Hell’s Canyon national recreation area has been gradually reclaimed and returned to wilderness status after many years as farmland and pasture. But environmental threats come in many forms. Today, Hell’s Canyon is under attack by noxious weeds such as the yellow star thistle, which chokes out native plants, deprives 350 bird and animal species of food and habitat, and can spread up to 7 miles (11km) in a single year. River rafters know Hell’s Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, as a great stretch of Class III–IV whitewater along the Snake River, tracing the border between Idaho and Oregon. Churning through forested canyon walls a full mile and a half (2.4km) high, the Snake builds up quite a head of steam, heading toward the Columbia River in Washington State.
But believe it or not, when the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA) Act was enacted in 1975, plans were afoot to harness the Snake River with hydroelectric dams. Luckily, the interests of wildlife won out.
If Hell’s Canyon was going to be a wilderness, park management had years of abuse to undo. Looking today at this hilly wilderness, it’s hard to imagine it as farmland. Yet that’s what it was, as far back as the 1730s when the Nez Perce grazed their horses and cattle here. Nineteenth-century homesteaders snapped up the level benchlands for hayfields and orchards, while sheep and cattle were pastured on the slopes. Native elk, deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep were driven away, unable to compete with the domestic herds.
Overgrazed to exhaustion, the land was set aside as a wildlife reserve in 1905, but the number of grazing allotments was only gradually reduced. By the 1970s, when the NRA was set up, there was finally room to reintroduce species. The deer and elk populations rebounded, but, mysteriously, not the bighorn sheep. It took another decade before scientists realized that bighorns were contracting a deadly parasite from the remaining domestic sheep. In 1994, the last sheep grazing allotments were removed. Slowly but surely, the bighorns have come back—look for them on the upper peaks and plateaus as you explore this quintessential Western park.
The standard 3-day rafting trip covers about 36 miles (58km), but it’s not rapids all the way—there are plenty of placid sections where rafters can relax and enjoy stunning views of the Seven Devils Mountains and the Summit Ridge. When you’re not rafting, there’s plenty else to do—trout fishing, swimming, short hikes to view Native American pictographs on canyon walls, or to find the abandoned cabins of those early 1900s settlers. There are also 900 miles (1,448km) of riding trails, through mountain meadows and timbered draws, down steep trails to the canyon floor.
With such dizzying elevation changes, native flora and fauna in Hell’s Canyon range from mountain goats and Ponderosa pine on the heights to prickly-pear cactus and rattlesnakes on the desertlike canyon floor. Far from being hell, it’s a bit of heaven on earth—and to think we almost lost it!