Owyhee River South Fork


Stretch: Ranchland in Nevada to Three Forks
Difficulty: Class III with one IV and one V
Distance: 69 or 90 miles, 5 to 6 days
Flows: rafts and kayaks 1000 - 6000 cfs (at Rome)
Gauge: measured way downstream near Rome (USGS site)
Gradient: fairly continuous 10 fpm
Put-in: YP launch from Petan Ranch, or Paiute El Paso pipeline, 4660'
Take-out: Three Forks launch site below North fork, 3950'
Shuttle: 285 miles (6 hours) one-way
Maps: BLM Owyhee Bruneau map, AAA Oregon (Topo)
Season: March maybe into June, from snowmelt
Agency: BLM, private
Notes: © 2011 Bill Tuthill, Photos © 2011 Doug Soulé

The upper Owyhee has spectacular scenery, mild rapids except for a long class IV and a short class V in the middle, and a world-class hotspring shortly above take-out. The South Fork Owyhee is the easiest way to access the upper Owyhee. You can also access it from the East Fork, but that route involves a long portage around Owyhee Falls, whereas the South Fork has fun rapids mixed with flatwater, and no portages. The shuttle is no worse and approximately the same length. You could continue below Three Forks and run the middle Owyhee, but that stretch has several class IV rapids and one V that is more difficult to portage than the class V on the upper.

Here is a great story: Upper Owyhee Trip Report (16 - 23 April 2011) by Jason Shappart.

During years with above-average snowpack, the Owyhee runs for at least several weeks when temperatures rise, perhaps on several occasions if late-season storms occur. Unfortunately it is difficult to plan a trip more than a week in advance because weather in the high desert is extremely variable. Furthermore, this run requires a dry spell to make access roads passable.

Aside from two difficult rapids, the principal hazards are isolation and rattlesnakes. When you hike, keep an eye on the ground ahead. It is possible to walk out of the canyon in many places, but help (humans in any form) are a very long distance away. Temperatures vary unpredictably during boating season, so be prepared with summer and winter clothing.

Distances start at the highest practical put-in, and reset at the pipeline (continuing in parentheses).

mile 0
The YP launch site is as far downstream as ranch roads go along the river. BLM land begins shortly below.
Fourmile Creek enters on the left, with possible upstream hike. The river is very scenic despite the shallow canyon.
Twelvemile cabin, where dirt roads lead to a low-water crossing.
Devil's Corral rapid, before a left-right bend, followed by the Paiute El Paso gas pipeline. The canyon deepens.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Why trailers are not recommended  Buried pipeline visible as green grass
0 (21)
Pipeline launch site, at the north-most hairpin turn in the road.
Less than a mile downstream, class II-III rapids begin and continue past the Nevada-Idaho state line. The BLM map calls this series of rapids Devil's Pinball.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Jason in the Pinball series  Bubba in the Pinball series
3.7 (24.7)
Nevada-Idaho border. The last Pinball rapid is .3 mile further, and another rapid is one mile downstream.
7.6 (28.6)
Bull Camp on the right, a defunct stone cabin and remains of another.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Remains of Bull Camp cabin  Tom in the South Fork canyon
12.7 (33.7)
Rapid at a leftward curving horseshoe bend.
15 (36)
Coyote Hole, with freshwater spring and old homestead on the right, private land. On the left are steel posts and camp-junk of a poacher who murdered two game wardens in 1981.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Camp near Coyote Hole  Amazing canyon rock formations
17 (38)
Sentinel Rapid, class III. Low-water BLM photo.
17.9 (38.9)
Sentinel Canyon visible on the right. Sentinel Creek enters below, with hiking trail up the canyon. Unnamed canyon enters on the left .1 mile below, with another trail. Several good campsites in this area. The canyon is spectacular.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Natural arch on upper right  Boats dwarfed by massive hoodoo
22.4 (43.4)
Unnamed canyon enters on the right, with good side hike.
23 (44)
Forty-Five Dam rapid.
24 (45)
Little Owyhee River canyon on the left. On the right is 45 Ranch launch site, reachable in 2WD vehicles when roads are dry, but an impractical access because most boaters prefer longer runs.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Inspecting for rattlesnakes?  Large camp in a massive canyon
27 (48)
Spring Creek basin on the left, possible side hike. Several camps in this area.
30.5 (51.5)
Box Canyon on the right, possible side hike. Many campsites from here to the confluence.
37 (58)
East Fork Owyhee enters on the right, approximately doubling flow. Many stupendous rock spires appear near the confluence. Crutcher Crossing is 2 miles upstream on the East Fork, an alternate put-in or take-out, but with poor 4WD road.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Narrow side channel of East Fork  Looking up South Fork from confluence
38.5 (59.5)
House Rock rapid, more noticeable at lower flows.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Amazing scenery continues  On a hike high above camp
39.9 (60.9)
Class III rapid near the mouth Bald Mountain Canyon on the right, where you find a good campsite and long potential side hike.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Improbably thin hoodoos  Classic vista often seen on calendars
38.5 (64.3)
Dukes Creek on the right, a possible side hike.
46 (67)
Idaho-Oregon border. Firepan required below this point.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Camp below helmet-head shaped hoodoo  Easter Island style head-shaped hoodoo
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Snowfall viewed from underneath tarp  Snow accumulated along canyon rim
49.5 (70.5)
Cabin, sometimes called Stateline Cabin, on the river bench on right, built by Beaver Charlie. Many geographic features are named after him. The cabin currently has no roof and is overgrown with sagebrush. Cabin Rapid is a ways downstream, almost out of hearing.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR

Click here to see the video!

Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Top section of Cabin rapid  Composite of cataraft in Upper Cabin
49.7 (70.7)
Cabin Rapid, class IV, scout left
At low flows the first drop is class IV around a big rock on the right, then away from the left wall, followed by a series of class III drops. At high flows the most difficult section is after an island at a left bend, where the current piles into Pillow Rock, a huge boulder blocking the channel.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Middle section of Cabin rapid 
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Pillow Rock into Lower Cabin
If you make the move left of Pillow Rock, the remainder is a long class III. Including all parts, Cabin Rapid is almost a mile long.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Pillow Rock from high on the right bank  Bottom Cabin from near the same spot
50.6 (71.6)
Good campsite below Cabin Rapid, not marked on the BLM map.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Sunny morning at camp below Cabin  Mark rowing as the canyon opens up
51.9 (72.9)
Cable Rapid, class V, scout and possibly portage right
The right side drops steeply, ending in a rock sieve. If you intend to run this rapid, the better routes are on the left side with a left-right S-turn maneuver to avoid big holes in the middle, then passing a rock and hole on the bottom left. A cable was installed by fishing guides Helfrich and Pruitt in 1951, and is still usable for portage assist at flows above 2500 cfs, if you bring your own pulleys. The portage over rocks on the right is not bad for kayaks.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Yellow raft on cable mid-section  Background shows nasty center hole
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR

Click here to see the video!

Scouting and running Cable Rapid 
57.8 (78.8)
After a relatively straight section of easy water, the river bends left. South Cross Canyon enters on the right, with campsite, and another camp below mile 52 (79).
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
More greenery at lower elevation  Fluted cliffs and hoodoo
59.4 (80.4)
To quote Grant Amaral's guidebook, Five Bar Ranch on the left “is one of the most interesting historic sites on the river. After inspecting the cabin be sure to wander further back to [see] an old forge built into a cave [and] a stack of wooden water pipes.&rduo;
The West Little Owyhee exits Louse Canyon and flows west of a spire, joining the river half a mile downstream of the cabin. A hiking trail climbs Louse Canyon, following the old access road that the Loveland brothers built to the canyon rim.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Structure built into the rocks  Stack of wooden water pipes
61.8 (82.8)
Big Antelope Creek enters on the right, with hiking trail.
64 (85)
A series of warmsprings begins on the right bank and continues for more than three miles.
67.3 (88.3)
World-class hotspring on the left bank. Pools are deep enough to stand up in, and the warm water cascades over a beautiful moss-decorated cliff. A 4WD road from Three Forks reaches the right bank just downstream. The BLM map has a campsite marked on the left near mile 68 (89).
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
Hotspring from below  Hotspring from above
69 (90)
The North Fork Owyhee enters just above the take-out and launch site. Muddy tracks lead to the river, but cleaner grass banks are available.
Upper Owyhee NV ID OR Upper Owyhee NV ID OR
View of take-out from canyon rim  Snow-covered mountains from plateau
Owyhee is a last-century spelling of Hawaii, so named because three Hawaiian trappers were lost and presumed dead when initially exploring this area during the winter of 1819-1820.

Shuttle Directions

Shuttle drivers will save you lots of time and can be hired out of Jordan Valley, for example from Owyhee River Shuttle Services.

To reach put-in at the Paiute El Paso pipeline crossing, turn west onto YP Desert road (dirt) just south of the Idaho-Nevada border, but north of Owyhee NV, and drive towards 45 Ranch. Where this road crosses the Paiute El Paso pipeline, turn southwest and follow the difficult road along the pipeline. As it reaches the canyon, the road turns north and descends to put-in. Trailers are not advised, and 4WD vehicles are recommended.

YP launch site, accessible thru Petan ranch, is reachable with 2WD vehicles when the roads are dry. This launch requires permission from the landowner and adds 21 miles to the trip, mostly flatwater in a shallow canyon.

To reach take-out at Three Forks, turn south off highway 95, 17 miles southwest of Jordan Valley or 16 miles northeast of Rome, where a small sign marks the road to Three Forks launch site. The 36 mile dirt road is accessible by 2WD vehicles in dry weather. The crossing of Soldier Creek can be exciting after recent rain, however. Most of the road is on top of a plateau until it gets close to put-in.


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