History Meets Adventure in Hells Canyon

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

Springs First Fling at the Asotin County Fair & Hells Canyon Rodeo

2019 Asotin County Fair & Hells Canyon Rodeo Queen Samantha Elben.

Our region is host to some of the best rodeos in the Pacific Northwest and the Lewis-Clark Valley’s two rodeos bookend the season. The 78th annual Hells Canyon Rodeo is the first rodeo of the year and coincides with the Asotin County Fair on April 25-28 in Asotin, Washington. During this fun and busy weekend families, visitors and cowboys can be found enjoying one of the many activities going on at the fair and rodeo. Whether it’s at the carnival in downtown Asotin, up at the fairgrounds exploring the many 4-H and FFA exhibits, waving as your favorite float passes by in the small-town parade or at any of the entertaining rodeo events – there is something for everyone to enjoy.

Thursday | April 25, 2019

The carnival gets things started with Buddy Day from 4-9 p.m. on Thursday evening. Gather up the family and head to downtown Asotin for rides, games and the fair food we all hate to love. The carnival will also be open Friday from 1-10 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday evening get two wristbands for the price on one with a pre-sale card. Pre-sale cards can be purchased at the Asotin County Fair office now through April 24th or online at www.asotincountyfairandrodeo.org.

Image Courtesy of Al Berger, Pro Rodeo Pix

Friday | April 26, 2019

The fair exhibit halls and barns open to the public at 9 a.m. Friday. Check out the 4-H clothing, baking and food preparation activities and demos in Boyd Hall throughout the day. Fair exhibits will be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Catch the mesmerizing Jerry Harris – Master Hypnotist – during one of his fair showtimes. Look out for Harris  at 12:30 and 5 p.m. on Friday; 10:30 a.m., 1 and 3:45 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sunday.

After dinner, settle in at the rodeo grounds for Hells Canyon Rodeo action featuring local cowboys, cowgirls and Country singer, Marcos Dominguez. Rodeo events continue on Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday | April 27, 2019

Wake up early Saturday and get down to the annual Cowboy Breakfast being served from 6 -9:30 a.m. at the Bennett Pavilion. If your tummy is hankering for some super vittles this breakfast can’t be beat! For only $5 fill up on sausage, pancakes and coffee or juice.

After breakfast head to 2nd Street in downtown Asotin for the annual parade and celebrate our community with floats and trucks led by 2019 Asotin County Fair & Hells Canyon Rodeo Queen Samantha Elben. There are sure to be some great floats in this small-town parade!

When you’re ready for lunch, head to the Cattlemen and Cattlewomen BBQ. They’ll be serving tri-tip sandwiches from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the corner of 2nd and Filmore Streets, adjacent to the Asotin Lions Beer Garden – for those in need of an adult beverage to go with their sandwich.

Our second day of Hells Canyon Rodeo starts at 1 p.m. Saturday. Head on over to the rodeo ground and catch the local cowboys and cowgirls in action.

Sunday | April 28, 2019

Give thanks for the wonderful weekend at worship during Sunday’s Cowboy Church, beginning at 9 a.m. in the Bennett Pavilion with Jim Bullard & The Cowboy Balladeer.

Grab your best pink shirt for Tough Enough To Wear Pink day at the Hells Canyon Rodeo. The wildly entertaining Kid’s Rodeo begins at 1 p.m. and you don’t want to miss the Wild Cow Milking – it’s a hoot!

The Northwest Discovery Destination

At the Gateway to Hells Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge, lies Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington. Discover the newest American Viticulture Area, Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, producing small batch wines to pair brilliantly with the culinary flavors of our region. There’s an adventure waiting for you in the Lewis Clark Valley. Take a guided jet boat or rafting tour on the Snake River deep into Hells Canyon offering scenic vistas that rival any on the continent. World-class whitewater boating. Spectacular mountain peaks. Vast reaches of remote wilderness for hiking or horseback riding. Diverse and abundant wildlife. Artifacts from prehistoric tribes and rustic remains of early miners and settlers. Plan your Hells Canyon Tour with us.

Today, wine lovers, and wine judges, are consistently ranking our wines among the best of the best in northwest competitions and beyond. With steep river canyons and plateaus within the AVA, it is home to the lowest elevation vineyards in the state that are successful in ripening a wide variety of wine grapes. Washington and Idaho’s newest wine region is receiving many accolades for the wine produced here, as well as recognition for being one of the best places for real estate investment in vineyards. Explore the local wineries, taste for yourself and take some home to share with friends and family. Discover more about the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA.

Feed your inner historian and listen to the legends of the Nez Perce and walk in the footsteps of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Historical and interpretive sites dot the region and tell the tales of those who came before us. Learn more about our History & Culture.  Local restaurants feature Northwest salmon, trout and steelhead specialties on their menus. Fresh huckleberries and morel mushrooms are in high demand when they come in season. And don’t leave for home without tasting our famous bite-size steak (fried or grilled) that’s on the menu at several area restaurants.

Splash into Adventure in Hells Canyon!

A guided jet boat trip into the rugged terrain of Hells Canyon is one adventure you’ll want to add to your bucket list. This breathtaking trip into America’s Deepest River Gorge—yes, it’s deeper than the Grand Canyon—is guaranteed to bring you a lifetime of memories. And really, who doesn’t want to say they’ve been to Hells Canyon and back?!

Safely & comfortably ride the rapids in a durable, welded aluminum jet boat’s built right here in the Lewis Clark Valley. Hear tales of the native Nez Perce Indians, sunken steamboats & miners searching for gold from 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation residents who are also experienced US Coast Guard-licensed. They’ll point out ancient petroglyphs, blue herons, bald eagles, and big horn sheep. Stop in at the Kirkwood Historical Ranch for a peek into the pioneer ranching lifestyle in the 1930s.

Relax and enjoy white sandy beaches, play in the clean, cool water, or throw in a line for a chance at catching a monster sturgeon. These giant fish can live to be 100 years of age and grow to over 10 feet in length. If you do hook one, make sure your camera is ready because it’s catch-and-release.

This is truly a trip for everyone. Some seats, and boats, give you a more extreme experience. If you want the true “splash” experience, sit in the back! Oh, and when nature calls….in the middle of nature….no worries, most tour boats have a bathroom on board.

Extend your stay in the canyon by booking an overnight trip with an outfitter. Several operate rustic lodges or cabins. Create your own adventure and pack your camping gear for some remote canyon hiking. Many of the outfitters will even drop you and your gear on a beach and arrange to pick you up on a return trip.

Don’t wait! This is an easy one to check off your bucket list. We’re an easy hour flight from Seattle and are located at the crossroads of Highway 12 and 95 on the historic Lewis and Clark Trail. Look through our website, find a Stay & Play package that’s right for you and check out the many more adventures you can experience while you’re here.

Not quite convinced? Did we mention Hells Canyon is one of the Top 10 Things to Do in Idaho?