A first view of the Owyhee Canyonlands

Graham Zimmerman was born in New Zealand and raised in the Northwest. Throughout his life he’s developed a passion for alpine climbing and exploring places off the beaten path. His climbing career and adventurous spirit have taken him around the world, from Alaska to Patagonia to Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan – and most recently to Oregon’s own Owyhee Canyonlands.

Photo courtesy Graham Zimmerman.

It was not until my late twenties when the Owyhee Canyonlands entered my realm of knowing. I had spent years traveling all over the American West, chasing mountains, cliffs and trails. But besides Smith Rock State Park, Central and Eastern Oregon have always represented a wide expanse of rolling hills and open desert. Beautiful to drive through … but rarely warranting more than a brief stop.

This all changed when my partner, Shannon, convinced me to move to Bend in 2014. Running around the Three Sisters Wilderness and the Oregon Badlands I found my eyes drawn east, sure that the folds on the horizon held amazing terrain just out of view. This suspicion was confirmed when a friend sent me photos of Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands: Towers of welded tuff striking upwards from the desert wilderness, magnificent and alluring. We had to go.

A few months later Shannon and I made our first trip to an area in the Owyhee called Leslie Gulch. The heat of summer was upon us as we drove off the highway and towards the Slocum Creek Campground. Our anticipation was high.

As the road dropped of steeply into the Leslie Gulch area just above the Owyhee Reservoir, we started to see the towers of welded tuff protruding from the sides of the road – small at first but increasing in size as we drove downward on the dirt road into the gulch. Suddenly, as we came around a bend, our view down the canyon was blocked by towers as far as we could see: Arêtes (thin, almost knife-like, ridges of rock) and domes of stunningly orange and red stone covered in strange cauliflower formations of rock.

Photo courtesy Graham Zimmerman.

The photos we had seen had simply not captured the beauty of the space. We got out of the car and stood in awe of what was before us. Of what was hidden between the folds in the earth of Eastern Oregon’s high desert.

Since that day I have spent more time in the Owyhees hiking, climbing and exploring. On every excursion I find something new, something beautiful. I am fully convinced that the Owyhee Canyonlands are truly one of the spectacular spaces of the American West.

Although much of the area is extremely chossy (very loose and brittle rock), as a climbing destination, I find a handful of walls and towers very alluring. But whether climbing, bouldering, hiking or simply soaking in the peace and solitude, this place can be enjoyed by everyone for its unique beauty and utter remoteness.