I wander out to Oregon's Hell’s Canyon when I’m in need of a harsh, brutal solitude. This dry and wide vista sees few human visitors, and the challenging trails here can take your mind off mundane worries.
One less-traveled trail I fell in love with this past summer is the McGraw Rim Hike, a 7.2-mile (round-trip) ramble through a mix of forest and high grasslands. The cross-country hike along McGraw Rim is relatively easy, with good canyon views through the Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area (also called the Hell's Canyon Wilderness Area). It’s somewhat unique to many trails in this area in that it’s a mix of both grassy slopes as well as dry rock features.
This hike kicks off up an old jeep road just half a mile from the McGraw Lookout. It’s easy to follow the path through yellow-green hills which are abundant with wildflowers in the warmer months. (I hiked the area in July, and was wowed by the showy flowers). You also have the option to leave the winding trail to cut cross-country via the reference point of the McGraw Rim to the east, although I’d be sure to use GPS markers if you abandon the marked path.
Once you hit the rim edge you’ll be treated with a sweeping view of the Hell's Canyon Gorge and the formidable Seven Devils Range beyond. Head southwards along the rim, and soon you’ll be wandering through a beautiful fir forest. Stick to the rim edge to keep your bearings, and around the 1 mile mark you’ll briefly emerge from the forest into another open grassy slope. You can spot Road 110 here to the west, if you want to double-check that you’re in the right place.
From this valley you’ll follow game trails south up a steep and forested hillside towards a prominent rock rim. It’s easy to keep in your sights as you ascend, and once you summit this section you’ll be able to look down eastwards on the benchlands between the rim and river. This is actually a view of the historical 1834 route of the Bonneville Party through Hell's Canyon during their early explorations, for those with an interest in history.
Keep wandering along the McGraw Rim as it bends to the south. You’ll find some old skid roads winding through the firs here that make for easier hiking. These tracks stop as the forest dwindles, and you’ll continue south until roughly the 2 mile mark where an open slope reveals another view of Road 110. I’d recommend walking down to it for an easier trek as the thick brush and stony outcrops on the rim ahead are difficult to traverse.
Follow Road 110 until it stops around the 2.5 mile mark and then head onwards along a distinct trail leading southwards. You’ll cross through thick understory plants and over short, grassy meadows rich with desert parsley, yarrow, and buckwheat. It’s easy walking here, a sweet reward for the early ascents. You’ll be able to drink in the wide vistas of the Hell's Canyon Gorge and southern end of the Seven Devils Mountains, and even say hello to the Idaho skyline.
If your feet are getting weary, you’re in luck, as just around the 3.5 mile mark is a bend in the McGraw Rim that ends as a basalt outcropping. This is a great spot to throw down your gear and eat lunch. When you’re rested, just return as you came.
Directions to McGraw Rim Trailhead from Joseph, OR
- Travel 8 miles east on the Imnaha Hwy (#350) to Hwy 39
- Turn right (south) on Hwy 39 and travel 33 miles to Road 3962 on the left (east). (The turn is 1.1 miles south of the bridge across the Imnaha River near the Ollokot Campground.)
- Follow Road 3962 for 5.3 miles 'till it ends.
- Turn left (northeast) onto Road 3965 and travel 3.2 miles to Road 110 on the right (south). It is about 0.4 miles beyond the McGraw Lookout and intersection with Road 114.)
- Turn right onto Road 110 for about 0.9 miles to where a dirt road branches off uphill on the left (east). You can park in the wide turnout at this road junction and start the hike southeast up the dirt road.
Note that Roads 3962 and 3965 are gravel roads that can be rough, so drive slowly and avoid potholes. Regular cars should be able to make it to the trail if you do.
Learn more about Hells Canyon National Recreation Area: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/wallowa-whitman/recreation/?cid=stelprdb5238987