Here I am at one of the West’s wildest and most spectacular waterways — eastern Oregon’s Owyhee River will offer the chance to escape to a remote desert canyon for six days, where I’ll enjoy stunning towers and rock formations, soak in natural hot springs, catch glimpses of soaring raptors and California bighorn sheep, and test my skill against exciting whitewater rapids.
The Owyhee flows from its headwaters in northern Nevada and through southwest Idaho’s Owyhee Canyonlands before carving the deep gorges of eastern Oregon.
The trip begins in tiny Rome, Oregon, named because the white chalk cliff bluffs reminded early settlers of the Roman Coliseum. After descending through several miles of rolling sagebrush sea, the canyon walls begin to soar and rapids appear on the horizon. At mile 24, my group and I stop to revel in the riverside pools of Ryegrass Crossing hot springs, soaking up the view as the springs soak away the outside world. Duly refreshed, I float down past the multi-color towers of Pruitt’s Castle and Lambert Rocks, before dropping into the heart of the canyon. As the high walls of Green Dragon Canyon constrict the narrow channel, we thrill at the surging class III and IV whitewater of Rock Trap, Squeeze, and Montgomery rapids. With several days of stunning views, more hot springs, and plenty more rapids to go, camping among the towering red walls offers a rare chance to escape completely.
Recognizing the incredible beauty and remote ruggedness of this desert treasure, in 1984 Congress designated 120 miles of the river in Oregon as a wild component of the National Wild and Scenic River System. The Idaho sections of the Owyhee have also been found to have these outstanding qualities, and legislation now before Congress would extend Wild and Scenic status and protection there as well. The work of a broad-based coalition of local interests, Idaho Senator Mike Crapo’s Owyhee Public Land Management Act of 2008 would ensure lasting protections for over half a million acres of public lands as Wilderness and 316 miles of Wild & Scenic River designation. This bill is now included in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which is slated for considered by the Senate during a lame duck session after the November elections. Supporters of the bill are optimistic that it will pass through Congress this year.