The Snake River likely got its name from the first white explorers who misinterpreted the sign made by the Shoshone people -- who identified themselves in sign language by moving the hand in a swimming motion -- which appeared to these explorers to be a "snake"; it actually signified that they lived near the river with many fish. In the 1950's the name "Hells Canyon" was borrowed from Hells Canyon Creek, which enters the river near what is now Hells Canyon Dam. In the old days, Hells Canyon was known as Snake River Canyon or Box Canyon, though a few locals called it the "Grand Canyon of the Snake."
The Hells Canyon area was once home to Shoshone and Nez Perce tribes. According to the Nez Perce tribe, Coyote dug the Snake River Canyon in a day to protect the people on the west side of the river from the Seven Devils, a band of evil spirits living in the mountain range to the east. In the late nineteenth century, the military drove the Native Americans out and settlers began ranching and mining in the canyon. Today, boaters can explore archaeological sites and old homesteads, all part of the canyon's rich, colorful history.
Hells Canyon is one of the most imposing river gorges in the West. Until a million years ago, the Owyhee Mountains acted as a dam between the Snake River and its current confluence with the Columbia River, creating a vast lake in what is now southwestern Idaho. When the mountains were finally breached, the Snake roared northward, cutting a giant chasm through the volcanic rock. The resulting canyon, roughly ten miles across, is not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon. However, when the surrounding peaks are visible from the river, the sense of depth is tremendous. The adjacent ridges average 5,500' above the river. He Devil Mountain, tallest of the Seven Devils (9,393') towers almost 8,000' above the river, creating the deepest gorge in the United States.
The river is as big as the landscape. Below Hells Canyon Dam, the Snake usually carries more water than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Below the confluence with the Salmon River, flows average 35,000 cfs and often peak over 100,000 when the Salmon is high. Further downstream, the Clearwater and other rivers dump their flows into the Snake River, creating the Columbia River's largest tributary. (The total drainage area is approximately the size of Oregon.)
The Canyon: The Canyon is mostly public land, much of which is designated wilderness. The Canyon is massive, arid, and provides extremely stark, spectacular scenery. Solitude can be hard to find at peak use times; there are numerous jet boats, especially below Rush Creek. The lower river is often crowded on summer weekends. Few roads enter the Canyon, and those that do exist usually require 4-wheel drive.