The Snake River’s Formidable Hells Canyon

December 28, 2022

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Photographer: Ray Boren   

Summary Author: Ray Boren   

The Snake River winds its way 1,036 miles (1,667 kilometers) from Yellowstone National Park through western North America before it joins the Columbia River, and their shared waters roll on to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the river’s course forms the wavy border between the U.S. states of Idaho and Oregon, where it is a centerpiece of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Hells Canyon Wilderness.

As illustrated in the first photograph, taken on Oct. 7, 2022, from near the Hells Canyon Overlook on the river’s west side in Oregon, the rumpled landscape plunges from the heights of the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho. High flatlands give way to rocky slopes incised by side canyons and ravines. A persistent forest fire is smudging the horizon to the right, in Idaho. A second image, taken the same day from the west shore, features a placid stretch of the Snake River below Oxbow, Oregon, near where the Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams impound elongated reservoirs for hydroelectric generation.

The chasm is considered the deepest gorge in North America, dropping 8,000 feet (2438 meters) when measured from Idaho’s He Devil Peak (9,393 feet/2863 m.) to the river. The northbound Snake is not quite visible from this viewpoint. The area is roadless between Hells Canyon Dam on the south and Hells Gate to the north, near Clarkston, Washington, and Lewiston, Idaho — twin cities named for William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, leaders of the exploratory Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.

Native tribes have occupied the region for thousands of years, but the long, steep-sided Snake River gorge hampered and sometimes thwarted early explorers, trappers and westbound pioneers. Nevertheless, the name “Hells Canyon” apparently was not applied to the area until late in the 19th century. The terrain, however, definitely had “hellish” beginnings. The oldest rocks are evidence of underwater volcanoes added to the North American continent by tectonic forces about 150 million years ago. Additional volcanism, as recently as 6 million years ago, slathered the landscape during a series of extensive basaltic lava flows.


Hells Canyon, Idaho Coordinates: 45.371389, -116.638333

Related Links:

Sources and possible links:

The Snake Above Hells Canyon

U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Hells Canyon Wilderness