To Hell and Back: Service in Hell's Canyon, Idaho

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13073A, Service/ Volunteer


  • Ride a jetboat 21 miles up a spectacular canyon on the Snake River to/from our campsite
  • Perform trail work, hike, fish, view bighorn sheep and wildflowers in America’s deepest gorge
  • Eat wonderful meals prepared by an experienced backwoods cook


  • All on-trip meals and snacks
  • Supervision and training in trail maintenance


DatesApr 14–20, 2013
StaffGary Kanterman

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Trip Overview

The Trip

This trip provides a unique opportunity to experience true wilderness without the usual exertion to get there. Transportation to/from the our camping area will be via jetboat, covering 21 miles on the Snake River.

The trip is run in the spring, prior to the start of the crowded rafting season, so we will experience the remote Snake River Valley only filled with the sounds of flowing water and wind. Wildflowers abound here in Idaho, and spawning steelhead trout can been seen, too. This is the ideal time of the year to perform trail maintenance and to scout the rocky bluffs in search of pictographs or wildlife.

Created by the Snake River, Hells Canyon is the deepest river-carved gorge in North America -- 7,913 feet deep as measured from He Devil Mountain (elev. 9,393 ft), the highest peak in the Seven Devil Mountain Range. Hells Canyon National Recreation Area covers more than 650,000 acres, of which 215,000 are designated wilderness. In 1975, some 67 miles of Snake River were included in the National Wild and Scenic River System. The 31.5-mile section upriver from Pittsburg Landings is designated as wild, which is defined as "free of impoundments and generally accessible only by trail," and represents "vestiges of primitive America."

We will base our camp at Bernard Creek. Our boat will originate from Pittsburg Landing.

The Project

The Sierra Club has run service trips to the Seven Devils area for more than 25 years. A Forest Service wilderness management specialist will supervise our work and accompany us throughout the working portion of the trip. These service trips provide the Forest Service with an opportunity to accomplish essential maintenance projects that -- given budget cuts and decreased staffing -- would not otherwise be possible. As such, the trips have become integral to Forest Service plans for backcountry maintenance.

We are planning to do trail work including brushing, rock-work and tread-work along the Snake River Trail up to six miles out from our campsite.


Day 1: The trip begins with an orientation at Pittsburg Landing on the morning of the first day. After orientation, a boat will take us through 21 miles of impressively rugged canyon scenery, including whitewater rapids and steep canyon walls on our way to our camp. Once there, we will set up our campsite and evaluate our work projects.

Days 2-6: Tentatively, we will plan to work four days with one day off in the middle of the week. On each workday, we will put in a full morning and work most of the afternoon. At the end of the workday, participants not assigned to that day's cook crew are at leisure to fish, hike, rest, or pursue other interests. Cook duties and other camp chores will be shared by all on a rotating basis.

The day off provides a chance to read, write, relax, dry out, fish, explore the hills and nearby trails, snooze, and play. Fishing is very popular on the Snake River. If you plan to fish, be sure you have an Idaho fishing license. They can be purchased at sporting goods stores in Idaho, or online from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game:

Day 7: On Saturday we will eat breakfast, break camp, load up the boat, and return to Pittsburg Landing.



Getting There

When the roads are clear, Pittsburg Landing is about a 1.5-hr drive from Riggins, Idaho. If the roads are not clear, allow an extra hour or two.

While it is your responsibility to arrange transportation to the trailhead, the leader will distribute a participant roster well in advance so that participants can coordinate travel plans from the airport to Pittsburg Landing. The nearest major airports are in Boise, Idaho to the southeast, and Spokane, Washington to the northwest.

