What is Hells Canyon, exactly? Deeper than even the Grand Canyon, it is the work of eons of geological shifts and the influence of the Snake River, which flows through it. Read on to learn how and when Hells Canyon was formed to bring a little history with you on your next boat tour.

Ancient Volcanoes

Around 300 million years ago, a gaggle of underwater volcanoes rose from the waters of the Pacific Ocean, and tectonic plate movement stuck these volcanoes to the North American continent. Over millions of more years, lava flows covered the area and hardened. The dramatic ups and downs of the canyon result from eons of uplifting by basalt lava flows and erosion caused by the waters of the Snake River.

Water Carving

Roughly 16 million years ago, a series of lava flows from the Columbia River Basalts erupted and a high plateau formed around the eruption. A lake called Lake Idaho formed and then drained 2-6 million years ago. Soon, the Snake River began to flow through the plateau and erode it away. Around 15,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville in Utah rapidly flooded, and even more water shaped the canyon. You can see the millennia worth of erosion on one of the many Hells Canyon boat tours that River Adventures offers.

How It Got Its Name

Most 19th century explorers referred to the canyon as Box Canyon or Snake River Canyon. The first known use of the name Hells Canyon appears in a periodical from 1895 called McCurdy’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. The author describes a steamboat on the river as “like a racehorse” as it “shot into Hells Canyon.”

Human Settlement

There is ample evidence of indigenous Americans living in Hells Canyon for thousands of years. The Nez Perce, Paiute, and Shoshone peoples often settled there, attracted by its plethora of wildlife. In the mid-19th century, gold was found along the river, attracting many prospectors to the area; however, the gold business was not profitable. As you float down the river, you’ll see evidence of mining along the way.

When you sign up for a boat tour with River Adventures, enjoy the rich natural history that Hells Canyon offers and learn more about how and when Hells Canyon was formed. Its rugged terrain, diverse natural beauty, and boisterous river activity have brought people to the area for thousands of years. Join that part of history today!