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Lambert's Dome in Chalk Basin: Photo Copyright Todd Hoffman 2019

Lower Owyhee: Rome to Birch Creek Ranch


Lower Owyhee: Green Dragon Canyon - Photo Copyright Todd Hoffman 2019

Run Description:

The first six miles of the run flow through a wide open valley of active cow pastures, sparsely dotted with ranches. While there are no notable rapids in this section, there are several islands and a few bends that require thoughtful maneuvering. Note that some of the smaller side channels are not runnable due to irrigation diversions. The gauge is located at mile 3 near the bridge.


Lower Owyhee - Owyhee Crossing: Photo Todd Hoffman

Near Crooked Creek at mile six, low canyon walls start to form, and the river bed becomes channelized and velocity picks up. Camps are fairly spread out from mile 8 down to mile 26 at Chalk Basin. Its not uncommon for the short mileage camps in this section to fill up quickly, and the camps in Chalk Basin (between miles 23 and 26) are extremely popular due to the hot springs and side hikes. Be ready for a potentially long first day if things are full. Potable water is available on river right near mile 18 at Weeping Wall Springs (consume at your own risk). Artillery rapid at mile 21 is one of my personal favorite on the run. At flows in the 2,000 cfs range, it forms an awesome wave train.


Lower Owyhee - Chalk Basin: Photo Todd Hoffman

Chalk Basin is a spectacular geologic area, with several impressive terrain features including Pruitt's Castle and Lambert's Dome. It is possible to hike to the top of Lambert's dome, but plan ahead to allow time. While the camps here fill up fast, and are almost impossible to score, there are usually several day landing spots and lunch beaches. The hot springs at Rye Grass camp are actually not that spectacular, consisting of a single small, shallow pool. Only a couple of bathers at a time can fit. No layovers are allowed at Rye Grass. Outfitters usually run a gear boat ahead early to score the best camps, and its hard to get the jump on them. Don't plan on getting one, or at least have a contigency plan.


Lower Owyhee - Potters Cave: Photo Todd Hoffman

Just above the entrance to Green Dragon is a Potter's cave, an archeological site with human activity dating back 7,000 years. Unfortunately, the site has been repeatedly looted.


Lower Owyhee - Green Dragon Canyon: Photo Todd Hoffman

Below Chalk Basin, the character of the river starts to change again, gradually building into a deep, vertically walled canyon. Whistling Bird rapid, at mile 31, is one of the more technically difficult rapids on the run, especially at low flows. It roughly marks the entrance to Green Dragon Canyon, the deepest section of the gorge. The layered chocolate brown basalt flows and chalky white sediments of Chalk Basin give way to green, grey and red rhyolites. Montgomery Rapid at mile 34 is also technical at low flows.


Camp on the Lower Owyhee. Photo copyright Todd Hoffman 2019

There are 7 camps between Whistling Bird at mile 31, and the exit of Green Dragon at mile 35. However, once you leave Green Dragon, camps are more spread out, and a couple are hard to locate. Camping in Green Dragon can be very hard to score so have a contingency plan. As with any river, never attempt to share a campsite with another group. Without mutual advanced planning, it is considered a serious breach of river etiquette.


Lower Owyhee - Owyhee Breaks: Photo Todd Hoffman

At the exit of Green Dragon, the character and geology of the run change again as the river enters the Owyhee Breaks. The breaks are a mix of vertical canyon walls, open deep valleys, and layer cake domes. There a few fun rapids left on the cruise down to the take out at Birch Creek Ranch, located at mile 51. Even though this is the home stretch of the canyon, slow down and enjoy it. It is a truly special and unique experience. It is customary to offer help to other crews with heavier gear items like boats at the take out. Pay it forward if you can help.


Lower Owyhee - Birch Creek Ranch: Photo Todd Hoffman

Flow and Season Information:

The Owyhee is an early season run with highly variable runoff. Runnable flows generaly start in March or April, but can lag into May depending on Spring weather. In years with big snow pack, flows can stretch well into June, and two or more large spikes in run off are not uncommon. In low snow years the season can be over in a few weeks, making it hard to catch optimal levels. Begin researching snow pack around the end of February (see the links in the planning tools section to NRCS Snotel reports for the basin). Nearly 70 years of daily flow data are summarized in the below hydrograph.


Hydrograph: Owyhee River Nr Rome, OR - Period of Record Jan 1950 to Dec 2019

The Bureau of Land Management Boating Guide indicates a minimum recommended flow of 800 cfs, but my personal minimum recommendation for rafts is 1,500 CFS. The run starts to get very boney, and flatwater starts feeling a lot flatter much below 1,500. The BLM's recommended max is 6,000, though I've run it at well over 10,000 cfs and found it very manageable. As a general rule, as flow gets higher, the run gets washed out and becomes easier. It is most difficult at min flows as it becomes tight and technical in a few places, particularly at Whistling Bird Rapid.

