Hell’s Canyon-Turning Back the Wilderness Clock

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!