When you visit Hells Canyon on your next vacation, take some time to enjoy the natural history of the area. The canyon was formed over millions of years’ worth of geological shifts. But where did the name Hells Canyon come from? How and why was it given its name?

Early Settlement

The area we now call Hells Canyon has been home to many indigenous groups for thousands of years. The Shoshone, Nez Perce, and Paiute nations were drawn to the area by its diverse wildlife and temperate winters. Petroglyphs (images carved into rock) and pictographs (images painted on rock) from early indigenous settlements have survived for several thousand years. However, their meanings are lost to time.

Tentative Exploration

Three members of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition approached the Hells Canyon area in 1806 but turned back before they could see how deep the gorge was. In 1811, another group of white settlers encountered the canyon while trying to find a shortcut to the Columbia River. They, too, turned back due to its tricky terrain. In the 1860s, another slew of settlers arrived in search of gold—but found very little. Two decades later, the 1880s saw a flock of hopeful homesteaders who, unable to farm the land, also gave up.

A Fitting Name

By the 1890s, the area was known as Box Canyon or Snake River Canyon, named for the river we now use for Hells Canyon fishing and jet boat rides. The first instance of the name Hells Canyon appears in an 1895 publication called McCurdy’s Marine History of the Pacific Northwest. Its author, Norma, describes a steamboat that “bound off, swinging into midstream, and like a racehorse, shot into Hells Canyon.” By the early 20th century, the name Hells Canyon had entered mainstream use. No apostrophe needed—Hells Canyon is the perfect name for this spot. It offers adventurous jet boating opportunities and diverse hiking terrain up and down the deepest river gorge in the country.

Hells Canyon is an ancient wonder and one that provides multiple opportunities for adventure. Many people in the past have approached the canyon and turned back due to unfamiliar terrain. River Adventures can guide you through that terrain for some Hells Canyon fishing or an exciting boat tour. Where did the name Hells Canyon come from? Simply put: it’s a challenge! Meet that challenge head-on with River Adventures on your side.