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The Bruneau and Owhyee rivers, Idaho’s desert rivers. Part I

As I am sitting down to write this piece on the Bruneau and Owhyee rivers  they are flowing at 1,990 CFS (at Hot springs on the Bruneau) and 8,850 CFS at Rome.  The basins are at 143% and 190% 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.  

For the Bruneau a good level for rafts is from 1,000 cfs to 2,000 cfs.  Below 1,000 cfs you can make it in smaller crafts such as kayaks, IKs and pack rafts. Although Five mile does become difficult to navigate at low water Exiting via the Roberson trail is recommended at extremely low or extremely high water flows to avoid this section of whitewater. 

For this part we will be focusing on the Bruneau. Stay tuned fro the Owhyee.

Accessing the Bruneau.

To say the drive to the put in for the Bruneau is class V and for a class IV river is no underestimate. With most people starting the shuttle from the take, either being picked up by a shuttle company (we’ve used Barker in the past) and driven to the put in. Its a long drive, close to 4 hours of rough dirt roads and and a grade the last mile that drops close to 1,000’. The top of the grade sees a god 2’ drop over the basalt lava rock and down a rough one lane road to the river. Thus the reason to hire a good shuttle company. Barker River Expeditions not only runs trips through these canyons, they also provide a shuttle service to beat all shuttle services (see photo below)

The take out is up river of the town of Bruneau, to the south. Both the take out and the put in are on private land, please be respectful of the land owners and neighboring private lands. 

Camping along the river.  

Miles 30-40: Most of the camps are on the smaller side. The camps near Helfrich hole provide lots of solitude up against the shear cliff walls of rhyolite. They are great for smaller groups. 

Mile 45: Near Sheepshead draw there are a couple of camps, the first one being very small and overgrown, so overgrown that is was hard to tell if there is a camp there. Below this around mile 45 there is a very nice camp on river right. This camp has a small sandy beach with a couple of levels to it. Next to the river is a big old juniper that provides some protection from the elements. As you float down the canyon and get closer to the section of rapids called five mile the camps become sparse, once in the rapid section there are no camps until mile 66.5, Crowbar Gulch. The camp at Crowbar Gulch seems to be quite small as with the next camp just below Wild Burro rapid, the last rapid on the Bruneau.

If you’re looking to stay one more night before taking out there is a small camp on river left. It’s non-descript and requires crawling up an embankment to camping amongst the sage brush. This little camp has no protection from the elements so choose wisely when deciding to stay out one more night. 

The Rapids: 

Over all the rapids tend to be class II-III for much of the river corridor. This all changes once you get to the Five mile section of the river, at miles 60-65 and Wild Burro rapid around mile 66. Here the river flows through a steep, rocky and narrow section of the Canyon creating class IV + rapids depending on the water level. Five Mile can be seen at the Bruneau Canyon overlook on the drive into the put in and it’s worth stopping to check them out. 

The map produced by the BLM has these and all the other rapids marked in their guide book by either Yellow, green or blue rectangles, with each color change denoting level of difficulty. Unfortunately the guidebook does not have any descriptions for the rapids nor descriptions of the camps. Depending on which version of the map you have on your devise or computer the map pages are out of sequence and very hard to keep track of which map page you should be on. 

Natural History

The geology:

It’s hard to go on a river and not talk about the natural history. This is what creates the abounding beauty and the reason for being out there in the first place. Giving us a better appreciation of wild places and wild rivers by allowing us to connect with nature. 

Geology is the backbone to these rivers and the ecosystems they support. It creates habitat for everything from the redband trout to the Canadian geese. In this section we will go over briefly how canyons are made and talk about the rocks that make up the canyon walls.

