This is the story of how Dan Beck and I ended up spending much of our Labor Day weekend in the backcountry of one of Idaho’s most scenic and rugged mountain ranges, the Seven Devils.
It begins over a week before when I sent out a message for a backpacking trip over Labor Day weekend. I suggested a 3-night trip into the Eagle Cap Wilderness with an emphasis on summiting peaks rather than counting long miles. I had some interest and was all set for our 3rd annual Wallowas weekend, when some of the members decided it would be a good time to go fishing in the backcountry lakes. Rather than pay for an out of state license, the idea was to hike in Idaho at the Seven Devils. I just wanted to get out in the wilderness, so the Seven Devils became our new destination. When the five of us met to cover logistics, at least two members voiced that they would rather be home on Monday to work on projects. So, we cut the trip down to two nighs instead of three. Shortly after, one dropped out in order to finish assignments, and on Friday morning, two more dropped out for personal reasons. At this point, I was wondering if I would have to find a place to go solo, but Dan, who was really in it for the fishing, still wanted to get out of town. So we set off for the Seven Devils for a weekend away from the modern world.
We began our hike on Friday afternoon, heading over the climber’s route to Sheep Lake. This is the path that whooped our whole group last year as a day hike, but after considering the alternative 9+ mile hike to the lake, this route is quicker and easier, even at a reduced pace. In fact, it turned out to not be bad at all for a one-way trip, even with packs on. We made it to the lake with sunshine to spare while we searchd for a good campsite for the night. As a holiday weekend, I expected the area to be fairly crowded, and when we got to Sheep Lake, all of the nice camp sites were taken. But in general, the parking lot at the trailhead was emptier than I expected. Apparently, many people begin their long weekend on Saturday. Despite the “crowd,” we still found our piece of solitude next to the lake where we had everything set up before the sun set.
When I finally woke up Saturday morning, Dan had already been up and fishing. I missed the early minutes of sunrise, but concluded that there probably wasn’t much to see in the way of an alpenglow from our location. But the golden sun gowing off of the summit of He Devil was slowly making its way down toward the lake. I grabbed the camera and set off to find a nice place to photograph the morning. Another group had told me of some mountain goats hanging out near the point where the climber’s route drops into the lake basin. I headed over that way and sure enough, there was a family hanging out on a ledge. I switched lenses and tried to sneak closer, but when I emerged from behind a rock, they had run away.
We stayed at Sheep Lake late into the morning and then packed up for the Bernard Lakes and Dry Diggins lookout. The Sheep Lake trail rises up over a small ridge at the north end of the lake and down into the adjacent basin where there are a string of smaller lakes with fish more likely to bite a lure. We stopped for lunch at Basin Lake where a couple of larger groups were camping and fishing. In the short time we were there, Dan had hooked a nice Rainbow trout in such a way that he couldn’t just release it back into the water. Since we were hiking another couple of hours and didn’t want to carry a fresh fish that long, we gave it to the group of campers to cook up.
We intended to turn south on the Seven Devils trail and hike the ridge to Dry Diggins lookout before descending to the Bernard Lakes, but we missed that turn and found ourselves at the Bernard Lakes Trail. The trail descends steeply into a dry basin and ascends the opposite side to get to the lakes. By this time, we were quite tired, but at least we were close to our destination. The first lake we came to was a shallow pond full of water lillies. The second lake, Lower Bernard, was bigger and deeper with fish jumping at the surface. The third lake was the largest, and presumably had the best fishing, but it turned out to be shallow and void of fish. It also lacked good camping locations. There was one on the opposite side of the lake that another pair of hikers took, so we made a site nearby. I’ll know next time to camp at the lower lake instead.
We set up camp and Dan headed down to the water to fish. I headed up to the Dry Diggins lookout, about 1 mile and 500 feet of elevation gain away. It was good to hike without the weight on my back and I got to the tower with the hope of staying for sunset. Dry Diggins is a fire tower perched on the edge of Hells Canyon. At 7800 feet, the canyon drops over 6000 feeet directly to the Snake River, making this the deepest canyon in North America. The fire tower has been decomissioned, but the cabin is open and looks like it had been abandoned by its last inhabitants. The bed still has sheets on it, there’s still a stove and an empty water cooler. The last reports in the incident log are from 1989. Given the state of the cabin, I wouldn’t want to spend the night inside, but it does offer an emergency shelter if needed. I would love to see the tower restored and turned into a backcountry cabin or hiker’s shelter. Unforutnately, the nearest reliable water source is the Bernard Lakes, so if you want to spend the night up there, be prepared for dry camping or a long commute to get water.
I intended to stay up there for sunset to capture the pink alpenglow on the Seven Devils, but with an hour to go, the temperatures were quickly dropping and the wind was picking up. Having left my warm layers back at the lakes, I decided it wasn’t worth sticking around and headed back. I caught the last of the sunlight on the summits of the Devils from Upper Bernard Lake. Saturday night was colder than Friday. I put both my bug net and tarp over the hammock to hold heat.
Morning came and I got up just in time to bask in the first rays of sun to hit our campsite. Since we were farther from the high peaks, the sun hit earlier. We made breakfast and packed up camp and Dan headed down to the lower lake to fish. I decided to see how the morning view at the tower compared with the evening. It turns out that the smoke and haze had cleared out over night and the view was very clear. I could see details in the Wallowas on the other side of the canyons and even make out the Blue Mountains over 60 miles away. Saturday evening’s view was fairly good, but not this nice. Friday would have been a complete bust. The smoke was thick driving up the mountain that we could smell it in the air. I spent some time at the tower enjoying the view and reflecting on life. The scenery is so big that it really puts into perspective how small we are as individuals.
I finally returned to the lakes, gathered my pack, and collected Dan from the lower lake. We set off back down the Bernard Lakes trail which headed down into the dry basin and up the other side. It was steep, but we slowly made it. Then we headed back to the car at Windy Saddle by way of the Seven Devils Trail. I knew that this trail headed down into Sheep Creek Basin and then back up, and that the elevation differnece would be about 1000 feet, but this had to be the longest 1000 feet ever. The trail crosses an open scree field as it makes its way into the basin. Upon reaching the “bottom,” the trail enters a nice lush forest and crosses the East and West forks of Sheep Creek. This is where we stopped for lunch and to fill up with fresh water for the brutal ascent to come. The next two miles we climbed over 1000 feet through exposed scree fields in what seemed like the toughest hike I had ever done. In truth, I’ve hiked longer stretches of uphill gaining more elevation, but I think this was both mentally taxing and I was out of shape. I finally made it to the top where there is a spectacular view down the basin into Hells Canyon, and then the trail descends again before the final ascent to Windy Saddle.
The GPS says I travelled 20 miles, but in reality, it was closer to 17 or 18. I was beat when I arrived at the car, glad to have only gone out two nights instead of three. I’m not sure if I’d ever take that route again, but in reality, if I’m prepared (and now I know what to expect), it might not be so bad. This was a tough hike, but I’d still recommend it for anyone visiting the area.
This is my third visit to the Seven Devils, and it won’t be my last. I’d love to bring more people out to the Dry Diggins lookout. I’d like to hike the whole loop around the Devils, visiting more lakes along the way. And I’d like to set up base camp and take some time to summit some of the peaks.