By now, you may already know that Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America. With roughly 8,000 feet between its lowest point and its highest peak, the canyon is a welcome adventure for all who enter. From guided fishing trips to hidden hiking trails, you’re sure to have experiences that will stick with you. As you journey forth to Hells Canyon with your family this season, share these tidbits of knowledge to get them excited. These eight fun facts about the deepest canyon in North America are sure to pique everyone’s interest.
No Roads Cross the Canyon
Once you reach Hells Canyon, be prepared to travel by foot or by jet boat for much of your adventure. The terrain is difficult, even for vehicles equipped for off-roading. When you take a Hells Canyon boat tour, you’ll enjoy the sounds of the water, not the sounds of cars and traffic.
There are a few roads that hug the edge of the canyon, like the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway. You’ll enjoy majestic views of mountainous terrain and be able to peer into the canyon. But if you’re deep in the canyon itself, rafting or fishing on the Snake River, there won’t be any auto traffic bothering you. Much of the canyon is not accessible by car.
The Snake River Is Millions of Years Old
The story of Hells Canyon begins before recorded history. About 300 million years ago, a series of volcanoes rose from the Pacific Ocean. Over the eons, lava movement and basalt flows collided with the coast of what is now North America. Millions of years of movement created unique terrain on the land, and sedimentary rock like limestone began to build higher and higher. More volcanic activity around 17 million years ago created a plateau, which eventually welcomed the Snake River.
Starting around 6 million years ago, the burgeoning Snake River began to flow through that plateau. Eons’ worth of water movement carved the canyon deeper and deeper. Then, 15,000 years ago, a massive flood from Glacial Lake Bonneville in Utah burst forth and gave more shape and depth to Hells Canyon.
Humans Settled It Thousands of Years Ago
Explore the geological history of Hells Canyon! Petroglyphs (rock carvings), pictographs (cave paintings), and arrowheads still survive from nearly 8,000 years ago. The earliest settlers of the area were the Nez Perce people, occasionally joined by the Cayuse, the Paiute, and the Shoshone. The abundance of wildlife and relatively mild winters proved successful for human habitation.
Some paintings and artifacts found in the area suggest that human habitation in the canyon is even older. Indigenous people may have settled the area as early as 15,000 years ago!
It’s 10 Miles Wide
At its widest point, that is.
Those millions of years of carving and shaping that the Snake River did are front and center. Hells Canyon is about 10 miles wide and 5,500 feet below sea level, thanks to water flow and tectonic shifts. Lava, water, and sedimentary rock buildup created the wide expanse you’ll see before you on your jet boat tour.
Of course, it’s massively deep, too. From the top of the Seven Devils Mountains to the deepest part of the Snake River, Hells Canyon is nearly 8,000 feet deep. That’s almost 2,000 feet deeper than the famous Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Early Expeditions Turned Back
In 1806, three members of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition reached the edge of Hells Canyon. They saw what you’ll see when you arrive—rocky terrain surrounding a majestically deep gorge. The explorers didn’t even see the deepest parts of the canyon; they turned back without venturing in. They didn’t know anything about the topography or the wildlife within and didn’t want to take the chance.
Five years later, in 1811, the Wilson Price Hunt expedition made it a little further in, but they turned back as well. They weren’t sure if they had enough food and supplies to last the winter. Luckily, though, we’re in the 21st century. We know what’s in the canyon and what we need to survive.
Gold Discoveries Brought Miners
In the aftermath of the California Gold Rush, explorers and settlers continued to pan for gold across the West. Near what is now the Hells Canyon National Recreational Area, enterprising settlers found some gold in the river bars! Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t much. Gold mining turned out to be highly unprofitable.
The Hells Canyon area has many more natural resources than that scant amount of gold. People continued to flock to the area to focus on hard rock mining. Evidence of hard rock and gold mining endeavors still remains along the corridors of the Snake River.
You Can See 4 States
Many people already know that Hells Canyon straddles the border of Idaho and Oregon, with the Snake River itself forming a part of that border. However, if you do a little extra hiking, you can see into two more states.
Hike up to Heaven’s Gate Lookout at the entrance of the Seven Devils Mountains. It’s a steep hike, so take your time and bring plenty of supplies. When you reach the lookout point and gaze around you at the mountains, you’ll see four states in total: Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Be sure to bring your camera! Can you tell where one state ends and another begins?
It’s a Protected Area
The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is protected land managed by the US Forest Service to preserve its geological, archeological, and anthropological histories. Boasting 215,000 acres of protected recreational land and more than 900 miles of hiking trails, the area is perfect for all kinds of outdoor adventures.
In particular, the Hells Canyon Archeological District is on the National Register of Historic Places. You’ll find hundreds of petroglyphs and pictographs dotting the natural landscape, preserved from thousands of years ago.
As you drive to the Hells Canyon area and make your way through the adventurous terrain, dazzle your family with these interesting facts. When you arrive, let River Adventures guide you expertly down the Snake River. We are proud of the natural history of the area, and we’re happy to point out the best hiking trails and nature views the canyon has to offer. These eight fun facts about the deepest canyon in North America will stoke your curiosity and encourage you to sit back and enjoy the history around you.