Magnificent Owyhee

Matt Skroch of Pew’s Western Lands Initiative journeyed into the Owyhee Canyonlands last spring. Despite tough weather, he was blown away by the region’s wildness. This blog originally appeared on Pew’s website HERE.

It’s 4 in the morning and the wind is howling at gale force, crushing the tent against my body and threatening to blow us straight off the canyon rim in one of North America’s most remote wild lands. Created by the Owyhee River, this canyon wilderness in southeastern Oregon is one of the largest unprotected roadless areas in the Lower 48 states. Unable to sleep, I crawl out into the dark and am hit by blasts of dirt as I disassemble my tent and seek refuge in the driver’s seat of a mud-covered four-wheel-drive truck. Finally, sleep.

Three hours later, our crew of four crawls out of vehicles and tents to take stock. It’s drizzling, and the wind continues to roar as we peer into the canyon that is our destination. There is no trail here, nor anywhere along the planned three-day route among the canyons in Oregon’s portion of the mighty Owyhee wildland complex. The four of us—a group of photographers, hiking guides, and conservationists interested in protecting the Owyhee — huddle together. After figuring out which caves we can use for shelter if the weather worsens, we decide to proceed.

Just getting to the edge of the Owyhee is difficult, and now we are going in deeper. We are three hours off the nearest pavement, having navigated the mud tracks that are the closest we will come to a road. Our welcome party is a herd of dainty pronghorn, loping through the sagebrush with ease, as if daring us to a race. Goodbye, civilization; hello, wildness.

Because of its remoteness, this place has largely avoided the attention attracted by other major wildland complexes, such as southern Utah’s slickrock country, Arizona’s “sky islands,” and California’s Sierra Nevada. Also, despite its stunning canyons, rivers and mountains, Oregon’s Owyhee country has no national park, no national conservation area — not even a single acre of designated wilderness, despite its perfect eligibility.

Chris Hansen of the Oregon Natural Desert Association and partners of Pew’s U.S. public lands initiative are working to change that. As mostly public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, vast swaths of Owyhee country have been classified as wilderness-quality, some parts for decades as interim “wilderness study areas” and others more recently acknowledged for their wilderness characteristics but with no formal protection. Regardless of current classification, the conservation goal for the Owyhee is clear: long-term protection of the habitat, its scenic value and the primitive recreational opportunities it provides.

Back in the canyon after our descent from the rim, the wind has calmed and the rain comes and goes, giving us enough respite to enjoy the incredible scenery. Cliff swallows flit above us, and the occasional rattlesnake slithers by as we make our way down Antelope Canyon toward the main stem of the Owyhee River. That evening, there is a cave where I can spend the night. After inspection, I like the idea and arrange my bedroll inside for a great night’s sleep. Two days later, after exploring the nooks and crannies of this spectacular place, we find a side canyon back to the rim and bid farewell to the Owyhee Canyonlands, for now. Amazingly, a mountain lion appears on our way out and briefly stares at us before loping into the brush. As I reflect on this trip, I smile with appreciation that landscapes like the Owyhee still exist—a place that deserves to endure far into the future as part of America’s great wilderness heritage.

— Matt Skroch