The Hells Canyon Wilderness

Determining the deepest canyon is hard to do. What do you measure? The distance from the bottom to average rim top or the highest point adjacent to the canyon? What do you mean by "adjacent"? Hells Canyon is 8000 feet deep in places. The average depth is more like a mile -- 5280 feet. At any rate, it is 9393 feet elevation at He Devil Mountain in the Hells Canyon Wilderness of Idaho, and from 1000 to 800 feet down on the river.

The main portion of Hell's Canyon (of the Snake River) was saved from dams in one of the most famous and hardest-fought conservation battles of the 20th century. Instead of dams, the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was created, and inside the NRA, there was established the Hells Canyon Wilderness -- 83,800 acres in Idaho and 110,000 acres in Oregon.

The enormous depth of the canyon makes for climatic extremes. In the summer, the temperature at the river often reaches 110 degrees F. After May, hiking in the canyon is very difficult due to heat. Even so, in early June the Seven Devil Mountains on the Idaho side are often still under five feet of snow.

The vegetation is sagebrush and grass in lower parts of the canyon with deciduous bushes and trees along the numerous streams that run into Hells Canyon. When one reaches the coniferous zone, there are Englemann spruce and sub-alpine fir at the highest levels. Lower are western larch, Douglas-fir, and Ponderosa (yellow) pine. In recent years several large forest fires have regenerated some of the vegetation in the area. Across Hells Canyon The elevation, climatic, and vegetation differences provide complete habitat for many species, including rare winter range. Black bear, cougar, elk deer, mountain goat, and bighorn sheep are common. There have been reports (unverified) of grizzly bear. Idaho's new wolves have at least passed through the area. There are, as one would expect, many raptors including bald and golden eagles and even the rare Peregrine falcon.

The huge elevation differences account in part for this being the most biologically diverse area in area.

The unfortunate presence of domestic sheep in parts of the area near the wilderness has passed disease to bighorn sheep in recent years, reducing their numbers, but recently the Hells Canyon Preservation council won a victory in favor of the bighorn.

Noxious weeds have invaded part of the Wilderness and much the National Recreation Area and the valuable Craig Mountain Wildlife area. Strenuous efforts have been made to retard their advance and at other places extreme laxity have allowed numerous exotic noxious plants to get out of control, the worst being yellow starthistle.

Copyright © Lee Mercer Looking across Hells Canyon westward from Idaho into Oregon.

Outside of the Wilderness, the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was supposed to have recreation as the dominant use, but the U.S. Forest Service has been a bad steward of the area and has logged many thousands of acres, much of it clearcut even though Congress prohibited this type of logging in the area. As a result of Forest Service management, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council and other organizations are promoting a Hells Canyon National Park and Preserve of about 1.6-million acres.

Hells Canyon from the Seven Devils Mountains
Down Granite Creek into distant Hells Canyon. Hells Canyon Wilderness
Copyright Jackie Johnson Maughan


Hells Canyon Wilderness, Idaho-Oregon/ rev. Aug. 5, 2006