An Owyhee River trip has been called a journey through Oregon's Grand Canyon for good reason. You'll discover multicolored spires, dramatic canyons and sculpted grottoes: scenery that is a match for the better-known canyons of the American southwest. The scenery is superb.
But an Owyhee River trip has even more to offer
- Soak in natural hot springs while watching a desert sunset fade on dramatic canyon walls.
- Hike through a fairyland of colorful, eroded rock pinnacles at Chalk Basin.
- View petroglyphs carved into riverside rocks long ago by the Owyhee region's early inhabitants.
- Challenge the Owyhee's lively rapids, including Whistling Bird, Squeeze, and Montgomery, then relax between rapids while scanning the shore and sky for bighorn sheep, antelope, and the over 100 species of birds that make their home here.
All this and more is why the Owyhee is the river our guides feel most privileged to share with you. Join us for a true wilderness adventure you will always remember.
The Owyhee can only be rafted in the Spring, when upstream snowmelt brings life to the canyon and creates challenging rapids. This is the most remote, secluded and pristine trip we run. Many of our guests come back to join us again and again, and sooner or later they all want to run this one. This is a very special river: rare and wild, isolated and pure.
Our first day on the river begins with calm water and mild rapids, which are ideal for a warm up, especially for those behind the oars or paddling an inflatable kayak. After five miles in the open countryside, we enter the first of a series of scenic gorges. Highlights of our first day on the water include Upset rapid and Bull's-eye rapid. The following morning we'll stop at Weeping Wall Springs, a lovely desert oasis, to refill our water jugs with refreshing spring water. We'll run Artillery rapid, stop at a hot springs, and camp at or near Chalk Basin.
Chalk Basin is a strikingly beautiful fairyland of colorful, eroded rock pinnacles and canyons. On our second afternoon or third morning we'll through this scenic area, and, time and weather permitting, we'll offer a hike to the top of a dome overlooking the river for a breathtaking panoramic view of the Owyhee's pristine wilderness.
The scenery just keeps getting better as we head downstream. Over the next two days we'll float through gorgeous Green Dragon Canyon, where 1,000 foot walls dwarf our boats. And we'll encounter our most challenging rapids: Whistling Bird, Squeeze, and Montgomery. We'll take a soak in the river's best hot springs. And we'll stop to view petroglyphs in a lovely, wide-open valley ungraciously named "Hole in the Ground".
Our last day on the water features more beautiful and varied scenery. The last day's whitewater is mild, and this is a good time for those who's yet to experience rowing or paddling to give it a try.
We meet at 7:30 AM Mountain Time (6:30 AM Pacific Time) at the Basque Station Motel in Jordan Valley, Oregon. The Motel (currently the only one in town) is on the main road and easy to find. Jordan Valley is 43 miles east of Burns Junction, approximately 425 miles southeast of Portland, Oregon, and 68 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho. (Please have your breakfast before our meeting time, and arrive in your river clothes.) Our Lead Guide will meet you in the Motel parking lot. Look for a vehicle sporting the O.R.E. logo. After a brief orientation you will pack your things into our river bags, and park your vehicles next to the motel. We will then go by van to the launch site at Rome.
Once we arrive at our launch site, you’ll meet the rest of our guide crew, and they’ll conduct a short safety and orientation briefing, which will include instruction on paddle and rowing techniques as needed. We’re normally on our way downstream by mid-morning.
On the River
Each day is a bit different. But a typical day on the river begins with freshly brewed coffee around 7 AM, and breakfast by 8 AM. After breakfast we’ll pack our bags and load the boats. Then, after a brief orientation to the day’s adventures, we’ll head downstream.
We’re on the river an average of four to five hours per day. Along the way we stop for a riverside picnic lunch. We may also stop to swim, to explore historic sites, to scout rapids, or to hike up scenic side canyons. We usually arrive in camp by mid to late afternoon, and while the guides prepare hors d’oeuvres and dinner, you’ll have time to hike, swim, fish, read, or nap.
Logistics for our final day on the river vary depending on water level as well as weather and road conditions. When possible we will leave the river at Birch Creek Ranch. Once we’ve unpacked our gear and de-rigged the boats at the ranch we'll board a van for the ride back to Jordan Valley, where we will arrive around 5 PM.
Alternatively, we may raft past Birch Creek to the headwaters of Lake Owyhee. There we will lash our rafts together, attach a motor to our gear boat, then embark on a leisurely and scenic cruise across the reservoir. In this case we'll reach our take-out at Leslie Gulch between 4 and 5 PM, de-rig, then drive back to Jordan Valley, where we'll arrive between 7 and 8 PM. (Please contact our office if you have questions about which will be the likely format for your trip.)
