Malheur County may be one of the least known and least visited parts of Oregon. It is located in the extreme southeast corner of the state bordering Idaho and Nevada. Geographically it is one of the largest counties in Oregon with a total area of about 10,000 square miles, but it has one of the lowest population densities at just 3 people per square mile. Most of the population is centered around Ontario and Vale in the northern 15% of the county. Almost everything to the south is open range land managed by the BLM. There is just one paved road, Hwy 95, and one town, Jordan Valley.
But out in the arid scrub and ranch land of Malheur County lies the Owyhee River. The Owyhee drains a remote area of the high desert plateau on the northern boundary of the Great Basin and flows northward to the Snake River. The various arms and tributaries of the Oywhee cut deep canyons through the Owyhee Plateau, many with vertical rock walls that in places can be over 1,000 feet deep. 120 miles of the Owyhee River Canyon were designated as Wild and Scenic in 1984.
The southern reaches of the river can only be accessed by dirt roads, some fairly well maintained and others not more than jeep tracks. Even then there are just a handful of spots where it is possible to reach the river by vehicle. Most of the Owyhee and it's tributaries can only be explored by backpacking or rafting.
People have been suggesting I check out the Owyhee country for years. As it is not along any usual route of travel and many hours from just about anywhere I had never visited this part of the state until this spring. I went to do some exploring and take some photos with fellow photographer, David Cobb, who had previously hiked and photographed portions of the river.
I was absolutely drawn in by the beauty and scope of the canyons and the surrounding high desert. Along the drive south from Ontario the dirt road first takes you through Succor Creek Canyon which is just a small preview of what's to come, but very scenic in its own right.
Leslie Gulch is the main attraction along the Lake Owyhee reservoir and provides the easiest access to the river in this area. Throughout the gulch and all along Lake Owyhee the rock spires and escarpments are very reminiscent of Smith Rock State Park only, as David says, â€œon steroidsâ€. We explored the main Leslie Gulch road and made a couple of forays up side canyons. The area to the north known as the Honeycombs looks particularly enticing but can only be reached by backpacking in or taking a boat over from the west side of the lake.
North of the town of Jordan Valley you can follow the Jordan Craters Road for about 30 miles into a large lava flow that originates at the Coffee Pot Crater.
Continuing on a side road from there you can wind your way down steep switchbacks and reach the river at the historic Birch Creek Ranch. This is one of the main takeouts for rafters floating the river.
Southwest of Jordan Valley is the community of Rome. Near Rome there are several dirt roads that offer access to the river canyon as well as the nearby Cliffs of Rome and Chalk Basin further to the north.
South of Hwy 95 between Rome and Jordan Valley, Three Forks road makes it's way across about 30 miles of high desert to join the Owyhee River at Three Forks. David and I were glad to have my 4x4 for this road as we found it heavily rutted after winter rains. We also had to make about three creek crossings, the deepest of which engulfed my front bumper. From the map we saw that we could stop along the road a few miles north of Three Forks and hike out the the canyon rim. Photographing a roadless portion of the wild and scenic Owyhee at sunset sounded appealing, but after a few steps off the road we discovered ticks clinging to our pants. Despite giving David a serious case of the willies we continued on and were able to access a sweeping vista of the canyon before sundown. By the time we completed our hike back in the fading light we had found over 100 ticks between us! A strip search in the headlights revealed several more. I managed to find all of the ones on me, but David found several more lurking on him during the night and didn't get a wink of sleep.
Three Forks is a popular put-in for rafters and the presence of hot springs make it an attraction for others as well. My main interest in returning to Three Forks is that this is where the adventurous backpacker can access the branching web of the upper Owyhee Canyon and it's various tributaries. Radiating out from the Three Forks area are no less than six deep and narrow canyons including the Big Antelope, Louse and Middle Fork.
While I was able to take some exciting photographs on this scouting trip I am excited to get back soon. Future trips will include spending several days rafting and photographing the Owyhee proper as well as doing some back country packing up the tributary canyons south of Three Forks.