Get to know our Owyhee River

Located in southeastern Oregon and reaching across the corner of Idaho to its headwaters in northeastern Nevada, 35 percent of the Owyhee River within Oregon has been classified as “Wild and Scenic” for its recreational, wildlife, geologic and cultural values. 

Owyhee petroglyphs. Photo: G. Burke

Cutting through benches of the Owyhee Canyonlands formed by volcanic activity and erosion in the remote and primitive environment of southeastern Oregon, the Owyhee river has served as an oasis for visitors and wildlife since prehistoric times. Tribes have inhabited and used the Owyhee for millennia and archaeologists have recorded hundreds of sites with cultural importance in the region.

Golden eagle. Photo: D. Holloway

Today, the Owyhee Canyonlands are home to over 200 species of wildlife, including a variety of raptors. Swainson’s, ferruginous, red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks, as well as American kestrels, northern harriers, prairie falcon and golden eagles are abundant year-round while bald eagles generally spend winter months in the canyons. Songbirds, mourning doves, chukar partridge, California quail and even the greater sage-grouse are drawn to the mixed sagebrush along the upland banks of the river.

Mammals range in size from California bighorn sheep, mule deer, prong horn antelopes, bobcats and cougars to smaller coyotes, badgers, otters, raccoons, porcupines, and jack and cotton-tail rabbits. The presence of these species and others keep the Owyhee River wild and scenic and now draw in visitors who want to behold them and their majestic home.

The wild and scenic Owyhee River. Photo: D. Stone

Visiting the Owyhee River offers outstanding recreation all around. Photography, rafting, kayaking, hiking, nature study, fishing and camping are just some of your options. The area is scenic, wild and remote, offering white waters and serene calmer pools, mysterious side canyons and towering spires.

Some more of the nitty-gritty details: 120 miles of the Owyhee River were designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act on October 19, 1984, followed by designations for 57.6 miles of the West Little Owyhee and 9.6 miles of the North Fork Owyhee on October 28, 1988. The headwaters of the Owyhee River are found in Elko County in northeastern Nevada. The Owyhee flows north along the east side of the Independence Mountains before it proceeds through southwestern Idaho where it is joined by the South Fork of the Owyhee River before reaching Oregon. The West Little Owyhee River is a tributary of the Owyhee River. The source of the river is at an elevation of 6,508 feet near the Nevada-Oregon border by the community of McDermitt, Nevada. Approximately 57 miles in length, the river flows east by Deer Flat and into Louse Canyon. Near a prominent feature known as Twin Buttes, it turns sharply north as it cuts through the Owyhee Desert, making its way to the Owyhee River. The North Fork of the Owyhee River is a tributary of the Owyhee River and is located in Malheur County, Oregon, and Owyhee County, Idaho. Its source is on the east flank of the Owyhee Mountains in Idaho, and it flows southwest to meet the main stem Owyhee at Three Forks, Oregon. The North Fork flows through a deep canyon rimmed with basalt.

Rafting the Owyhee River. Photo: C. Case

Watch for more Wild and Scenic River facts as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this important act throughout 2018. And, come out to experience, discover and help protect our wild and scenic Owyhee River this year and every year!