2011 Owyhee River Trip Report

May 15, 2011 at 11:00 AM



Submitted by Cheryl Ford

There is an urge to tell everyone the Owyhee is too far, too unpredictable and not worth the effort, because if word gets out what a phenomenal wilderness experience is found in the canyon, the remote canyons of the Owyhee will get as hammered as the Middle Fork. True, the 8 hr drive from Portland and the volatile river levels are an impediment.

55 miles from Rome put-in put in to Birch Creek takeout or 67 miles to the Leslie Gulch take out, the river wends through open Deschutes country, sheer walled Grand Canyon country, and volcanic terrain that ranges from a riot of painted castles to black and red gates of Mordor. The landscape is jeweled with ribbons of white pelicans, evening grosbeaks, harriers, canyon wrens, owls, golden eagles, red winged blackbirds, magpies and the glitter of colorful song birds. Pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep are hidden in plain sight.

Our group of 11 put in around 5600 cfs, after heavy rains and snow for 24 hours on May 15th. The ranger arrived at the boat ramp with cautionary words of possible flash floods, with indications and precautions to follow. The guidebooks say 1000-5000 cfs recommended. Having seen what the river was like at mid 5,000’s, it seems that most of the rapids are easier than at low levels except for maybe Montgomery rapid.  This is on a blind, left turn, making scouting difficult.

The hydraulics really worked the oarsmen however, and after 15 miles a day, everybody was very ready to get off the river. It is important to note that some of the rapids, though not Class V had potentially serious consequences, not well suited for a novice. The second day we had a couple of rapids that if not attentive could potentially flip boats.  Most of the bigger rapids were on day 3 in the Green Dragon Canyon section of the river.  Whistling Bird is wise to scout, even if you are familiar with the river; it has a hazardous undercut on river right, and is known to collect logs. There is an easy eddy on river left.

We had 4 nights and 5 days and left feeling like our next trip should be longer…. So many splendid day hikes await. Do not miss Chalk Basin: an Easter egg, treasure hunt for grown ups in the land of eye candy. Rustlers’ cabin with stone corral, hot springs, petroglyphs, agates and undimmed heavens. Innumerable side canyons remain to be explored.

The Birch Creek take out gives you more time on the main river, but is a long, poor quality dirt rood. 4 wheel drive vehicles are required if wet. Leslie Gulch requires a tow or carrying a motor, but the reservoir with its rafts of pelicans, the splendid 10 person, neck deep, hot springs at river mile 64 and the spectacular geology of Leslie Gulch were well worth it. The dirt road from Leslie Gulch was only 1 hour and in good shape.


  1. Gas up in Burns, because gas supply in Rome is chancy. Top off in Rome if they have it.
  2. Prepare for the unpredictable. Our first morning was in snow; our second day was in the low 70’s.
  3. It rained and blew hard almost everyday at 3 pm. Up river winds are very common in the afternoon. Get to camp early and get well tested tarp and tents set up early.
  4. Do not attempt Leslie Gulch take out without a motor.
  5. Pack in the majority of your firewood. Minimal gleaning.
  6. Water level is volatile and more connected to snowmelt than to rainfall. There are typically 1 or 2 very high spikes in early spring which need to be avoided. Stay in contact with the Vale BLM rangers. Many years by mid May, water levels are 800 cfs.

Tags: Owyhee River Rome Leslie Gulch
Category: Trip Report

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