- The services of our professional guides and staff.
- Transportation to our launch point from the town of Jordan Valley, and from our take-out back to Jordan Valley at trip’s end.
- All meals, from lunch on the first day through lunch on the last. Our menu is delicious, varied, and hearty. Meals are freshly prepared by our guides from the highest quality ingredients. Juice and water are available at each meal. Coffee, tea, and cocoa are available at dinner and breakfast, and complementary wine is served with some dinners. Special dietary needs may be accommodated with advance notice. We also provide cups, plates, and silverware.
- Durable, professional quality rafts and river running equipment, including U.S. Coast Guard Approved lifejackets.
- Waterproof river bags and boxes for your personal gear.
- Cups, plates and eating utensils.
- Camp chairs.
We will meet at 7:30 AM Mountain Time (6:30 AM Pacific Time) at the Basque Station Motel in Jordan Valley, Oregon. The Motel, one of only two in town, is on the main road and easy to find. Jordan Valley is 43 miles east of Burns Junction, approximately 425 miles southeast of Portland, Oregon, and 68 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho.
From Portland follow I-84 to the Oregon-Idaho border. Just past the border turn south onto US-95 and follow it to Jordan Valley. Or drive to Bend, take US-20 to Burns, OR-78 to Burns Junction, and US-95 to Jordan Valley. From California take US-97 or US-395 to US-20, US-20 east to Burns, OR-78 to Burns Junction, and US-95 to Jordan Valley.
The closest commercial airport is Boise, Idaho. It is serviced by Alaska, United, Delta, and Southwest Airlines. Plan your flight to arrive the day before your river trip begins.
There is no public transportation available from Boise to Jordan Valley, but car rentals are available at Boise's airport.
Your trip fare includes transportation from Jordan Valley to our put-in at Rome, and from our take-out at Leslie Gulch back to Jordan Valley at trip’s end. If you’d rather have your car waiting for you at Leslie Gulch, give our office a call. We will assist you in arranging for shuttle service. Conducted by local drivers, the price of this service is approximately $150 per vehicle.
You will need to bring your own clothing and toiletries.
Details, tips, and a complete list of what to bring are found here. You will receive a copy of this information when you sign up for your trip.
|Average daytime high temperature||63||73||82|
|Average nighttime low temperature||30||38||46|
|Average monthly rainfall||0.7"||1.0"||1.0"|
The weather in the Owyhee River canyon is quite variable -- more variable than on any other river we run. Little rain falls, and warm days are likely. But cool or cold days are a possibility, too. The river water itself is cool early in the spring, but may warm to the high 60’s as air temperatures rise and the water level drops.
Fishing on the Owyhee ( trout and small mouth bass) is fair to poor during high water, but improves markedly as the water warms and clears. If you would like to fish you will need an Oregon fishing license, which may be purchased at Oregon sporting goods stores or online at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's web site.
We select scenic beaches for our camp sites. Our guides establish a central kitchen and social area, and trip members select spots in the surrounding area to pitch a tent or roll out a sleeping bag. O.R.E. will set up a portable toilet at each camp, which will be located with privacy and convenience in mind.
O.R.E. practices minimum impact camping, and the crew will instruct you on the simple steps we follow to protect the Owyhee's fragile desert river environment.
There is one motel in Jordan Valley: The Basque Station Hotel (and Shell Station): (541) 586-9244, which is our meeting place. Jordan Valley is also the site of two trailer parks, which provide showers, a laundry, and hookups for RVs.
Rome features a small BLM campground on the east side of the river, as well as Rome Station on the west side. Rome Station (541-586-2295) includes a cafe, small store, gasoline, cabins, RV park and airstrip.
When Europeans first traveled into the Owyhee country they found the Northern Paiute people living a nomadic life in the region. Food was so scarce that families spent most of their time traveling from place to place, searching for what little the desert offered. Plants were vital to Paiute survival. During Spring they sought fresh green thistle or squaw cabbage around streams and lakes. As plants ripened and produced seeds during summer, Paiute families might travel up to 40 miles to gather seeds at a particularly productive location. Grass seeds — fescue, wheatgrass, and Indian rice — were collected, winnowed, and ground into flour. Adding water to the flower, a mush was produced. Seeds were stored in baskets, pits, or caves for use during the long winters. Late in the Summer, Paiute families traveled to moist areas where bulbs of camas, lily, arrowroot, and wild onion were harvested. With the onset of Winter, Paiute bands moved to semi permanent villages near their stored-food sites, where they stayed until the following Spring.