The Owyhee's weather can be as fickle as its run off. I've ran it in late April with howling winds, freezing nights and grey skies. I've also had April trips with temps in the low 80's, blue bird days and no wind. Definitely go prepared for the worst, as bad weather and wind seem to be the norm. I've never regretted bringing my drysuit on the Owyhee, though I also pack a shade shelter.

Current Flows:

Stream Stats:

Ave Gradient: 14.2 fpm
Distance: 51 Miles
Difficulty: III+
Consequences: IV
Min Level: 1,500 CFS
Season: Mar - Jun
Quality Rating: 5 Stars

Planning Tools:

Bureau of Land Management (BLM): Birch Creek Historic Ranch Bureau of Land Management (BLM): Vale District Website NRCS SNOTEL Map: Idaho (pdf) NRCS SNOTEL Map: Nevada (pdf) NRCS SNOTEL Map:Oregon (pdf USGS Gage - Owyhee River Near Rome, OR.


The put in near Rome, Oregon is located on river right, a short distance upstream from where US 95 crosses the river, just before the townsite of Rome. Coming from the North, the turn off is located at the bottom of a steep grade where Hiway 95 drops from a high plateau down to river level. At the bottom of the grade, just before the bridge, turn left (North) and continue a quarter mile or so to the launch site.

There is a good, dirt boat ramp at Rome, and it is possible to back a trailer all the way into the water at most flows. However, the ramp and put in area can be very congested in the morning, with multiple groups launching and rigging. Be patient and be prepared to wait a bit if you arrive late the morning of your launch. Once launched, please leave room for other crews to get their boats in the water. Parking can be tight at Rome, so also be sure to leave plenty of room for people to get by your vehicle and trailer when you park.


Boat Ramp at Rome. Copyright Todd Hoffman 2019

Camping is allowed at the launch site, but there are no officially designated sites, just a big undeveloped field with first come first served tent camping. It is usually very full with a kind of zoo atmosphere, but you can usually squeaze in somewhere. Expect lots of groups to be pulling into camp late into the night. There are two vault toilets at Rome, but no other facilities. I can't remember if potable water is available. The actual town of Rome is a short distance east across the bridge on US 95, but to my knowledge it has no actual services (I may be wrong about this).

Reaching the take out at Birch Creek requires a four wheel drive vehicle with good all-terrain tires and an experienced off-road driver. While some people do take two wheel drives all the way into Birch Creek, it is a seriously risky move in the event of rain. Several steep uphill sections turn into extremely slick mud when wet, and there are a few places where you must ford the creek. Low clearance vehicles will take a beating, even when things are dry. Enter an your own risk, this is not a place you'd want to get stuck and stranded.


Looking down into Birch Creek from the canyon rim. Copyright Todd Hoffman 2019

The turn off to Birch Creek is located around 8.1 miles North of Jordan Valley, Oregon on US 95. Head West on Jordan Crater's Road and continue approximately 30 miles to the Canyon rim. From the hiway to the rim, the road is almost completely flat and has a good gravel surface. You can generally make good time, though there are a couple of water crossings. Be careful as these can be quite deep during the early season.

From the canyon rim to Birch Creek Ranch the road gradually becomes steeper, rougher and more narrow. There are several sections where the road crosses the creek, requiring high clearance and a thoughful line to avoid bottoming out on large boulders. Near the top there are steep sections with bed rock ledges that and deep ruts. As you descend, always be watching for oncoming traffic in the distance. Find a wide spot immedeately and wait if you see a vehicle approaching. There is generally not enough room to pass on most sections of the road. Backing up the steep winding grades, especially with a boat trailer, would not be fun if you met another rig in the wrong spot. If you are worried about the odd scratch or ding on your vehicle or boat trailer don't take it into Birch Creek.


Boat Ramp at Birch Creek Ranch, high water. Copyright Todd Hoffman 2019

There is a very primitive boat ramp at Birch Creek, but depending on flows the bank can be very steep and slippery. Many people choose to deflate and derig rafts instead of backing trailers into the water. When I've backed in I was glad I had 4x4 with diff lock and good traction tires. What ever you do, DO NOT block access to the ramp while taking out as things can get quite busy during peak times. Leave plenty of room for other groups to get out. There are 5 semi-developed, first-come-first-served camp sites with shade and picnic tables immedeately downstream from the ramp .

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Copyright Todd Hoffman 2009 - All Rights Reserved