A First-Timer's Adventure in the Owyhee

Over the past year, Portland resident Corinne Handelman has been working on visiting all 47 of Oregon's wilderness areas. But there was one area that, while still unprotected, she had always heard is truly wild. Here, she shares about her first visit to this place -- the Owyhee Canyonlands -- and why she's certain she'll be back.

Waking up on a Thursday morning, I stretched and hopped out of my tent in awe of the beauty surrounding me. We had arrived at Succor Creek State Natural Area in the dark, and we only had a vague notion of the rocky cliffs that hung above us and the stands of vegetation behind us along the creek bed. Illuminated by the morning light, this landscape sparked new excitement for the adventure that was just beginning -- my first trek into the Owyhee Canyonlands.

I had heard of the Owyhee a few years earlier when exploring ideas to visit Oregon’s east side from my Portland home. But making a trip to the far corner of the state seemed too much to plan at the time.

Then with the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014, I set my sights again on exploring new areas with the goal of visiting every wilderness in Oregon. While the Owyhee Canyonlands is not yet officially a designated wilderness area, the proposal to protect over 2.5 million acres within the southeastern corner of Oregon intrigued me, and I needed to learn more. Through my research, I learned about the Oregon Desert Trail winding through eastern Oregon. It hit so many highlights that I wanted to visit -- mountain ranges, desert valleys, and of course, the Owyhee Canyonlands. 

After investing in some good maps and recruiting friends to accompany me, I set out for a grand adventure to discover this natural wonder of Oregon. In a way, this scenery felt familiar yet so different than anything else I’ve seen in over 20 different wilderness areas I’ve visited across this state. The drive was easier than I thought -- we left after lunch and cruised down highways, arriving at Succor Creek even before feeling too drowsy in the car. 

That first morning, a light rain rolled into the area … no problem for a Portlander! Ditching our original goal to backpack that night, we explored around Leslie Gulch for the remainder of the day. Big canyons, red rocks, juniper trees and scorched earth awaited us as we set off from the Juniper Gulch trailhead. This felt more like the desert country in southern Utah than anywhere in Oregon, and we happily stomped ahead as the only group on the trail. 

After an afternoon of new discoveries, we continued through Leslie Gulch to the Slocum Creek Campground, where we decided to bunk down for the evening and take advantage of the facilities and easy access to our starting point for the next day’s hike. We woke up with the sun and packed for our trek deeper into the canyons. Hiking the first section along the Owyhee River, we followed an ATV road and were joined by a family of grazing cows. Everywhere we looked, the scenery was postcard-perfect, but the heat of the day caught up to us quickly. 

Stopping for lunch at one of the few true spots of shade, we reflected on how surprised we were to find even this amount of tall vegetation in the desert. The dried creek bed reflected our long summer’s drought, but allowed us to imagine the potential winter flooding that must sweep through this area. Following the Oregon Desert Trail backwards was no easy feat in some places, trying to backtrack from trail descriptions and “mile markers.” At lunch, we estimated about 3 or 4 more miles to our destination -- a water source. After another few hours of walking, we looked at the map again and couldn’t gauge our progress, with the water source still seeming miles away. With the sun beating down and thirst making itself known, we had a decision to make: keep pushing on, with the chance that we might not find this mysterious oasis (or almost worse, risk that it has dried up) or turn back and camp along the mellow banks of the Owyhee River.

With water rations running low and lacking confidence in this new environment, we decided to turn around. Heading back down the dry creek bed we had just traveled, our journey seemed much shorter and we quenched our thirst with muddy water filtered from the Owyhee. Waking up with the sunrise and a herd of cows outside our tent, we packed up and started the short hike back to our car. We hadn’t planned on having most of this day free, anticipating a much longer backpack, and looked to our map to decide where our next spots for exploration might be. I had researched some backup places in advance, in case our car wouldn’t make the road into Leslie Gulch, so we found Three Forks on our map and headed in that direction.

We hopped in the car and drove through the high desert toward Jordan Valley. After fueling up and stopping for a quick lunch overlooking the Antelope Reservoir, we headed down Three Forks Road to our next destination. The open plains and washboard roadbed were relaxing, and nothing beyond a sagebrush desert stretched for seemingly endless miles in any direction. It was almost impossible to tell we were driving straight toward the Owyhee canyon edge until we saw a sign for the overlook. 

“Whoa.” Nothing else could describe the immensity of what lay in front of our eyes. “Don’t get too close to the edge,” my friend warned as I scrambled toward a rocky outcrop without ignoring the signs of the boulders that had apparently tumbled from this same cliff long before our arrival. Seeing the river far below us, so markedly different from the placid reflective Owyhee we had seen that same morning at our camp, we wanted to be down on its banks. Onward we pushed down the road, spotting two herds of antelope running across the plains. 

Approaching the canyon rim, we began to understand why low clearance vehicles aren’t encouraged to make the trek down this road to the Owyhee at Three Forks. The roadway switchbacks were tempting, calling us to head down, but again, our best judgment decided against popped tires or a scraped undercarriage, and we had to gaze down at the three canyons that met far below us. Assessing what seemed like multiple failures during this Owyhee adventure, we discussed how committed we might be to coming back with a truck in the future to make it down this road. At times like this, Edward Abbey pops into my head, as he wrote, "We console ourselves, as we always do, with the thought that we'll be back, someday soon."

Once again, we had to bag our plans and turn around. That evening camping on the Owyhee Canyon rim, witnessing a spectacular sunset, listening to coyotes howl and quietly reflecting on the past few days while staring up at the Milky Way, I felt that for being so far from home, it felt familiar after all. Maybe I will be back here again soon. 

-- Corinne Handelman