The story goes that the Seven Devils Mountains were once seven giant, child-eating monsters living in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. Each year the monsters travled east, devouring Nez Perce children in their path. According to Nez Perce legend, the tribe’s chiefs asked Coyote to help free the children from the tyranny of the seven giants, and Coyote asked his friend Fox for advice.
“We will first dig seven holes,” said Fox. “We will dig them very deep, in a place the giants always pass over … We will then fill the holes with a boiling liquid.”
Coyote gathered all the animals with claws: beavers, marmots, cougars and bears. They helped dig the seven holes. Then Coyote filled the holes with a rust-colored liqued. Coyote and Fox dropped hot rocks into the liquid to make it boil.
The next time the seven devil monsters traveled east, they fell into the seven deep holes of boiling liquid. They fumed and splashed, but they couldn’t climb their way out. As they struggled, they scattered the liquid as far as a man could travel in a day.
Coyote came out of his hiding place and said, “You are being punished for your wickedness. I will punish you even more by changing you into seven mountains. I will make you very high so that everyone can see you. You will stand here forever, to remind people that your punishment comes from bad deeds. I will make a deep gash in the earth here so that no more of your family can get across to trouble my people.”
Coyote changed the seven giants into the Seven Devils Mountains, and then he struck the earth and opened a deep gash in its crust, Hells Canyon, at the feet of the petrified giants. No more evil monsters from the Blue Mountains troubled children in the land of the Nez Perce.
* * * *
The Snake River originates in Yellowstone National Park at 9,500 feet above sea level and first meanders south past the Tetons and through Jackson, Wyoming, before winding west through the basalt canyons of southern Idaho. It then turns north to form the boundary between Idaho and Oregon. After picking up the flow of the Salmon River, it again redoubles in Lewiston, Idaho, where it meets the Clearwater River. It then veers west again into eastern Washington, where it eventually merges with the roiling expanse of the Columbia River near Pasco, Washington.
Upstream of its confluence with the Salmon River, however, the Snake cuts through the deepest canyon in North America: a canyon called Hells. He Devil Mountain, at 9,393 feet above sea level, is the tallest of the Seven Devils Mountains. At Granite Creek, six miles away, the rapids in the canyon’s gut are 7,913 feet (one and a half miles) lower than the towering peak. This crack in the earth’s surface, built through eons of geologic uplift and the Snake River’s downward cutting, is about ten miles wide rim-to-rim.
The 652,488-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was established by Congress on Dec. 31, 1975 and includes the inherent 214,944-acre Hells Canyon Wilderness Area, an area where mechanized and motorized access is prohibited, “untrammeled by the hands of man,” in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964.