I recognized the shape of an F-16. He was doing between 400 and 500 knots but was not in after-burner that I could see. It must have been some kind of low-level flying exercise. I hoped that they had the airspace all cleared out for him. I would hate to have be some hapless tourist out sight-seeing the Seven Devils in a small Cessna, and have an F-16 come screaming by, peeling the metal off the fuselage and whipping off my toupee'. I guess they are cleared down to lower altitudes in sections of western Idaho, although I have seen and heard F-15's in the Sawtooths as well doing the same thing. It was a thrill to see him fly by but it also made me wish I could move that fast and be back at Windy Saddle in a couple of minutes.
The trail continued its west-north-east-north pattern around the shoulders of several more mountains. When we got to within a couple of miles of Windy Saddle we could see and feel a sharp increase of the ascent. Not only was the trail steeper but breathing was getting hard again as we approached the 7,500 foot and then the 8,000 foot mark. This part of the trail at the end is every bit as difficult as the final ascent of the Bright Angel Trail as it approaches the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The ascent is steep and it is at a high elevation.
We crossed Hanson Creek, Cannon Lake Creek, and Bridge Creek on the way. Steven moved out farther and farther ahead of me, while I had to slow my pace to a crawl as usual to go up the hill. As long as I maintained the Shuffle at a slow pace I would catch up to Steven who would be resting from his fast pace. He would say "Do you need to rest?" and I would usually answer "No, I can keep going.” Then he would set off and pull ahead again. I would keep plodding until I came around the next bend and would find him bent over leaning on his hiking pole resting again. Gotta learn to pace yourself kid. In this fashion we continued our climb up to the Windy Saddle.
Eventually we reached the Ranger Station where we talked to a trail maintenance person. She said the section we were climbing was the hardest part of the whole trail. She asked where we were coming from and I said "we're finishing the 27 mile loop.” She answered that we were the first people this season which she had heard of doing the entire loop. Then she wanted to know how the trail looked. I told her about the terrible section on the west side with all the blown down trees and she said, "let me guess....between Echo Lake and Baldy Lake?" and I told her she was right.
I asked if she was in trail maintenance (kind of obvious since she was driving a Park Service pickup truck and was dressed in grubby jeans, work boots, and a ratty long-sleeve flannel shirt). She said "Yeah...I gotta get another job!" I said that must be hard work, hauling gravel on the trail to re-surface the trail. She replied "we use mules for that part.” Okay, I had wondered about that one.
Though she was a small woman she looked tough enough that she could have carried me and Steven AND our packs on her shoulders UP to the trailhead at Windy Saddle. I would have gladly accepted this or even just a lift in her pickup but then that would have defeated the purpose of our loop hike. The goal was to finish the whole loop under our own power. She gave us directions to go around on the road to avoid fallen trees on the trail. This was actually a bit longer but I was willing to walk on a wide dirt road. Then we turned the wrong way and she drove by us and got us turned around the correct way. We picked up the trail again further up the road and continued our climb.
If this sounds like it's going on and on and on, that's what the climb up to the saddle felt like. But our story does have an end at last. I was missing on a couple of cylinders, but I finally sputtered over the final rise onto the gravel road at the edge of the parking lot. I wanted to take a picture of Steven and me at the signpost but he was already in the car. I yelled his name 2 or 3 times but he already was rocking out to the sounds of Relient K in the car. The sunshade was also still on the dashboard so he couldn't see me and he couldn't hear me. In this situation I can't help but think of Alvin and the Chipmunks where they are singing "we can hardly stand to wait please Christmas don't be late…” And at the end of the song Dave tries to get Alvin's attention but Alvin is busy being the poster child for A.D.D. "uh....Alvin.....Alvin.......ALVINNNNNNN!!!!!!!!
I was way too tired to go yell at Steven for enjoying getting to sit in a real car seat. He came and took my picture and I took his. It was about 2:30 pm when we finished.