The Snake River drainage basin encompasses parts of six U.S. states (Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming) and is known for its varied geologic history. The Snake River Plain was created by a volcanic hotspot which now lies underneath the Snake River headwaters in Yellowstone National Park. Gigantic glacial-retreat flooding episodes that occurred during the previous Ice Age carved out canyons, cliffs and waterfalls along the middle and lower Snake River. Two of these catastrophic flooding events, the Missoula Floods and Bonneville Flood, significantly affected the river and its surroundings.
Native Americans have lived along the Snake for more than 11,000 years. Salmon from the Pacific Ocean spawned by the millions in the river, and were a vital resource for people living on the Snake downstream of Shoshone Falls. By the time Lewis and Clark explored the area, the Nez Perce and Shoshone were the dominant Native American groups in the region. Later explorers and fur trappers further changed and used the resources of the Snake River basin. At one point, sign language used by the Shoshones representing weaving baskets was misinterpreted to represent a snake, giving the Snake River its name.
By the middle 19th century, the Oregon Trail had become well established, bringing numerous settlers to the Snake River region. Steamboats and railroads moved agricultural products and minerals along the river throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Starting in the 1890s, fifteen major dams have been built on the Snake River to generate hydroelectricity, enhance navigation, and provide irrigation water. However, these dams blocked salmon migration above Hells Canyon and have led to water quality and environmental issues in certain parts of the river. The removal of several dams on the lower Snake River has been proposed, in order to restore some of the river's once-tremendous salmon runs.