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.
If you 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.