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Wilderness Information


Imagine rambling among 9,300 foot alpine peaks before descending 7,000 feet to desert like river bottoms on trails that crisscross open grassy benches and thickly timbered draws; trails that cross level flats and fade into the horizon and steep narrow trails that were blasted into sheer rock bluffs. These are just a few of the unique experiences and challenges that await the Hells Canyon Wilderness visitor.

Hells Canyon Wilderness, in parts of Oregon and Idaho, was classified wilderness with the establishment of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in 1975. Additional acres were added as part of the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984 resulting in a total of 214,944 acres ( includes W-W NF, Payette NF, Nez Perce NF, and BLM lands). Read the Wilderness Act in pdf format Adobe PDF document.  Download the reader from www.adobe.com.

Roads leading to Wilderness trailheads and viewpoints for either area are mostly single lane, and suitable for low-speed use only.

The extensive trail system within the wilderness mostly follows old Forest Service access routes to fires, and stock trails used by ranchers to move livestock to remote salting areas and watering holes. You can take short day trips or extensive treks on these trails, which are passable - though somewhat unaccornmodating. Many routes follow ridges and traverse moderate slopes and benchlands with ease; others track steep slopes.

Foot and stock trails are maintained for travel; however, higher elevations remain inaccessible due to snow throughout much of the year. Both access roads.and trails begin to open in June, remaining open until September or October.

The Idaho portion is characterized by three geologic-vegetative regions. The upper areas are alpine and subalpine with several lakes and geologic formations of glacial origin. Vegetation is sparse and broken by large areas of rock. The middle portions contain dense forests of larch, lodgepole pine, and true firs. Lower elevations are characterized by dry, rocky, barren, steep slopes breaking into the Snake River and its major tributaries. Trees are sparse consisting mostly of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. This entire area is dissected by several major drainages including Sheep Creek, Granite Creek, and Deep Creek.

The Oregon portion of Hells Canyon Wilderness is characterized by two steep breakland areas (slopes in excess of 60 percent) paralleling the Snake River. These are separated by a benchland from Saddle Creek to Dug Bar. This bench is situated at mid-elevation between the river and canyon rim. The dominant vegetation is native bunchgrasses and shrubs. Trees are scattered throughout, but concentrated on north slopes and in stream bottoms. Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir predominate. The three topographic provinces are dissected by many drainages including Saddle, Temperance, Salt, and Sluice Creeks.

Humans have historically used the area for farming, ranching and mining activities. Sheep and cattle grazing has occurred and cattle grazing continues today in a small portion of the Wilderness. Some mining has occurred, primarily in Idaho. Many people homesteaded on the benchland of Oregon and the mouths of major streams along the Snake River in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Wildlife, Forests, and Wildflowers

The wide range in elevation creates diversity in both plant and wildlife communities. Diversity ranges from hillsides of clarkia and peregrin falcons overhead to rocky bluffs of prickly pear cactus, poison ivy, and rattlesnakes. Numerous wildlife species occur, including bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The area also provides important winter range for elk and deer. Areas of rugged terrain offer ideal habitat for the chukar partridge.

Grazing In The Hells Canyon Wilderness

While visiting the Hells Canyon Wilderness don't be surprised if you encounter cattle grazing along a hillside. Historically sheep and cattle have grazed this area of Northeastern Oregon since the 1730s as the Nez Perce Indians grazed horses and cattle in the main canyons. By the 1800s settlers were grazing sheep, cattle, and horses throughout the valley and canyons. Today the herds have greatly decreased in number but cattle allotments still exist in the area. Grazing impacts are minimal as ranchers work with Forest Service managers to monitor grazing activities closely under annual operating plans. These grazing activities still exist in wilderness due to the 1964 Wilderness Act which allows some traditional activities to continue as long as wilderness values are not compromised. 

Fire in the Wilderness

Fire under controlled conditions can be beneficial to wilderness resources. Under certain circumstances, natural fires (lightning-caused) are allowed to burn within the Hells Canyon Wilderness to aid in the natural development of plant communities.

In the Wilderness, all human-caused fires are suppressed as soon as possible after discovery. Natural fires that threaten human safety or property are also suppressed. Only natural fires meeting predetermined requirements are allowed to burn. These fires are closely monitored by Forest fire managers and are kept within the Wilderness boundary. If they exceed the predetermined safety or resource management objectives, they too are suppressed.

Report all fires that are obviously hurnan-caused to Forest personnel or other local authorities. Out of place and out of proportion, fire, especially human-caused fire, is a threat to the environment. Please continue to be careful with fire.

Northwest Forest Passes

The following trailheads on the Hells Canyon NRA will require a Northwest Forest Pass:

  • Buck Creek
  • Freezeout (Self-Service pay station on site)
  • Hat Point (Self-Service pay station on site)
  • Indian Crossing (Self-Service pay station on site)
  • P.O. Saddle
  • Warnock Corral (Self-Service pay station on site)


Northwest Forest Passes may be purchased at self-service fee stations on site or at any Forest Service Office in Oregon and Wahington. For your convenience you may also obtain passes at the following locations:


  • Our Little Store
  • Wallowa Outdoors


  • Joseph Fly Shoppe
  • Joseph Hardware
  • Sports Corral

Wallowa Lake:

  • Wallowa Lake Lodge
  • Matterhorn Swiss Village


  • Goebel's Texaco

(Near) Lostine:

  • Lostine Guard Station (during summer months)

Baker City:

  • Baker County Visitor and Convention Bureau


  • The Granite Store

La Grande:

  • Blue Mtn. Sports
  • La Grande-Union County Visitors and Convention Bureau


  • Bare's Hometown Hardware

You can also obtain your passes online at naturenw.org or by calling 800-270-7504.

Volunteer Projects

Welcome and thank you for your interest in the volunteer programs and opportunities in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. The word "volunteer" is a magical word to those who have utilized the power of a volunteer. The power is unleashed when you see what kind of service is graciously given for what the volunteer gets in return. It is not, however, the mighty dollar these volunteers are after, they are seeking far more. To many, it is the satisfaction of contributing to something they believe in and enjoy. To others volunteering provides a means to meet new people, and some seek challenge both of mind and body. At any rate, volunteers have for decades dedicated thousands of hours to Forest Service projects. Many of these projects would not have been completed without this strong force of people. When budgets have declined and districts are unsure how they will complete their work, volunteers have come out of the woodwork to fill this gap. They take an active role in the management of our public lands and are greatly appreciated for their incorrigible dedication to service.

The U.S. Forest Service continues to welcome those who are interested in challenging opportunities found in managing forest resources. There is a guarantee in this experience, you will see new country, meet new people, and share in a wealth of ideas. Join us in trail maintenance, wilderness ranger work, being campground hosts, interpreters, or visitor information assistants. The oppoutunities are endless for volunteers. Join us in the experience of a new adventure. 

Listed below are the volunteer organizations and events planned for this year:

1 . Backcountry facility maintenance

2. Trail maintenance

3. Tree planting in riparian areas
4. Campground and trailhead work
For further information on Volunteer opportunities, please see the volunteer page of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest or contact Cathy Conover at the HCNRA Riggins office at 208-628-3916.



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Go to the homepage for the USDA Forest Service Click on this image for the Table of Contents.  This page consists of a top graphic border resembling the sky over hills, with a side border that includes an area for navigation links and a petroglyph of a bighorn sheep.