Back on the run in Hells Canyon

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The Hells Canyon Adventure Run in March marked the start of my trail-running season this year and represented a return to form after a winter ankle injury.

The three-day weekend over the spring equinox was also the beginning of warm-weather recreation for us and our puppy Gus’ first camping trip.

With mostly sunny skies and wildflowers on the hillsides, we pitched our tent at Pittsburg Landing on the Idaho side of the Snake River on Friday, surrounded by several friends from Missoula.

In January, I had to stop running and see a physical therapist for several weeks after it became painful walking even a few blocks on my injured ankle. I started running again in February, going only 1.5 miles on a level, paved trail, but by the weekend before Hells Canyon was up 17 miles and back  in the hills.

The unofficial, self-supported Adventure Run along the Snake River National Recreation Trail has 15- and 25-mile options, so I was able to wait until that morning to decide on a distance.

When I woke before sunrise Saturday, I was feeling confident so boarded the boat for the longer ride upriver – and longer run back.

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After being dropped off below Granite Creek Rapids, several other Missoulians and I started running the rolling trail to the northeast, crossing creeks and passing historic homesteads in the first 15 miles.

As our group reached the bigger climbs of the day, we began to split into twos, threes and fours. At about 17.5 miles, Suicide Point offered the always-scenic view of the Snake winding upriver from 400 feet above the water.

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Up the steep switchbacks past the Kirkwood Historic Ranch at about mile 20, I met Jen, Josey and Gus as they descended to their turnaround spot and a stop for water. At the end of the day, Gus had about 11 miles on his paws – not bad for a 7-month-old.

After a high traverse across a steep hill and a couple of stretches on the edge of a cliff, we finished back at the trailhead with a total of about 25 miles and 4,300 feet of elevation gain.

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As has become tradition, the Missoulians staying a second night gathered for a potluck dinner and stories around a campfire before bed and the drive home Sunday.

Here are more photos from the Hells Canyon Adventure Run.

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A Hells Canyon trail run to start spring

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

As it did last year, my trail running season opened in late March with a trip to western Idaho for the Hells Canyon Adventure Run.

The event isn’t an organized race – jet boats ferry runners up the Snake River about to drop-offs at 15 and 25 miles, and they return unsupported along the national recreation trail, ascending and descending the eastern side of Hells Canyon. The “organizers” send out an email with the date in advance and request replies in order to arrange for the boats. The only payment is made to your boat driver.

This year, Jen and the dogs came along and hiked out and back on part of the trail while I ran. We spent Friday and Saturday nights camping at Pittsburg Landing, southwest of White Bird in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, with a group of Missoula friends.

Early Saturday morning – the second day of spring – we made our way to the trailhead at Upper Pittsburg and warmed ourselves by a fire while waiting for the boat. Due to the timing of the daylight saving change, dawn arrived before we departed upriver; last year, most of the boat ride was by moonlight.

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

After being dropped off downstream from Granite Creek, several of us from Missoula set out as a group. A light rain fell as we ran, keeping it cool, and we stopped several times to eat and take in the view. The first 10 miles of trail rose and fell along grassy slopes and through occasional stands of trees, crossing creeks and passing a couple of historic homesteads.

Views from the trail at the 25-mile Hells Canyon Adventure Run

About 15 miles in, we passed the drop-off for the shorter run at Sheep Creek, and our group soon began to spread out. After taking in the view of the winding Snake below and the sun breaking through the clouds above from a high point at about 17.5 miles, I ended up on my own for the next few miles.

The historic Kirkwood Ranch in Halls Canyon

With about 5 miles to go, I arrived at the historic Kirkwood Ranch, and just as I was departing Jen and the dogs hiked in. After spending some time with them, other Missoula runners caught up and we left as a small group, our younger dog Josey coming with me. The climb out of Kirkwood was the single largest ascent of the day, rising more than 400 feet in about a third of a mile to a steep traverse looking down on the river.

After dropping closer to river level, Josey and I got ahead of our group again and finished the last couple of miles on our own, taking a break at a creek to cool her paws in the water then running along a shaded cliff and back to the trailhead. In the end, I logged about 25.5 miles and 4.300 feet of elevation gain.

We cooled off in the river there as we waited for the other Missoula runners, Jen and our older dog Belle to return, and that night we shared food and stories around the campfire before bed. On Sunday morning, we woke, packed up camp and drove back to Missoula, stopping for a hearty breakfast along the way.

Here are more photos from Hells Canyon.