HELLS CANYON, the Grand Canyon of the West

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cover west pacific

This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: West Pacific

In the travel series View America, West Pacific covers California, Oregon and Washington. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 180 full-sized 600px-wide pictures.

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Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon is also called the Grand Canyon of the West. It is claimed to be the deepest canyon in the U.S. and deeper than the Grand Canyon, which is one mile or 1,600 m deep. The canyon's exact depth is somewhat controversial and a matter of touristic propaganda, because mountain He Devil, which is referenced for the canyon's depth, is more than 5 miles away and not perceivable from the river.

Nevertheless the He Devil Peak is a phenomenal 7,993 feet (2,436 m) above the Snake River, and adjacent peaks are 7,900 vertical feet (2,408 m) above the Snake River!

The Hells Canyon Overlook is located at an altitude of 5,085 feet (1,550 m). The panorama is simply overwhelming, and one soon forgets the difficult and winding road to reach the Overlook. The view over the many beautiful mountains is breathtaking, and it is impossible not to stand in awe before such magnificent panoramas.

Hells canyon vs. Grand canyon Hell's Canyon 3
Hell's Canyon 4 Hell's Canyon 5

How Hells Canyon was formed

Carboniferous: 300 million years ago ago the Wallowa Mountains and Hells 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 120 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 Hells Canyon, and it caused a series of massive magma outbursts.

• Eocene: 50 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: 16 million years ago there was another long period of intense volcanic activity. The result was another layer of lava, ash and basalt, more than 1.8 miles (3 km) thick.

• Pliocene: 6 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 300 miles (500 km) from Wallowa. Then the Snake River patiently began to erode the plateau.

Pleistocene: During the last 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.

Cretaceous Period

geographical map of Hells Canyon

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 1,200 cubic miles (5,000 km3) of water thundered across the landscape with devastating power in just a few weeks time!

Indian land

The Wallowa area lies in the upper north-east of Oregon. The Nez Perce Indians called the mountains, the lake, the river and the valley Wah-Lah-Wa, and since they were accomplished fishermen, Wah-Lah-Wa was also the name of the tripod on which they hung their nets.

Even long before 5000 B.C. 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 Wah-Lah-Wa as neutral grounds, where all the tribes could live together in peace.

Hell's Canyon 6

Hell's Canyon 7


In 1805, after the U.S. bought Louisiana from France, the area was explored by the Lewis & Clark expedition. Some of its members did explore the Salmon River, but they never actually reached the canyon. It wasn't until 1811 that Hells Canyon was discovered by another expedition, although they had to return because of its utter inaccessibility and the extrem ely 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.

Whereas the Indians had lived in the canyon for more than 7,000 years in perfect harmony with nature, in less than 50 years the white settlers managed to destroy most of the canyon's ecology... 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 local climate change...

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