Best American Adventures: Raft the Owyhee River
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By Doug Schnitzspahn; Photograph by Brandon Sawaya, Aurora Open
The last great underappreciated epic river in the
Lower 48, the Owyhee weaves through Idaho’s southwestern sage steppes,
cutting deep canyons into cliffs of volcanic rhyolite. Surrounded by an
ocean of three million acres (1.2 million hectares) of sagebrush
desert, the Owyhee, as locals call the whole region, is rich with
songbirds and sage grouse leks, ancient archaeological sites, and
ruined homesteads. The river itself flows over 200 miles (322
kilometers) from the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Nevada up
through the lonesome wilds of southwest Idaho until it dumps into the
Snake River in Oregon.
The area was protected in 2009 by the
Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, which set aside 517,000 acres
(209,000 hectares) of the Owyhee as wilderness and designated 316 miles
(509 miles) of the river and its tributaries as Wild and Scenic Rivers.
The bill was a joint effort, a compromise between conservationists,
cattlemen, and Republican Senator Mike Crapo, who all thought the place
deserved be protected—not a common occurrence in Idaho.
want to explore the canyons of the Owyhee, you can take your pick of
trips, ranging from a one-day float down the popular stretch in Oregon
to a weeklong expedition that starts in Nevada and navigates up to
Class V whitewater. One of the best options is to start on the South
Fork of the Owyhee, a Class III tributary that exemplifies the river’s
high walls and winsome character. Make sure to take the time to
scramble up and out of the canyon for a view of the meandering river
and the huge, wide open sage steppes, which are a similar ecosystem to
those in Mongolia.
Need to Know: A five-day trip with Wilderness River Outfitters (www.wildernessriver.com) costs $1,340.
- Nat Geo Expeditions