Hells Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge, encompasses a vast and remote region with dramatic changes in elevation, terrain, climate and vegetation. Carved by the great Snake River, Hells Canyon plunges more than a mile below Oregon’s west rim, and 8,000 feet below the snow-capped He Devil Peak of Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains.
The Snake River likely got its name from the first white explorers who misinterpreted the sign made by the Shoshone people—who identified themselves in sign language by moving the hand in a swimming motion—which appeared to these explorers to be a “snake;” it actually signified that they lived near the river with many fish.
There is no recognized geographic place called “Hells Canyon.” According to R.G. Bailey’s book, Hells Canyon, it starts 90 miles south of Lewiston, Idaho, and extends 40 miles further south to a point near Oxbow, Oregon.The Snake River originates in Yellowstone National Park at 9,500 feet and winds through southern Idaho before turning north to form the boundary between Idaho and Oregon.
The Hells Canyon area was once home to Shoshone and Nez Perce Tribes. According to the Nez Perce tribe, Coyote dug the Snake River Canyon in a day to protect the people on the west side of the river from the Seven Devils, a band of evil spirits living in the mountain range to the east. Today, boaters can explore archaeological sites and old homesteads, all part of the canyon’s rich, colorful history.