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Rafting the Owyhee River in Idaho and Oregon

By May 2, 2024Rafting

As of 4/29/24 the gauge is reading 1,240 CFS (at Hot springs on the Bruneau) and 3,390 CFS at Rome.  The basins are at 175 % and 96% of normal for this time of year which hopefully means a few more weeks of runnable flows for the 2024 whitewater season. April and May are the best moths to float these rivers when they do happen. These numbers have fallen considerably since our blog on the Bruneau. The window is closing fast to get out there and run these incredible rivers.

The Owyhee has numerous forks and different sections on those forks. Our focus is mainly on the Three Forks to Rome and Rome to the reservoir. 

 Three Forks to Rome has several class V+ rapids that may need to be portaged. Optimal water levels for this section are between 1,500 cfs and 3,000 cfs on the gauge at Rome. 

Rome down to Birch Creek is mostly a class II-III with the exception of Montgomery which some consider a IV.  Favorable water levels for this section are between 800 and 10,000 cfs. As with the Bruneau the Owyhee can be floated at lower water levels in small crafts such as kayaks, IKs and pack rafts. Some lining and portaging maybe required for certain rapids. 

Accessing the Owyhee

The lower Owyhee from Rome down can be accessed in Rome, Oregon. It is a small ramp just of highway 95 on the south side of the highway. The take out for the Owhyee is about 50 river miles from Rome at Birch Creek on the Jordan Craters Road/Birch Creek. The turn off is before Jordan Valley on highway 95. 

Accessing Three Forks is a bit more challenging, more like accessing the Bruneau and is inaccessible following a big rain event. The map below is from the BLM guide book for the Owyhee  and Bruneau Rivers is a great reference for the Lower Owyhee access points.

Camping and Hiking on the Owyhee.

Its been over 10 years since either one of us has been out on the Owyhee, so this will probably be short. As my memory serves me most of the camps are nice grassy camps on the upper end and some rocky camps here and there on the lower end. Hiking abounds in the Canyon. Pruitts Castle has a nice hike on the badlands style topography leading to beautiful views. 

Leave no Trace principles, as always, apply when camping and recreating within this river corridor and any outside space for that matter. Come prepared with your fire pan (at least 6 inches off the ground), fire blanket, ash can, strainer, a way to pack out your garbage and human waste. This can be either the River Bank toilet or Johnny Partner groover systems or the old style toilet seat fastened to a 20 MM ammo can. Wag bags are a great way to pack out human waste if you have limited space such as a kayak or pack raft trip. And finally the most important groover and human waste rule- Don’t Pee in the Groover, pee in the river (or use a pee bucket). 

Removing or disturbing archaeological artifacts and historic objects is prohibited by federal law. This includes buildings and pit houses. Out of respect for the people who lived in these lands long before there were Europeans please stay out of it houses as well. To tribes in the region these places are sacred and often were places where people lived and held various ceremonies and counsels. Just as you wouldn’t desecrate a cathedral or the Vatican please don’t desecrate these people’s home.

Owyhee river trip April 2012 with Payette River Company


Most of the rapids are class III as my memory serves me. Again this is one of those things where I need to get back out there and learn about this fantastic river. One memory of my first and only trip down the Owyhee was with Payette RIver Company. Ted was a guide and it was probably our first trip together. The exact place in the river seems to have left my memory, but what I do remember is a place where the river was pushing up against a cliff wall that obviously had a hole in it. This hole most likely exited on the other side. There was a group of probably 6 people and one of their boats, a Walmart special- cataraft was sucked into this hole. The boat itself was still above water and all its occupants had made it safely to shore. We stopped to offer help. Near the base of the cliff was an outcrop that you could get to and stand on. One of the guides secured a rope to the d-ring of the Walmart Special, and tried pulling the boat out of the hole. The d-ring popped and now the guide was in the water needing to be rescued. Luckily this was an easy rescue but that boat and everything on it stayed in that hole. 

We had extra supplies so we gave the now boatless boaters some dry clothes and sleeping bags. They were serenaded with a song of their plight and the fate of the boat, basically you’re screwed. While the Owyhee below Rome doesn’t have a class V rapid it has plenty of other hazards and things that can go wrong. As always head on a swivel and be prepared for anything, oh and leave that Walmart special Cataraft at home or better yet in Walmart where it belongs.

