Owyhee Rafting: What’s All the Hype About?

6 Min. Read
Owyhee rafting trip in southeastern Oregon with the outfitter OARS

The Wild and Scenic Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon is possibly the most remote and elusive rafting trip in the nation.

Year-to-year, the window to raft the Owyhee at friendly water levels is narrow or sometimes non-existent. A combination of snowmelt and spring precipitation dictates whether or not the river will reach runnable flows, which according to American Whitewater is between 800 and 6,000 CFS.

If the Owyhee reaches optimal water levels for rafting, the best window for trips typically occurs sometime between March and May, which often coincides with unpredictable and drastically-changing weather conditions. Sweltering heat, spring showers, frigid cold and snow can all occur on the same day. Noting these hurdles, you might ask, is an Owyhee rafting trip worth all the fuss? You decide.

Owyhee rafting trip with OARS

5 Reasons Owyhee Rafting Trips are so Worth It

From challenging and technical Class IV-V whitewater on the Middle Fork Owyhee to fun, Class III rapids on the Lower Owyhee, there’s plenty of excitement for paddlers. But most would agree that a rafting trip on the Owyhee is about so much more than the whitewater thrills.

1) Eruptive Scenery

Stunning geologic features created from highly-explosive caldera eruptions and stacked lake bed sediment decorate the narrow and towering passages of the Owyhee. Produced 15 to 17 million years ago, alternating rhyolite and basalt flows have eroded over time to create a rugged and otherworldly landscape unlike any other river corridor. Like sentinel watch towers, these features make for dramatic eye candy during down river travel and were no doubt a factor when Congress voted to designate the Owyhee a Wild and Scenic River in 1984. The dark crags of Lamberts Dome, the red and pink rocks of Iron Point Canyon, the white walls of Rome (likened to the Roman Coliseum), Pruitt’s Castle and Weeping Wall Springs are just a few of the breathtaking monuments preserving geologic time on the Owyhee.

2) Hot Springs

After a long day on the water, could there be anything more decadent than a hot soak? Rye Grass and Greeley are among the hot springs conveniently located near camps to help counter the possible chills and cold weather of a spring Owyhee trip. Even if temperatures are mild, it doesn’t get any more luxurious on the river than a post-paddle, pre-sleep hot pool immersion just before drifting off under the stars. And remember, these riverside hot springs are remote and far less-trafficked than the pools you might find on-the-beaten path.

A hot spring along the Lower Owyhee River
3) Contemplative Culture

There are more than 500 archaeological sites—some dating as far back as 13,000 years agoscattered throughout the Owyhee Canyonlands that tell the stories of the earliest semi-nomadic people who inhabited the region. The Northern Paiute, Bannock and Shoshone tribes hunted bighorn sheep and deer here and sought out local resources from the land like wheatgrass, fescue and Indian rice to produce flour. The Owyhee River was a place for these indigenous tribes to fish, take refuge from the summer heat, as well as gather and celebrate. Artifacts like weapons and stone tools, sandals, nets, woven baskets, pottery and clay figures have all been unearthed in the region. Today, river runners can hunt for hidden panels of petroglyphs that still dot the landscape, spot caves in the canyon walls, and stumble upon the occasional arrowhead.

4) Wild West History

By the early 1800’s, outside settlers made their way to the Owyhee Canyonlands. The name Owyhee itself is an early anglicization of the word Hawai’i, which is an homage to three ill-fated Hawaiian fur trappers who were tasked with exploring the river in 1819 and never returned.

Relics from later settlers like homestead cabins and washed out dams can still be seen while floating down the river or viewed with a short hike. Early in the trip, boaters pass an old stage coach stop where Jean Baptiste Charbonneau is said to have fallen in the river, caught ill and died. Born on the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 to Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau, Charbonneau was a Native American-French Canadian explorer, guide, gold miner, fur trapper, trader and military scout who was a renaissance man of his time.

Further downstream, Rustler’s Cabin, Hole-in-the-ground Ranch near Morcom Dam and the historic Birch Creek Ranch are other historic sites to keep an eye out for.

Bountiful birdlife on a Owyhee rafting trip
5) Fauna Friends

If awesome rocks and human history aren’t engrossing enough, tallying the seemingly endless birdlife will be. In the Owyhee Canyon, avian calls bounce from wall to wall, drawing your attention skyward. Harris and red-tailed hawks, swallows, sandhill cranes, chukars, owls, and perhaps the most charming, the canyon wren, all sing to the glory of the river. Keep an eye downstream and an eye on the horizon for golden eagles, greater sage grouse, swallows, kestrel and prairie falcons too.

Cross your fingers for sightings of the other animals that consider this wilderness home like badger, pronghorn antelope, cotton-tail rabbit, big-horn sheep, mule deer, coyote, bobcat, river otter, marmot or beaver. Though at first glance it’s a dry and desolate desert, in the riparian zone there’s wildlife in every nook and cranny.

The allure of the Owyhee’s natural beauty and solitude is clear, and for paddlers and guides in-the-know, it’s one of the best spring rafting trips in the U.S. The only real question is whether or not you’ll be able to catch it at all.

Riverside camp along the Owyhee River

2023 Outlook: Will the Owyhee River Run This Year?

For much of the West, the winter of 2022-23 will be one for the record books. Many regions are close to record levels of precipitation. In Oregon, things are no different. According to SNOTEL data collected by the National Resources Conservation Service, as of March 29, 2023, the Owyhee River Basin snowpack (snow water equivalent) is 181% of normal with the potential for more precipitation throughout the spring.

This is one of the best snowpacks in the Owyhee Basin since 2019the last year OARS was able to run commercial trips on the riverand the company’s Idaho crew is busy preparing for its spring Owyhee rafting season.

“The [2023] snowpack for the Owyhee river is looking promising,” says Lauren McCullough, OARS Idaho operations manager. “The crew of guides who will work the three scheduled commercial trips are ecstatic to see the Owyhee again. It’s a very rugged and special place to visit when we get the chance.”

Those who are interested in Owyhee River rafting trips can keep an eye on Owyhee River Basin flow data. Deep snowpacks melt on a schedule that’s purely at the whim of the weather, but right now, OARS is anticipating seeing that sweet spot of raftable flows for mid-April and May trips this sesaon. If NOAA’s 3-month outlook is accurate, boaters can look forward to a rare extended Owyhee season.

This is the year to raft Oregon’s hidden gem. Limited space is still available for the April 19 and 26 departures with OARS.

Related: What to Wear For Spring Whitewater Trips

This article was originally published April 2, 2022 and has been updated for 2023 conditions.

K.M. Collins

K.M. Collins is a geologist-gone writer. Covering everything outdoors and a spectrum of journalism, she operates her content and marketing company, Guerrilla Media Bend, from Central Oregon. Between whitewater paddle boarding, kayaking and rafting, she's a jack of all water trades.

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