In 1819, Donald McKenzie of the North West Fur Company traveled through the Owyhee region. His job was to discourage competition in the Snake River watershed by exterminating the region’s fur bearing mammals. In his search for these animals, McKenzie sent three employees — Hawaiian Islanders, as it happens — to explore a river they had encountered. They never returned, and the river — the Owyhee — was named in their honor, after their homeland.
The first passable east-west road through the region, known as the Oregon Central Military Road, crossed the Owyhee near Rome. (Rome was so named because white cliffs found near town reminded visitors of pillars in Rome, Italy.) Local gold miners, faced with rising prices for basic supplies, had hopes that improved transportation would drive down prices. Instead, prices continued to rise: to $ 3.00 for a dozen eggs, and $ 12.00 for a pair of boots.
Traffic was so heavy along the roadway that Sam Skinner, Mike Jordan, and Peter Donnelly — the road’s builders — had to inspect the route constantly for damage. During these tours of inspection the partners had to be on the lookout for the Paiute, who were determined to keep the encroaching outsiders away. During one such inspection tour, Jordan and his brother were killed.
But the Paiute did not succeed in protecting their land from the outsiders. By 1896 an increased military presence in the Owyhee region had compelled the northern Paiute to surrender. The Paiute were placed on the Malheur Indian Reservation, created in 1871 by President Grant. Not happy as reservation farmers, a way of life alien to them, the Paiute left the reservation in protest in 1878. The catalyst for their departure was trouble on another reservation. A clerical error opened the Camas Prairie Reservation in Idaho to white settlers — a mistake that precipitated the Bannock War, last Indian uprising in the Northwest.
Prehistoric evidence left by the Indians who lived in the Owyhee region is scarce. Petroglyphs are found in the Owyhee canyon near Hole-in-the-Ground. Designs found there include human figures, bird tracks, ladders, rain symbols, and circles. To the south, along Jordan Creek, several sites display a series of petroglyphs on canyon walls and on boulders near springs. The drawings found on boulders, however, have been exposed to the elements, and the patterns are greatly faded.
The rocks found in the Owyhee River Canyon are relatively young in geologic terms. The oldest are those of the Miocene Sucker Creek Formation, which were deposited about 16 million years ago. In general, the Owyhee rocks are composed of sediments deposited in shallow lake basins, interspersed with volcanic deposits. Fossils preserved here include leaves, pollen, and wood, as well as numerous fish and mammals.
The rocks of the Owyhee Plateau are predominantly flat lying. However, in some areas faulting has broken the landscape up into a series of blocks, creating a rugged landscape.
The Owyhee River from Rome to Owyhee Reservoir cuts neatly through the strata of the Owyhee Plateau, beginning with the youngest rock — the Rome Beds — and ending with the oldest — the Sucker Creek Formation. To float down river is in effect to travel progressively back in time, from rocks 10 million year old in Rome, to rocks 16 million years old at the reservoir. This amounts to a backward step in time of roughly 100,000 years with each river mile.
Owyhee Geology at River Level
In Rome, the buff to tan colored Rome Beds are visible on the skyline in every direction. The evenly layered nature of these sediments is the hallmark of an ancient lake of considerable size. Between the mud/clay layers one sees coarse sand and gravel from the old lake shore.
The fossils preserved in this old lake include a diverse cross-section of mammals, including rhinoceros, camels, horses, bears, peccaries, beaver, antelope, rabbits, and otters. In addition, the bones and scales of many species of fish are preserved. All of these fossils have been dated as late Miocene in age — about 10 million years old. The abundance of huge lake fish and the presence and size of aquatic mammals confirm that the lake was quite large. Toward the northern end of these lake sediments, about 5 miles downstream from Rome, the river cuts directly across the axis of a gentle basin, or “syncline”. Here the Rome Beds have been folded to form a shallow north/south trough.
Less than 6 miles down river from the put-in, the river abruptly leaves its wide-open valley and enters a narrow canyon composed of rocks of the Jump Creek Formation. The formation consists of a volcanic rock called rhyolite. Although rhyolite weathers to a black or gray color, fresh exposures are pink. When they are hot, rhyolite lavas are characteristically stiff, viscous low-temperature flows. The lava’s dough-like consistency, which appears in swirling patterns like that of a marble cake, can easily be seen in the sheer canyon walls.
Downstream, the river moves into a series of very narrow canyons, cut into rocks of the Deer Butte Formation. The Deer Butte consists of alternating thin, fossil-bearing lake and stream sediments, and thicker lava flows. (Fossils in the Deer Butte — rodents, carnivores, and hoofed mammals — are 15 million years old.) For the next 6 to 10 miles the river crosses a series of fractures in the rock, which were probably created during large earthquakes.
