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Hell's Canyon

Updated on November 27, 2010

Hell's Canyon

Hell's Canyon is also called the Grand Canyon of the West.

The view over the many beautiful mountains is breathtaking. It is impossible not to stand in awe before such magnificent panorama's !

It is the deepest canyon in the US. It is deeper than the Grand Canyon, which is 1,600 m or 1 mile deep.  There is a phenomenal altitude difference of 2,863 meters (9,393 ft) between the tip of the He Devil Peak, down to the Snake River !

How to Get There

In the city of Joseph, OR, we took highway 39 to visit Hell's Canyon.

It means a long and steep climb on a rather narrow road.

The Hell's Canyon Overlook is located at an elevation of 1,550 meters.

The panorama is simply overwhelming, and one soon forgets the difficult and winding road to reach the Overlook.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words...

topographic map
topographic map
Lake Bonneville
Lake Bonneville

Geography : How Hell's Canyon was formed

Carboniferous : Three hundred million years ago, during the Carboniferous period, the Wallowa Mountains and Hell's Canyon were located on the Pacific ocean's coast, and actually many marine fossils can be found in the canyon. Through volcanic activity a series of islands were formed in the ocean, and they gradually drifted to the mainland, over the ocean tectonic plate.

Cretaceous : About one hundred and twenty million years ago, these islands collided with the mainland and merged with it. The ocean plate drove itself under the continent's plate, pushed up the Idaho mountains, the Blue Mountains and Hell's Canyon, and it caused a series of massive magma outbursts.

Eocene : Fifty million years ago, a period of intense volcanic activity in the ocean created the mountains on Oregon's coast and the Cascade Range. The space between the two mountain ranges was filled with an immense lake.

Miocene : Sixteen million years ago there was another long period of intense volcanic activity. The result was another layer of lava, ash and basalt, that was more than three kilometers thick !

Pliocene : Six million years ago, the volcanic activity finally ended, but now it was the turn of tectonic activity. Coastal mountain ranges were again pushed to the west, until they were some 500 km from Wallowa. Then the Snake River patiently began to erode the plateau.

Pleistocene : During the last one million years, there were several ice ages, of which the latest was some 10,000 years ago. The coming and going from the glaciers raked the mountains and scoured out the valleys, after which the erosion of rain, water and wind continued their work.

A more recent, but still major natural catastrophe occurred 15,000 years ago, when a massive flood of the dying Lake Bonneville entirely redesigned the Utah canyon, along the Snake River. It has been calculated that some 5,000 cubic kilometers of water thundered across the landscape with devastating power, in just a few weeks time !

Indian Grounds

The Wallowa area lies in the upper north-east of Oregon, or Wah-Lah-Wa, as the Nez Perce Indians called the mountains, the lake, the river and the valley.

They were after all accomplished fishermen, and Wah-Lah-Wa also was the name for the tripod, on which they hung their nets.

Even before 5000 BC, several Indian tribes overwintered in this area, with its relatively mild winters and an abundance of game. The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakima, Shoshone, Cayuse and Bannock regarded this area as neutral grounds, where all the tribes could live together in peace.

Modern Times

In 1805, the area was explored by the Lewis & Clark expedition, after the US bought Louisiana from France.  Some of its members did explore the Salmon River, but they never reached the canyon.

    *** Read my article : The Louisiana Purchase

It wasn't until 1811 that Hell's Canyon was discovered by another expedition, although they had to return because of its utter inaccessibility and extremely rugged landscape.

After 1843, the nearby city of La Grande became a resting place on the Oregon Trail, that brought more than 300,000 settlers from Missouri to the grasslands of Oregon.

In 1860 gold was discovered in the hills, and several prospectors ventured into the canyon. However, they were forced to abandon their efforts, because mining operations were unprofitable in this unforgiving landscape.

After the settlers and the miners, came the farmers in 1880, but they too had to abandon their efforts because of the canyon's harsh climate.   

The White Man's Ecological Destruction...

Nonetheless, in less than fifty years the white settlers managed to destroy most of the canyon's ecology, whereas the Indians had lived there, in quasi-symbiotic harmony with nature, for more than 7,000 years...

They cleared the trees, drained the swamps, dug canals for irrigation, changed the course of the rivers, plowed the rich grasslands, and grew intensive monocultures for years.

While they were at it, they chased all the animals, completely dried out the soil that turned to dust, exhausted the top layer that was only suited for pasture, and even generated a small and local climate change...

On to La Grande

We continued our drive along the narrow, twisting and steep highway 39, until we reached the aptly named town of Halfway, located between Hell's Canyon and Baker City.

Highway 86 leads to Baker City, and it too has a somewhat particular feature.

Between Baker City and La Grande one crosses the 45th parallel, which is precisely halfway between the equator and the North Pole !

Oregon : Points of Interest

Find more of Oregon's points of interest on our website :


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    • gregas profile image

      Greg Schweizer 6 years ago from Corona, California.

      Hi Sluster, Thank you for the hub. Things like this really interest me. Well done. Greg

    • slusterbubble profile image

      slusterbubble 6 years ago from Florida

      Hi Greg, see that you're up late too... Thanks for the praise ! How's your follow-up doing ?

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