Natural History

Plant life- Flora and Fauna

See our blog on the Bruneau for an extensive list of wildlife. Home to the Owyhee River forget me not. This species is not found on any other river system in Idaho. With its Pale blue flowers look for this gem in the North facing vertical rhyolite much like the Bruneau River Phlox, in May and June. Found along with this rare plant are mountain snowberry, red alumroot, prickly phlox and desert gooseberry. Be on the look out for poison ivy along the river banks. This three leafed, branchy with bright green slightly shiny leaves loves to be near the water. IF touched it can cause allergic reactions. 


The Owyhee River flows out of the Owyhee mountains in South West Idaho and South eastern Oregon. It sweeps through the Owyhee Plateau and meets the Snake River South west of Boise. As it traveled through the desert it carved out spectacular hoodoos and formed badlands style topography.
Ephemeral in nature the  Owyhee is a river to be run in the early spring as the snow melt from the previous winter flows from the mountains to the valleys. Following the cycles of nature, water going from one state, a solid, to the next state, a liquid. All while following the path of gravity down to base level, the Snake River and ultimately the ocean.

Yellowstone hot spot track across the Snake River Plain. Image credit Roadside Geology of Idaho Second Edition Authors: Link, Willsey and Schmidt. Pg. 16

How did this river carve out the gorge in lies in? The simple answer is gradient-going from a high place to a low place. In this case the high place is the Owyhee Mountains and the low place, being the Snake River. Around 3-4 million years ago, Lake Idaho resided just to the North of the head waters of both the Owyhee River and Bruneau River. This lake at one point was as large as Lake Erie and was the base level for these rivers. It rose and fell with the amount of precipitation and glaciation that occurred on both the head waters of the Snake River and the Bruneau/Owyhee rivers as well as the surrounding mountains of other smaller drainages. Around 2 million years ago the base level dropped on Lake Idaho allowing these rivers to increase their gradient and thus their ability to down cut their canyons and create beauty of these canyons we see today. As it drained west, the waters of Lake Idaho began caring out what is now Hells Canyon on the Snake River-the deepest canyon in North America.

How did the ryholite and basalt form in on the Owyhee plateau? 16 million years ago, what is now the Yellowstone caldera sat on the opposite side of the State, in the South western corner of Idaho/ South eastern Corner of Oregon.  The hot spot produced magma in an area under the earth’s crust. This Magma plume rose from the earth’s mantle creating a large bimodal volcanic field accross southern Idaho.

As the North American plate has moved to the North and East the hot spot has remained in the same place burning a volcanic path across the Snake River plain. The grand basalt cliffs of the Snake River canyon and the water falls along the way are evidence of this past. Rhyolite, a harder more resistant rock that the basalt that over lies it, forms Shoshone Falls and Twin Falls, the large drops that the Snake River makes its way over as it descends into the Snake River canyon. 

Once the hot spot had passed through and most of the volcanic activity stopped the depressions left behind filled with water from the ancestral Owyhee. There wasn’t always a free flowing river through the canyons. Rather there was more of a series of lakes and then volcanoes and then more lakes finally followed by the down cutting of the river and formation of the Canyon. 

The Pillars of Rome are an example of one of these lakes. Deposited some 4.8 to 9 million years ago based on fissile evidence of Hemphilian aged vertebrates and fish skeletons. Before this a series of volcanic eruptions laid down basalt and rhyolite lavas under the lake sediments in the Rome Valley. Timing of when the Owyhee began down cutting this Valley and the canyon is uncertain however evidence of an ancient river bed exists about 1-2 miles west of the present river channel could have been occupied by the river around 1.9 million years ago. It would have eroded some 140’ of the Valley which now is 340’ deep.

Intermittent lava dams flowed into the canyon blocking the river over the last 1.9 million years.. These dams would create lakes that extended into the Rome Valley. From 1.9 million years ago to 600,000 years ago the river here cycled from lake to river. Deposits from these lakes are visible along the Rome Valley at an elevation of 3600’. 

Along with these lava dams there was also shallow lake basins in the river corridor from Rome to the Idaho border. These shallow lake basins left behind different types of sediments as you cross from one basin to the next. 

