Today on the Land Use Trail: Hells Canyon

Throughout the year, we'll be featuring stops on our Land Use Trail. Today, October 25: Hells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America, in a rugged and exceptional corner of Oregon.


About: Hells Canyon is a 10 mile wide canyon located along the Eastern border of Oregon and Washington, and the western border of Idaho. At 7,913 feet, it is the United States’ deepest river gorge, creating some of the most rugged and immense views in the world. Much of it is protected as a National Recreation Area, created by Congress in 1975. The canyon is carved by the Snake River and its geological history began over 300 million years ago from volcanoes that emerged out of the Pacific Ocean. Roughly 31 miles of the river through the gorge is designated a National Wild and Scenic River, while another 36 miles is designated “scenic.”

Key Fact: There actually is no recognized geographic place called Hells Canyon. Most early explorers called the area Box Canyon, Snake River Canyon, or Grand Canyon of the Snake. The name “Hells Canyon” (never spelled with an apostrophe) first appeared in print in 1895; .

Another Cool Fact: Although home to Shoshone and Nez Perce Native Americans for centuries, Hells Canyon was not glimpsed by European Americans until 1811, when a party led by Wilson Price Hunt (part of the Astor overland expedition) sought a shortcut to the Columbia River. They found the terrain impassable, and were forced back south to cross the Blue Mountains. They called the Snake River the “Canoe River”—a name that certainly did not stick.


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See the whole Land Use Trail, featuring exceptional Oregon natural places, communities, and working lands from every corner of our state.

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Text by Laura Waddick, Communications Intern. Photo by Todd Fahrner, via Flickr. Creative Commons.