Oregon’s Grand Canyon
Video courtesy of Ouzel Outfitters
By Brian Sykes of Ouzel Outfitters
Hidden away in the southeastern corner of Oregon is a little known natural wonder. A place where golden eagles soar alongside massive cliffs tinged pink and red with the rising sun. Where Indian paintbrush and desert primrose provide a colorful contrast to the stark landscape. Where a long-deserted pioneer home stands lonely and neglected, defying the harsh elements – a testament to the hardy folk who carved out a life here. Where the deep quiet provides the perfect atmosphere for pondering the meaning of ancient petroglyphs carved in the living rock. These are the canyons of the Owyhee River – Oregon’s Grand Canyon.
With its headwaters in southwestern Idaho and northern Nevada, the Owyhee River flows northward to join the Snake River near Ontario, Oregon. The river’s journey along the northern edge of the great basin carves a series of deep and dramatic canyons – a sanctuary of life in an isolated and barren landscape. Of the hundreds of miles of twisting canyons and rocky gorges, the last 60 miles from the hamlet of Rome downstream to Lake Owyhee provides the greatest variety of plant and animal life and the most diverse scenery and geology.
The only way to fully explore the wonders of this place is by raft. With no dams to control water levels the float season lasts for only a few months from March through May. The rapids are mostly moderate allowing a wide range of skill levels. Endless hiking opportunities in this portion of the canyon reward the walker with a profusion of desert wildflowers, excellent birding and frequent discoveries of rock carvings and ancient campsites. Hot springs are present at several camps to reward and relax the weary rafter.
After launching from Rome, the flat lands of the Rome Valley soon give way to the first of many dramatic gorges where massive eagles’ nests cling to the cliffs above and inviting sandy beaches begin to appear. The first moderate rapids are just around the corner. As the rafts move deeper into the canyon, fantastic formations reveal a tangled geologic history of inland seas, earthquakes and violent volcanic eruptions. On the third day of the journey the rafts enter Green Dragon Canyon where massive cliffs rise dramatically from the rivers edge to over 1000 feet and the low rumble of class IV Montgomery Rapid reminds one that they have entered a place untamed and unaltered for thousands of years. A sharp eye may spot bighorn sheep grazing on the precipitous green terraces high above.
On the forth or fifth day the rafts enter Sentinel Canyon where a cacophony of steep spires and towering buttes inspire awe. The journey ends with a leisurely motor across the Lake where gliding pelicans and diving grebes are a common sight. Our take out at Leslie Gulch provides a final scenic spectacle as the strangely twisted and melted lava and ash formations remind one of a prehistoric landscape.
With unpredictable weather and fluctuating water levels it is important to be well prepared for your river journey. Temperatures can range dramatically from below freezing to a sunny 85 degrees and snow is not unheard of during the rafting season. Furthermore, the remoteness of the area and the need to practice leave-no-trace principles requires a wide variety of equipment and supplies. For the few that have the opportunity to explore the canyons of the Owyhee each year, most are often at a loss for words when trying to describe the remarkable experience that Oregon’s Grand Canyon has to offer.
Many commercial outfitters offer occasional trips on the Owyhee River but few have the experience and full schedule offered by Ouzel Outfitters. Ouzel’s trips are fully-outfitted and well organized. You’ll be well prepared and well taken care of with state-of-the-art equipment and delicious meals served on full-sized banquet tables with a variety of fine wines. Ouzel’s trips are designed to allow plenty of time to explore the canyon, marvel at the wonders of the place and appreciate the fascinating geology and natural history. For more information on booking a trip with Ouzel Outfitters, please visit www.oregonrafting.com.
Editor’s Note: Brian Sykes works for Ouzel Outfitters in Bend. Ouzel provides rafting trips throughout Oregon and Idaho, ranging from half-day to 5 day trips. Start planning your summer getaway, and be sure to add a rafting trip to your agenda! For more information on rafting in Oregon, please visit our Guides and Packers Section.