The area known as Hells Canyon is rich in history. And while some of it’s notoriety comes from the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, it was populated long before their 19th Century journey by the Nez Perce people (Nimiipuu). The Lewis-Clark Valley is located at the mouth of Hells Canyon.
Hells Canyon is the deepest and most narrow river gorge in North America, with canyon walls reaching nearly 8,000 feet high. The canyon didn’t get its name from its depth, though. It was actually often referred to as Box Canyon or Snake River Canyon by early explorers. The name Hells Canyon is believed to come from the difficult and rugged journey through the terrain by boat. The first known reference to it as Hells Canyon is in the 1895 edition of H.W. McCurdy’s “Marine History of the Pacific Northwest.”
In 1806, members of the Lewis and Clark expedition entered the Hells Canyon region along the Salmon River, but turned back without seeing the deepest parts of the canyon. And in 1811, the Wilson Price Hunt expedition explored the canyon while looking for a shortcut to the Columbia River, though they were unable to travel the canyon in its entirety due to hunger and inclement weather. No physical proof of either of these attempts is still present. We only know of these journeys from journal writings by those who made the voyages.
The only proof of man in the canyon at this time and prior is the petroglyphs found on the canyon walls. Carbon dating shows the first proven habitants of Hells Canyon are known to have been there 7,100 years ago. The Nez Perce, along with other tribes of the area, were attracted to the vast vegetation and wildlife available – as well as the mild winters. Prior to the 1860s, indigenous peoples were the only ones who had traveled all of Hells Canyon.
Gold was discovered in the 1860s in what is now the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, but it proved not to be profitable to continue those mining efforts. However, there was an effort made later to mine hard rock that required complex facilities and evidence of those efforts is still visible today.
Chief Joseph’s band of Nimiipuu crossed through Hells Canyon at Dug Bar on May 31, 1877, because of the U.S. Government’s demands to leave the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon for a smaller plot of land near modern-day Lapwai, Idaho. The area had been designated as the Nez Perce Reservation in the aftermath of the 1863 treaty between the tribe and the federal government. The original reservation area had been shrunk to about 10 percent of its original boundaries and tribal members were given just 30 days to vacate the lands they occupied from Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, in order to move within the boundaries of the smaller reservation. Dug Bar was a traditional crossing point for Nez Perce when the water levels would drop in late summer, but water levels were high and fast from spring runoff and this forced crossing proved to be difficult. The band experienced vast losses of horses and cattle.
There was a short-lived influx of homesteaders to Hells Canyon in the 1880s but the terrain proved too difficult to farm and ranch and most settlers moved on to other locations. However, there are still some ranchers operating within the boundaries of the national recreation area.
In 1955, the Federal Power Commission – now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – issued a license to Idaho Power Company to build a three-dam complex in Hells Canyon. The Brownlee Dam was completed in 1958, followed by the Oxbow Dam in 1961 and the Hells Canyon Damn in 1967.
Today, Hells Canyon is appreciated for its scenery, wildlife and recreational opportunities, which include jet boat tours, whitewater trips, hiking, camping, fishing and hunting. There are year-round activities in the canyon and numerous outfitters and tour companies available to guide people through the breathtaking scenery of this magical place.
Article by Peggy Gary, Communications Coordinator for Visit Lewis Clark Valley
Photos by Brad Stinson, Jill Koch, Visit Lewis Clark Valley and ROW Adventures