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Owyhee River Expedition

Get truly off the grid and experience the backcountry of Oregon with an adventure into the Owyhee Canyonlands, also known as The Grand Canyon of Oregon, carved by the Owyhee River, a favorite trip for geologist-turned-river guide K.M. Collins. 



Combining the first initial of each state, the southeast corner of Oregon and its companion lands in Idaho and Nevada are affectionately referred to by locals as ION. Wrapping like a ribbon through the volcanic and sedimentary bedrock of the basin and range province, the Owyhee River carves what’s known as the Grand Canyon of Oregon.

Dating back to the pioneers of yore, vistas revealing lonely mesas, towering walls of welded ash, and the stacked stratified layers of ancient lake beds have hypnotized and enchanted visitors. As a geologist gone rogue river guide, here are a few of my favorite haunts and hideouts in the desolate yet inviting Owyhee backcountry.

Leslie Gulch Owyhee Canyonlands

Photo courtesy of Krystal Collins

Imagine a landscape formed by the eruption of a vanished volcano. The terrain surrounding Leslie Gulch Area of Critical Environmental Concern is etched and piled high with ashy volcanics which exploded forth from what was once Mahogany Mountain caldera. Strewn in the air only to rain back down, the scene is that of an epic Mad Max-style desert-scape riddled with sharp spires and formations. All this adjacent to a seasonal reservoir.

Leslie Gulch Reservoir

A can’t-miss itinerary is base-camping at Succor Creek beside the reservoir and exploring the many nearby gulches. While wandering in and out of red canyon walls and hoodoos, look for wildlife like big horn sheep, mule deer, coyote, California quail, and numerous species of birds of prey. Seasonally wildflowers like arrowroot, sand lilies, and larkspur will dance in the breeze on talus slopes. There are days and weeks of exploration available from this zone. 

The boat ramp at Leslie Gulch serves as a takeout for whitewater rafters exploring the 67-mile spring river journey, which starts in nearby Rome, Oregon (more on this below).

If you travel through Jordan Valley, the closest refuel southeast of Leslie Gulch, stop in at Skinners Rockhouse Coffee, one of the only eateries for miles and miles. Excellent coffee, fantastic breakfast burritos and many trinkets and gifts are available from this adorable shop. Take a photo in front of the inventive custom mileage sign out front.

Photo courtesy of Krystal Collins

Birch Creek Ranch

Drop down from the desert rim into a windy and unimproved road many hundreds of feet to the bottom of the Owyhee Canyon. Here lies the oasis of Birch Creek Ranch, first formed at the turn of the 20th century by Basque shepherds and later a West Virginian Cattle Rancher.

On the National Registry of Historic Places, traditional Basque stone walls, a water wheel, and almost 20 individual structures hint at a rural, homesteading lifestyle from another time. With two distinct home units a mile apart on a dirt road, Acordagoitia House and Morrison Ranch, both with root cellars, corrals, barns, shops, and other outbuildings, one could easily fill a day with plenty to discover on the Birch Creek Ranch. Owyhee River camping is offered up the drainage from the ranch about a mile. 

The Grave of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau 

An infamous Oregon and Wild West legend, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was born to French Canadian interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacagawea, the Shoshone Guide of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805. He is the only child to ever appear on US currency. At age 61, after being educated in Europe and careers in fur trapping, trading, and military scouting, Charbonneau was headed north from California to Montana motivated by a gold strike.

While underway at an Owyhee River crossing, he fell in the icy waters, was transported to Inskip Stage Station, and, in 1866, died of pneumonia. His grave was forgotten until 1960 and was eventually logged as a Registered National Historic Place in 1973. The location of the grave is called Danner, though there is no town, only cattle and a cenotaph marker.

Coffee Pot Crater

One of the volcanic processes the Owyhee country region is famous for is basalt eruptions and flows. Coffeepot Craters is the site of one of the youngest lava flows in Oregon dated to 3,200 years ago. There are four unique craters identifiable within the Jordan Crater complex. In fact a lack of colonized lichen on other olivine-rich samples suggest an individual flow in the complex may be as young as 100 years old. During this family-friendly 1.6-mile loop hike – with plenty of side spurs, travelers will experience the distinctive texture and patterns indicative of lava rock.

To access this spot, a 26-mile road must be traversed, requiring 4-wheel/all-wheel drive. It’s best to avoid it after recent rain.

Pillars of Rome

Pillars of Rome, near Jordan, Oregon

Located a short drive outside of Rome, Oregon, the put-in for the Wild and Scenic Owyhee River journey, the Pillars of Rome are a gorgeous, easily accessed roadside attraction. Stacked stratified layers of ancient lake bed sediment pile up with striking continuity across the horizon. Named for their prominent similarity to Grecian ruins like the Coliseum, forum, and pantheon, the white-walled cliffs mimic stately Roman design. They are a popular hangout for avian passers-by along the Pacific Flyway. The most impressive is the Sandhill Crane who stops in nearby Malheur Wildlife Refuge to mate and rear its young seasonally. When these beauties fly over at the Cliffs of Rome, they announce their presence with the most fantastic calls and songs.

Owyhee River camping is available across the bridge at the Rome Wild and Scenic Owyhee River launch site. The best eatery and lodging is at Rome Station, a can’t-miss one-horse town center.

Owyhee River Rafting

Photo courtesy of Krystal Collins

Although Owyhee Country is full of sights to see accessible by automobile, experiencing the region from the Wild and Scenic Owyhee River Canyon while rafting is an incredible way to witness its grandeur. In fact pairing a road trip with a commercial river trip is ideal. If you’d like to travel the terrain of Owyhee Country by raft, Northwest Rafting Company provides premiere whitewater adventures to novices and experienced boaters alike.

Owyhee River Camping

(Editor’s Note)

Camping and visiting places like Owyhee Canyonlands require preparation and research. Have a specific plan before leaving and consult safety resources before hiking or traveling in remote areas like this. If you plan to travel to the Owyhee Canyonlands, make sure you top off your gas or diesel and consider packing reserve fuel. Once you leave, Owyhee lacks amenities and services.

Camping opportunities around the Owyhee River are mostly primitive, and if you plan to RV to travel to this area, you will need to employ some expert-level boondocking skills. But southeastern Oregon provides a truly unique experience for travelers, and you can always set up basecamp or overnight rest stops at some of the Good Sam campgrounds in the general area. While you will still need to plan at least a half day’s drive to visit Owyhee, it’s helpful to plan backcountry excursions from the vantage of a comfortable campground. Campground options might include:

Mt View RV on the Oregon Trail – Baker City, Oregon Ambassador RV Resort – Caldwell, Idaho Mountain View RV Park – Boise, Idaho Hi Valley RV Park – Garden City, Idaho

Happy road-tripping — see you in the backcountry!

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