Farther downstream, the river canyon opens up gradually, as more and more soft sediment is exposed along the banks. Lambert Rocks, some 25 miles downstream from the put-in, is a fantastically eroded monolith of great beauty. Part of what makes Lambert Rocks so striking is a series of black lava flows that provide sharp contrast to the lighter colored lake sediments. Volcanism has lent other color and drama to Lambert Rocks, as well. As lava flowed rapidly over moist lake flats, clay in the muddy flats was baked by the intense heat, and turned into a natural, red brick. This brick layer is visible below each of the lava flows, and it is particularly resistant to erosion. Each of the picturesque columnar rock formations in the Lambert Rocks badlands is capped or armored by a layer of the brick. The hard, erosion resistant nature of the brick is in fact responsible for the columnar topography.
In the dry washes emerging from Lambert Rocks, opal may be found. The opal is white, glassy where broken, and shows a pearly luster. The quartz in the opal is derived from the dissolved volcanic ash of volcanoes.
A fascinating geologic feature found below Lambert Rocks is the presence of “intercanyon lava flows”. About 10,000 years ago, a series of volcanoes on the Owyhee Plateau poured hot, runny lava into the river canyon. Although these lava flows did not entirely fill the canyon, they did disrupt the river’s flow for a time. Faced with a wall of rock in its path (the cooled lava), the river began the slow process of cutting around the blockage. Generally, the easiest route was along one of the old canyon walls.
Intercanyon flows are visible today where the two canyon walls don’t match. On one canyon wall, lake or stream sediments are exposed in gentle slopes, and on the opposite wall, blocky lavas form sheer cliffs.
Volcanic breccias are common along this stretch of river. Breccia forms where volcanoes turn explosive due to the sudden release of water and gas. The result is rock composed of yellow volcanic ash studded with small blocks of lava.
Faults are also common along the river. Whistling Bird Rapid, perhaps the Owyhee’s most challenging, was formed by a large block of rock and debris that slid down a steep fault line on the east side of the river.
After Whistling Bird Rapid the river takes an abrupt eastward turn into Green Dragon Canyon (aka Iron Point Canyon). Incredibly sheer walls make this canyon one of the most picturesque sections of the river. The rocks here are predominantly banded rhyolite, and the varicolored pinks and grays characteristic of this rock are spectacular.
Downstream from Green Dragon Canyon a boater encounters Montgomery Rapid, another of the river’s noteworthy drops. Below Montgomery, the river flows past old lake bed, coarse sand and gravel stained in multiple hues by oxidized iron in the sediments.
For the last 6 to 10 miles before reaching the Owyhee Reservoir, the rock seen in the canyon is of the Sucker Creek Formation. This brightly colored rock formed in an ancient stream and lake environment that experienced a series of volcanic ash flows. The Sucker Creek Formation contains scattered mammal fossils dating from the early Miocene (16 million years old), but it is most famous for its rich deposits of fossil leaves. Plant fossils have been used to estimate local rainfall during the Miocene (43 inches per year). Regional altitude, latitude, and minimum temperatures have all been calculated as well, based on the fossil plant record.
From the takeout — at Leslie Gulch on Owyhee Reservoir — the road back to Jordan Valley winds up the Gulch, through a beautiful, colorful landscape typical of the Sucker Creek Formation, and onto the Owyhee Plateau.
If you'd like to do some additional camping, hiking, and exploring while you're in the area, consider visiting Leslie Gulch, Jordan Craters, or Succor Creek State Recreation Area. For more information contact the Bureau of Land Management at 100 Oregon Street, Vale, OR 97918, 541-473-3144, and request a map of the region ($4.00): the Vale District Recreation Guide.
Guests sometimes ask whether it is appropriate to tip their guide. Tipping is optional, but if your guide did a great job then feel free to thank him or her with a gratuity. The amount is up to you, but tips between 8% and 20% of trip cost are customary. Gratuities are customarily presented to the Lead Guide, and will be shared equally among all guides on your trip.
- Spectacular desert scenery.
- Great hiking.
- Natural riverside hot Springs.
- Excellent birding.
- Petroglyphs, historic sites.
- The most remote, pristine river we raft.
- Near: Jordan Valley
- Trip Length: 4 & 5 days
- Meeting Time: 7:30 AM
- 2020 Season: April 1 - May 26
- Boat Options: paddle raft, oar raft, row-yourself cataraft, inflatable kayak
- Whitewater Rating: III+ (Intermediate)
- Suggested minimum age: 12