The name Hells Canyon may not strike most as a destination point for peaceful hiking, but Oregon’s version is a beautiful if rugged location for solitude on the trail. The immense canyon straddles the Snake River, connecting Oregon with Idaho, and is a study of contradictions – light and shadow, plateaus and chasms, vibrant wildflowers and harsh basalt.
The trails in this region are not for the inexperienced or fainthearted. But if you are comfortable striking off cross-country through rough terrain, the Buck Creek Trail might be for you.
The Buck Creek Trailhead is marked by a rock cairn, not a sign, which is a good indicator of the state of the rest of the trail. Follow the path from the trailhead up through the hillside via steep switchbacks downhill. You’ll get the first of a series of stunning views here once you hit a basalt rock ledge. Take in awesome, sweeping views of the rippling lands below, and the Seven Devils peaks on the east.
Keep steady on those switchback down to a ridgetop, passing yellow balsamroot, blue lupine, and red paintbrush sprouting from the rusty soil. Just past the half-mile mark the trail divides, splitting away from the Bench Trail and continuing left on cross-country tracks. It’s a steep uphill trek for a bit, but then the slope levels out along a ridge crest. In a bit you’ll intersect with a north-south trail, where you’ll take a left down towards Buck Creek.
Cut logs mark the route here, and the ragged forest is charred from an old forest fire. There might be some windswept trees to hop over, as the trail is seldom maintained. Watch the zig-zagging trail carefully as it cuts through the brush, as it is only signed by the occasional trail blaze and cut logs. You’ll know you’re on the right route when you cross a small tributary of Buck Creek. Follow the waterway upstream through riparian thickets (and watch for started grouse and elk) until you hit a trail about two-and-a-half mile down.
From here the path is easier to follow as it cuts northeast through thick brush and then open grassy hillsides. It’s another three miles up to the top of a ridge. You have the option to take a side trip down the ridge crest about 300 feet to a vista overlooking the convoluted geology of the inner Snake River gorge. It’s a stunning viewpoint, but mind the drop, and watch for rattlesnakes.
Back on the Buck Creek Trail, climb up the west ridge for the next mile, over rocky outcrops and bald rises. This is the hardest stretch of the hike, with the last half-mile up the basalt ridge being quite steep with few switchbacks. The elevation grade is about 20 percent, so pace yourself. And on the upside, as one gains elevation the lands opens to reveal beautiful meadows and panoramic vistas of the Seven Devils Range. Wildflowers bloom in abundance here in the spring.
At the five-and-a-half mile mark, the trail reaches the top of the rim at the Buck Creek Trailhead, completing the trail loop. Note that a Northwest Forest Pass, or a $5 day pass is required at the trailhead.
Learn more about the Buck Creek Trail: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/umatilla/recarea/?recid=56935
Learn more about the Buck Creek Trailhead: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/umatilla/recarea/?recid=56937