Accommodations and Food

Come with the attitude that food is part of the adventure. Food weight and quantity must be carefully calculated and all waste carried out at the end of the trip. Our meals will satisfy both appetite and be a social gathering after a day's work or play in the wilderness. The menu will be a healthy, nutritious, high-energy, backcountry cuisine. Meals will be vegetarian friendly. We will have a group commissary with everyone taking turns in meal preparation and clean-up afterwards. Before applying for the trip, folks with food allergies and/or strong preferences must contact the leader and cook to see if reasonable accommodations would be possible within the limits of backcountry cuisine. The first meal will be dinner on day one while the last meal will be lunch on day seven. Each person will be sleeping in the tent that he/she brings on the trip. Due to the delicate riparian zone that we will be working and camping in, all human waste will be packed out.

Trip Difficulty

The work on this trip will be strenuous and we may be hiking up to 12 miles (round-trip) to/from our worksite. So you’ll need to be in good physical condition. Minor, controllable medical conditions, however, should not keep you from having a full, enjoyable experience. The work will involve lots of bending and some lifting. If you have a history of back problems, this may not be the trip for you.

If you have severe a poison ivy allergy, you should avoid this trip. It is impossible to avoid poison ivy in this riparian habitat. With that in mind, you should bring two complete sets of clothes: one for work (a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, gloves, etc.), and a set to wear around camp that is "poison ivy free."

Equipment and Clothing

Trip members will bring their own backpack, tent, and personal gear. A backpack is preferable to a duffle bag to carry one’s gear for the short walk from the river to the campsite. The Forest Service will provide the work tools. The Sierra Club will provide cooking equipment, but you will need a hard plastic container with a lid for lunch as well as cutlery, and two one-quart water bottles. You will also need a water-filtering system since we will be getting our drinking water from nearby Creek.

In April, warm, clear, dry days are typical, but rain or even snow may occur at this time of the year. On clear days, temperatures are often in the 60s to 70s, although tempertures on cloudy, wet days may be in the mid-30s to low-40s. A good rain parka and rain pants are a requirement -- ponchos are not adequate. Participants must have three-season clothing and a warm (preferably synthetic) sleeping bag, as a spring snowstorm might bring nighttime lows in the upper 20s. A complete packing list will be sent to registered participants.



  • Hells Canyon National Recreational Area (HCNRA) map available from Hells Canyon National Recreation Area POB 832 Riggins, ID 83549
  • USGS Map "Heaven’s Gate" quadrangle map , available from
  • The Northwest Interpretive Association (nonprofit) carries maps and books on the area. They can be reached at:


  • Snake River Guide.
  • United States Department of Agriculture, Wild and Scenic River Guide.
  • Barstead, Fred, Hiking Hells Canyon and Idaho's Seven Devils Mountains.
  • Carrey, Johnny; John Carrey, and Cort Conley, Snake River of Hells Canyon.
  • Jordan, Grace, Home Below Hells Canyon.
  • Tucker, Gerald, The Story of Hells Canyon.


The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, and encourages grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club.

Budget cuts have decreased Forest Service Maintenance staffs, and as a result, some of the area's trails have become overgrown and fallen into disrepair. Previously, the area was maintained by seasonal employees, these positions have been eliminated.

Protection and enhancement of native species habitat is a major issue, too. The health of bighorn sheep and mountain goats require isolation from domestic sheep. For this reason, the grazing of domestic sheep in the river valley was discontinued in the early 1990s. Additionally, sturgeon, salmon, and steelhead trout populations are endangered by Snake River dams and by non-native fish. Potential breaching of the Snake River dams has been considered at the federal level. Control of noxious, exotic plant species requires a yearly spring campaign in Hell Canyon.



Gary Kanterman has participated and led outdoor trips (as a volunteer and professional guide) for over 25 years. He has extensive experience hiking/backpacking, paddling and skiing in the backcountry in numerous locations around the US, Canada and Europe. Recently he has discovered the rewards of volunteer service trips. Clearly completing the work project and keeping everyone safe are important goals of any service trip. But equally as important to Gary is for all the participants to: have fun, enjoy the comaraderie of the group and experience the beauty and excitement of being out in nature.


Didi Toaspern

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