Famed Chief Joseph and his tribe of Nez Percé Indians lived in Hells Canyon. Shoshone-Bannock, Northern Paiute and Cayuse Indians were drawn to the area because of its mild winters. Plenty of wildlife for hunting, thus abundant food for themselves and their livestock, made Hells Canyon the ideal area.
In 1806, narrowly missing Hells Canyon, members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were following the Salmon River in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean. The ruggedness of the canyon discouraged many other explorers, but that helped to preserve the area and protect it from development.
In the 1860s, years after earlier explorers dismissed the area, gold was discovered. Placer miners did not find much in Hells Canyon, but hardrock miners had more success. Mining operations helped to create and support some of the communities in the area, most of which are ghost towns and past memories today.
In the late 1800s, homesteaders hoping to raise cattle and sheep began to arrive to the area. The gentle slopes surrounding Hells Canyon offered a good living for many. However, harsh winters, common in all of eastern Oregon, discouraged many of those early families.
Congress protected the cultural resources, historic, and archaeological sites of Hells Canyon by establishing Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. That designation preserves the beautiful area and makes it possible for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy boating, white-water rafting, fishing, hiking and numerous other activities.