Views of four states from a lookout above America’s deepest river gorge and a beautiful alpine lake
Distance (round trip): Heaven’s Gate Lookout 0.7 miles; Lower Cannon Lake 8.4 miles
Type: both are out and back hikes
Difficulty: Heaven’s Gate has 300′ elevation gain, but is a short and easy trail; Lower Cannon Lake is moderately difficult with a net elevation gain of 1,300′.
Best season: July – October
You have to be intrigued by an area with names like Heaven’s Gate, Hells Canyon, Black Imp, The Goblin, She Devil, and He Devil. If the names alone aren’t enough to catch your attention, the rugged beauty will.
Hells Cannon is North America’s deepest river gorge. He Devil Peak towers 8,043′ above the Snake River where it forms the boundary between Idaho and Oregon. Compare this to the Grand Canyon which is just 6,000′ from rim to river. There are no roads across the 10 mile wide gorge and only three that lead to the river. Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, managed by the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, covers 652,488 acres of some of the most rugged terrain God created.
The peaks of the Seven Devils tower above the east side of Hells Canyon. While the area has endured multiple forest fires over recent decades, the area remains a place of incredible beauty. Wildlife such as bighorn sheep, mountain goat, elk, deer, black bear, and cougar thrive and a vast network of alpine lakes hold hungry cutthroat and rainbow trout. Hiking here isn’t easy. Trails are rocky and involve significant elevation change, but the rewards are great for the willing hiker.
At just over 7,000′ elevation, Lower Cannon Lake seemed like a good place to beat the heat on a hot August weekend in 2011. The town of Riggins, Idaho along the banks of the Salmon River is just 16 miles away from the Devils. The forecast there was for 110 degrees. Talk about Hell. The forecast for Cannon—a significantly cooler 83 degrees. Friday night after work we drove to Seven Devils Campground which is just half a mile away from the trailhead and would allow us an early start in cool temperatures the next morning.
Saturday morning we were out of camp by 6:30. Our first destination was the short hike to Heaven’s Gate Lookout. Heaven’s Gate, at 8,429′ elevation, provides stunning views of the Seven Devils and Hells Canyon as well as portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
The hike to Heaven’s Gate is short, just 0.35 miles each direction. There is a bit of a climb, but it is over quickly and the views are stunning. On the hike up we caught sight of a ruffed grouse pair, their colors camouflaging them perfectly (look closely at the photo below).
We enjoyed the early morning light and having the lookout all to ourselves.
After Heaven’s Gate, it was time for the big hike of the day. We returned the short distance to Windy Saddle Trailhead at 7,590′ elevation. From here, hikers and backpackers can head west on the Seven Devils Trail #124 or south on Boise Trail #101. These two trails intersect to form a 28 mile loop around the Devils. Someday we’d love to backpack this whole loop, but on this day we were headed to Lower Canon Lake on the east side of the Devils.
We crossed Forest Service Rd 517 and headed south along the Boise Trail. The trail passed the Seven Devils Guard Station and descended roughly 1.5 miles and almost 1,000′ to Bridge Creek.
The trail was nearly level over the next two miles as we passed through areas badly burned in the 1994 Rapid River Fire. New trees were thriving and I imagine the area is quite colorful in July during wildflower season.
At 3.4 miles from the trailhead, we reached the Cannon Lakes Trail #126 (elevation 6,760′). We took a right at this junction and climbed almost 300′ over nearly a mile to Lower Cannon Lake at elevation 7,030′. The views along this stretch were stunning.
After a nice long break at Lower Cannon we began the hike back. With temperatures now around 80 degrees, the shade-less burn section, and a 1,000′ gain at the end, it was going to be a warm hike back. We took advantage of a couple stream crossings to dunk our shirts and bandannas in the cool mountain water which made the return hike much more tolerable. Our day ended with burgers and cold drinks at Seven Devils Bar and Steakhouse in Riggins.
Want to learn more about Hells Canyon? Here are some links to a few nice resources:
- Hells Canyon National Recreation Area – Fast Facts (Wallowa Whitman National Forest website)
- Hells Canyon Wilderness (facts about the 216,981 acre wilderness area)
- Wild and Scenic Snake River
- Heaven’s Gate Lookout
Directions to the trailhead: to reach Windy Saddle Trailhead travel 1 mile south of Riggins, Idaho on US 95. Turn right on Squaw Creek Road and follow it 16.5 miles to Windy Saddle. Here the road forms a T. Straight ahead is the trailhead, to the left the road continues a short distance to Seven Devils Campground, to the right it is just 1.25 miles to the trailhead for Heaven’s Gate Lookout. There is a privy here and I was amazed to have cell service.