How do river canyons form? Canyons form when there is a steep enough gradient to allow the water to erode and widen the canyon. It starts with having head waters where the snow collects through out the winter and then as the snow melts in the spring it finds a channel or stream to follow down to a lower elevation. This is called gradient, where something is  higher in elevation going to something lower in elevation. If the gradient is steep enough, meaning it travels a short distance and loses significant elevation, steep narrow canyons are formed such as the one the Bruneau river has carved out over the millennia. For a more in depth discussion of how this process works check out Shawn Willsey’s YouTube video ‘How do deep, narrow canyons form?:

That’s how canyons are formed now lets look at the rocks that form the walls. The Bruneau river is home to the Bruneau Jasper. Mining operations took place during the 1950’s. While most of the jasper is gone you can still find some along the road cut near the put in where Simplot has built a bridge across the river to move cattle back and forth. There is also a hot springs worth checking out at the put in called Indian Hot Springs. 

Once on the river it descends into the a canyon made of steep cliffs. The cliffs here are made of rhyolite, an extrusive igneous rock that erupted as the Yellowstone hot spot made its march across the Snake River Plain. This rhyolite was part of the eruptive Bruneau-Jarbidge eruptive center which erupted about 16million years ago. This center left a large basin that was then filled in with the rhyolite. Eventually basalt eruptions occurred during the Pliocene (~5 ma to 2.6 ma) putting the final layer at the top of the canyon. Glacial melt from the Jarbidge mountains then began carving out the canyons we see today. 

The map on the following page shows the different rock types within the Owhyee plateau. Along the Bruneau you can see the two major rocks types are the Tpf- Pliocene and Upper Miocene volcanic rocks  (mostly the rhyolites and ignimbrite -lighter (felsic colored rocks) and Tpb- Pliocene and upper Miocene basalts. These eruptions formed the great walls of rhyolite and basalt cliffs throughout the canyon.

Geologic map of the eastern portion of Owhyee County: Credit P.K. Link: 

The rhyolite walls and cliffs of the upper river canyon (above)

The basalt cliffs of the lower canyon. These are seen in the 5 mile section of Rapids

Natural History Continued 

The flora and Fauna

Along the river corridor many species of plants and animals can be found. The stream itself supports redband trout (a subspecies of rainbow, mountain whitefish (native to Idaho), shiners, dace and suckers. Among the steep walls of the canyon one can find the Bruneau river flox. Occurring almost solely in the Bruneau river look for this plant hanging out in the steep cliffs of rhyolite as matted flowering plant with white blossoms. These rhyolite cliffs offer protection for the plant from late season frost that would otherwise kill the plant. Juniper and some cottonwood also reside along the banks of the Bruneau River providing some shelter and a break from the sun. Plant life is diverse along the river corridor from grasses to the Bruneau River Phlox to sage and rabbit brush. 

Wildlife here see a harsh desert canyon life. Among those species tough enough and well adapted are the California bighorn sheep, sage grouse, rattlesnakes, bull snakes, lizards, pygmy, cottontail and jack rabbits, pronghorn antelope and deer  Soaring high above the cliff walls you might find golden and bald eagles, turkey buzzards, red-tailed hawks, peregrines, swain son’s hawk, ferruginous hawks, kestrel, northern harriers falcons and swallow. Songbirds include the lazuli bunting, Bullock’s Oriole, yellow warbler, and the showy western tanager and canyon wren. The waterfowl in the area include Canada goose, Mallards, merganser and less scaup. Lastly coyotes, bobcats, cougars, river otter marmot, beaver and great horned owls are all common sights. 


Rafting the Bruneau River should be on your bucket list of Idaho whitewater. The scenic canyons, class IV rapids, mind blowing geology and wildlife keeps rafters coming back in years where there is enough water to float the canyon. This is the year to get on this gem of Idaho’s rivers.  In the words of ski film maker Warren Miller “If you don’t do it now you’ll be one year older when you do” and who knows what the water year will bring in the coming years.  

For more information on this river please refer to the  Owhyee, Bruneau, and Jarbidge- Wild and scenic rivers boating guide from The BLM