A raft makes its way down the Owyhee River. [Photo by Jill Cobb]

Off-the-radar rafting on the Owyhee River

I recently experienced the best adventure of my life while rafting and camping on the Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon, one of the most remote areas in the West.

Located in a vast country that is beautiful, pristine and off the tourist crowd’s radar, the Owyhee River is “one of the best American adventures and the last great underappreciated epic river in the Lower 48,” according to National Geographic.

Our 5-day raft trip was in mid-May with guides from Ouzel Outfitters. The Owyhee is typically paddled between March and mid-May, but rafting it varies each year depending on precipitation. Weather conditions can vary drastically, with temperature fluctuations of up to 40 degrees within a given day. We experienced very wet, cold and windy weather the first two days, with sunshine and warm temperatures the remainder of the trip.

We had five guides for our group of 14 people. There were five rafts: two rafts carried our supplies, two were oar-assisted paddle rafts, and one was an oar raft that carried additional supplies and could accommodate three guests who preferred not to paddle. Three inflatable kayaks were also available. Tents and sleeping bags were provided, and meals were prepared daily by our guides.

Our trip launched from Rome. We arrived the night prior and stayed in the Basque Station Motel in Jordan Valley, about 30 miles from Rome. The motel appears rather worn and outdated, but the rooms are clean and comfortable.

Our trip from the Rome put-in to our take-out at Birch Creek was approximately 50 miles. The first few miles were through a relatively flat landscape, but as we entered Sweetwater Canyon, the scenery changed to colorful gorges and geologic wonders, becoming increasingly more impressive and majestic each day. The canyon walls soar to over 1,000 feet. Dramatic spires, odd rock formations and caves all add to the wonder of rafting the river. And the rapids, which range from Class II to Class IV, were exciting and fun.

Each day we had the opportunity to hike and explore. Wildlife includes big horn sheep and mule deer, although on our trip, we did not see any. We did see swallow nests in clusters on the sides of canyon walls and raptor nests higher up. There were hot spring pools for soaking, and an opportunity to walk among ancient Native American petroglyphs more than 8,000 years old.

Scientists have noted that the Owyhee canyonlands are one of the areas least tainted by light pollution in the lower 48, so the incredible canopy of stars at night was breathtaking.

If you seek a unique experience in one of the most remote and untouched places in our country, free from the noises of our busy world (no cellphone reception), you won’t do better than a raft trip on Oregon’s best kept secret, the Owyhee River.

— Barbara Levitt lives in Ballwin, Missouri.

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