Around 13,000 to 18,000 years ago what is now the Crooked creek drained a lake, Lake Alvord. This large lake  was 70 miles long and over 200’deep. At the end of the last glaciaciation. At one point 350,000 cfs flowed out of the lake and through this drainage. If your up for a hike you can take a walk up the drainage and see some of the deposits and carved channels left by this flood.

Moving down the river there are rhyolite gorges,  basalt cliffs, landslides  evidence of old lava dams, lake bed sediments creating beautiful badlands topography and the list goes on. 

In Sweetwater Canyon one will see high basalt cliffs and a slumped piece of  land (if you hike to the canyon rim you can see this better). A rock dam from the Bullseye landslide created a 150’ tall rock dam that  blocked the river here called the Bullseye landslide. It is possible this was caused when the Alvord Lake flooded the river.

Heaven’s gate Landslide Complex is another feature of note. What happened here is what geologists call a rotational landslide. At one time these big blocks of rock were attached to the basalt cliffs above. Notice that these blocks have layers in them that are no longer horizontal. These blocks failed when the river undercut the soft sediments that the basalt flows were sitting on. Sedimentary rocks are softer than volcanic rocks and could not hold the basalt in place. When this failed it caused the blocks to slide down and block the river . As this process has gone on the river has worked to widen the canyon. 

Weeping Wall spring around mile 18 is a place to fill up on fresh water and see where an ancestral Owyhee possibly left its river gravels and ancient lakes left behind their clays. The region is defined by Lava flows followed by lakes followed by more lava flows. This spring is created by snow melt and rain run off that has seeped down through the permeable basalt layers. Here at the river level the water encounters a bed of clay and gravels. The clay is not permeable and the water seeps out of the cliff wall along this layer. Why is this significant? Water from the spring flows from the Ancestral Owyhee’s boulders and gravels. 144,000 years ago the overlying basalt erupted trapping these gravels, the elevation this occurs at tells geologists where the Ancestral Owyhee was before 144,000 years ago. 

Skipping ahead we arrive at mile 25 the Chalk Basin Badlands. The two formations here that gain the attention of most boaters are Pruitts Castle and Lambert Dome. At one time this was ancient lake bed, depositing the clays, silts , and muds. Fossils such as shells, and vertebrates can be found along with mud cracks and ripple marks. These features indicate the lake occasionally receded and filled. Based on dates in a layer of volcanic tuff the top layers have been dated at 9.7 million years leaving the bottom layers or strata a few million years older than that. 

Looking closely at some of the layers one will find red “baked” layers. These formed as the lakebed sediments filled the basin. Lava from nearby vents would flow over these sediments “baking” them and creating the red layers. Other features of lava flowing into a lake system here are the “water affected basalts”. Basalt as normally observed in nature is hard blocky rock with vesicles, like the rocks seen in Sweetwater Canyon cliffs or the rocks at the Craters of the Moon. Here the basalt crumbles and is soft. Hot water and steam alters basalt leading to hydrothermal alteration. This alteration causes the rock to crumble when exposed and makes it less resistant to weathering. 

Other features in Chalk Basin are volcanic tephra layers, reddened oxidized zones, and intrusive layers. The tephra formed when volcanic eruptions ejected basalt tephra, rocks and other fragments into the lake. These became solidified by ground water and burial. Some of the red zones within the sediments were not baked by basalt or other lava flows. Rather these zones were altered by hot water bearing minerals such as iron from the igneous activity. Intrusive layers are seen in a dark sill downstream of Lambert Dome. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg so to speak and is by no means extensive or all there is to see and understand along the Owyhee. These are simply highlights of some of the finer features of this river and perhaps will allow boaters to observe similar geologic features. The bulk of the  geologic information in this article is from Ken Giles’s Guidebook “Geology of the Lower Owyhee River Oregon’s ‘Grand Canyon’”. This guide book will hopefully be available sometime late 2024 or early 2025. There will be a link added here for the book, so stay tuned.  The Owyhee’s geology is best summed up as cycles of volcanism and lacustrine basins filling and flooding, draining and down cutting. Let this article spark your curiosity about the earth and its systems.