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Owyhee River, Oregon – WorldAtlas > Oregon

The Owyhee River is a 450 km long river that flows through some of the most remote and unspoilt lands of the American West. Despite its remote accessibility, the unique desert terrain and scenic views have made the area popular for tourism. The Owyhee River is a recognized destination for whitewater rafting, with an early season making it particularly popular with adventure sports enthusiasts. Rafting, kayaking, drift boating, and fishing are some of the well-known recreational activities on the river. The area also offers camping, hunting and hiking activities and many people visit the region to study the wildlife that inhabits the unique terrain of Owyhee Canyon.

Course of the River Owyhee

Aerial view of the Owyhee River near Adrian, Oregon
Aerial view of the Owyhee River near Adrian, Oregon.

The Owyhee River’s flow ranges from slow-moving pools to whitewater rapids. The river’s headwaters are in Elko County, a mountainous region in northeastern Nevada. The river then flows north along the eastern rim of the Independence Mountains. It passes through the Wild Horse Reservoir and then through the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, after which it enters southwest Idaho. In Idaho, the Owyhee River flows about 50 miles northwest through Owyhee County. About 10 miles east of Oregon, the South Fork joins the Owyhee River as the river flows roughly north in an erratic flow.

Oregon flows through the West Little Owyhee River, then the Middle Fork Owyhee River, and finally the North Fork Owyhee River at a place called the Three Forks. Other tributaries include the Jordan, Rattlesnake, and Crooked Creeks. About 5 miles south of Nyssa, Oregon near the Idaho border, the Owyhee River joins the Snake River. The sharp gorges of the Owyhee River can rise to over 1,000 feet. The gorge walls are mostly reddish brown, with chalk cliffs that are eroding at different rates. Much of the country through which the river flows is remote and very sparsely populated. The Owyhee River Basin covers an area of ​​28,620 km², which is one of the largest sub-basins of the Columbia River Basin.

Gorge of the Owyhee River, Oregon.
Gorge of the Owyhee River, Oregon.

An area approximately 120 miles from the Idaho-Oregon border downstream to Owyhee Reservoir was designated “wild” by Congress in 1984. The so-called Wild River Corridor flows from the Idaho-Oregon state line through southeastern Oregon to the Owyhee Reservoir. The region is dry and hot, but the river flows through gorges with deep drops. Because of the shade they provide, the canyon edges become a thriving wildlife ecosystem, providing habitat for more than 200 species.

Climate of the Owyhee River Basin

The wild and scenic Owyhee River above Rome, Oregon
The wild and scenic Owyhee River above Rome, Oregon.

The Owyhee River Wilderness area (designated 2009) includes portions of the Owyhee Mountains and covers 108,000 ha of land from southwest Idaho to Nevada. The region is part of the Owyhee Desert which receives an average of 100mm of rainfall annually. The region falls under the tropical and subtropical steppe climate classification under the Koppen climate classification system. The warmest month is July, with average temperatures of 20°C and highs of 32°C, and the coldest January, with average temperatures of -2.9°C and highs of 4°C. July is also the driest month, with an average of 10.2mm of rainfall. The mountains often snow throughout the winter, averaging 7 inches per year in Owyhee County.

Ecology of the River Owyhee

Fly fishing on the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon near Boise, Idaho
Fly fishing on the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon near Boise, Idaho.

The Owyhee River Wilderness area covers just over 108,000 hectares of land, and the Owyhee watershed contains more than 800 km of rivers and streams. A fault controls part of the river valley on the east side of the canyon. The slopes of the walls of Owyhee Canyon are covered in sagebrush and grasses as they reach the river’s edge. In addition to sagebrush, the area is known for its wildflowers, including the Bruneau River Flox. Over time, the river has exposed the ancient layers of bedrock, the oldest dating back to the Miocene. The strata consist of reddish rhyolite, dark basalt, sedimentary rock, lava and alluvial deposits, all of which covered the region through volcanic activity. Water trapped between the layers of the volcanic flow collected sediments in lakes and then drained away as streams.

Wild brown trout caught and released in the Owyhee River near Boise, Idaho
Wild brown trout caught and released in the Owyhee River near Boise, Idaho.

Rainbow trout can be found in the river, along with catfish and smallmouth bass. Before the 1930s, when dams were built along the river, the Owyhee was a spawning ground for salmon. Mule deer, California bighorn sheep, pronghorn, etc. can be found in the canyons. Many birds call the Owyhee River Canyon home including Swainson’s, Northern and Northern Hawks, Northern Hawks and Northern Hawks, Swainson’s, Long-tailed and Long-tailed Hawks. Golden eagles can be seen year-round, while bald eagles take shelter in the canyons during winter. Otters, muskrats and marmots live in and around the river. Cougars and lynx are at the top of the food chain in the canyons, along with plenty of rabbits, raccoons, porcupines and coyotes. The area’s rich biodiversity includes 14 bat species and an estimated 28 plants found nowhere else.

Brief History of the River Owyhee

The Owyhee River’s name comes from an old version of the word Hawaii. The area was named after three members of an expedition from Hawaii who disappeared in the Owyhee Canyonlands in 1820. The Owyhee River area still serves as home to several Native American tribes who have inhabited the area for thousands of years, including the Burns Paiute, Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock, Shoshone-Paiute, Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla. The famous Hole in the Ground petroglyph site is one of the many signs of prehistoric indigenous civilization in the area. There is archeological evidence for about 100 prehistoric campsites in the Owyhee River area between Rome Launch Site and Burnt Creek Ranch.

Early European settlers arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries and the remains of their ranches can be found in the Owyhee Canyonlands. The Native Americans were forced off their lands due to friction with the settlers, and in 1877 the Duck Valley Indian Reservation was established. In 1933, Owyhee Dam was constructed about 20 miles (32 km) upstream of its confluence with the Snake River in northern Malheur County. The result was Lake Owyhee, a body of water that meanders about 53 miles (84 km) in length. Its purpose was to provide irrigation for agriculture in Oregon and Idaho. Lake Owyhee State Park and Leslie Gulch are located on the eastern shore of the reservoir. Because of its “wild and scenic” designation, much of the river’s course remains untouched, along with agricultural land used to grow crops.