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Owyhee canyonlands Photographs by Mark W. Lisk

Essay by William Fox

Owyhee canyonlands



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced inany manner without the expresss written connsent of the publisher, Except in case of brief excerts in critical reviews and articles. All Inquires should be addressed to: Caxton Press,312 Main Street, Caldwell, ID 83605. Š 2008 Mark W. Lisk and William Fox

Library of Congress Catologing-in-Publication Data Lisk, Mark W. The Owyhee Canyonlands /Photographt by Mark Lisk ; Essay by William Fox p,cm. ISBN

Published by Caxton Press Printed in Canada

Moon rise over Succor Creek State Park, a lesser known park in the Oregon park system. Rope and Spurs detail (overleaf) Jordan Valley Branding. Deep Creek (overleaf) slot canyon.


Contents 8

The Canyonlands


Plateau Light


Lost Frontier


River of Life


Ancient Form

106 Land in Balance 120 Acknowledgements

Owyhee canyonlands 5



The Canyonlands The region where Nevada, Oregon and Idaho conjoin--not abut, but conjoin, as in combining into one another to form a unique region--is off the map. That is, it commonly takes three road maps to capture some sense of where you are. “Some sense,” as in not all, as the three states represented are of widely differing sizes and shapes, yet have to be crammed onto sheets of standard-sized map paper. There’s nothing you can do with scissors and tape to fix it, either: the maps are all of different scales, so the edges never match up. All this just to put together a schematic of the Owyhee Canyonlands, the deeply riven sagebrush-steppe that is one of the largest roadless areas in the lower Fortyeight. That means you can fly over it, walk into it, and in some cases float through parts of it--but you can’t drive into much of it. This is a good thing. Unlike the scenic climaxes of America that we’ve enshrined in national parks, and despite the fact that it covers between four to nine million square acres--more about that in a minute--the geography of the Owyhee is on a scale that invites lingering along small rivers, walking up into intimate arroyos to find petroglyphs, and standing stock still for an hour while you watch bighorn sheep walk by you a few yards away. The canyons of the Owyhee can run hundreds of feet deep, but they aren’t monstrous like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. And the slender rhyolite columns eroded out of the cliffs are glorious examples of entropy, but they’re not the unapproachable totems of Monument Valley. If the Owyhee were anywhere else, say, in the middle of a map where any sensible wilderness should be, it would be overrun with tourists. That business about the size of the Owyhee region? If you’re just looking at the uplands, that volcanic layercake cut through by the canyons, then it’s four million square acres. The drainage of the Owyhee River and its branches?-around seven million. The high desert ecosystem through which the waters run, which include the upland steppes, the canyonlands, and even woodlands of mountain mahogany and juniper--nine million. Sadly, even on the three state 8

maps there is no boundary line drawn around any of it. The nearest it’s come to being officially bounded was during the administration of President Bill Clinton, who at the end of his term declined to include the recommended 2.7 million acres for an Owyhee National Monument in his list of designated sites. Another issue about the Owyhee is where it belongs physiographically. It looks sort of as if it should be part of the Great Basin, that high desert covering most of Nevada, and parts of southern Idaho and southeastern Oregon. But hydrologically the Great Basin all drains inward, hence its name, while the watercourses of the Owyhee flow into the Snake River, then on to the Columbia and into the Pacific Ocean. And geologically, the basin is punctuated by mountains ranges running north and south. No such mountains in the Owyhee. The sagebrush? That it has in common with the Great Basin, but as it turns out, what is technically a sagebrush-grass steppe here is a simpler floristic regime, so most botanists don’t classify it as part of the basin. On the other hand, it doesn’t really look like the Columbia Plateau, the ever so slightly depressed basin of the Columbia River which consists of a 6,000-footdeep layer of basalts. Stephen Trimble, the Salt Lake City naturalist who authored Sagebrush Ocean, the definitive natural history of the Great Basin, decided to include part of the Snake River Plain in his book because he felt the flora similar enough. That’s about the most extensive northward interpretation of the Great Basin, but the Owyhee escapes the contours of his generous map. Perhaps the Owyhee owes its indeterminate nature to the fact that it was created by a wandering plume of magma, what’s called the Yellowstone Hotspot. To be more precise, it’s not the hotspot that’s moving, but our continent. As the North American Plate travels southwest about a half inch per year, it passes over one of the hundred or so active volcanic sites that have existed on the planet during the last ten million years. No one is exactly sure what a hotspot is, whether it’s a plume of magma pushing up through

the mantle, or a place where a large meteor or cometoidal body hit the planet and weakened the crust. But the earliest evidence of the Yellowstone hotspot is a caldera--a large crater--under the site of present day McDermitt on the Nevada-Oregon border from some 15 million years ago. When the clouds of clouds of superheated ash from the eruption there settled to the ground, they cooled into the welded rhyolite tuff from which the Owyhee Canyonlands would eventually be carved.

The Big Loop Rodeo (previous page) is a yearly gathering place every May for Owyhee county cowboys.

Around 14 million years ago the hotspot made a crater under that inverted “T� where the three states meet. And sometime between ten and twelve million years ago, when it was underneath the current junction of the Bruneau and Jarbidge rivers, it blew yet again, a volcanic event so large that the ashfall it deposited a thousand miles to the east in Nebraska suffocated simultaneously some two hundred rhinoceros gathered to sip from a watering hole. Their remains, along with those of camels and the tiny three-

Rhyolite sentinels guard the entrance to Battle Creek at its confluence with the East Fork of the Owyhee.


toad horses wandering the continent, are found in what is one of the richest fossil beds in the world. That same eruption laid down still more rhyolite and a basalt cap, an event that dammed up local drainages, flooded the Snake River Plain, and formed the ancient Lake Idaho. The early Pleistocene lake was fed by a rainfall perhaps twice what it is today, and at its maximum extent during several periods of expansion and contraction, it was 800 feet deep and covered some 5,000 square miles. When it burst through a lava dam a million years ago, it carved Hell’s Canyon. The lake opened the drainages of the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge Rivers, all of which began to erode backwards into the uplands, carving the canyonlands as they went. This exposed the layers of the welded tuff and carved one of the world’s largest complex of rhyolite cliffs, alcoves, and hoodoos, those slender fingers eroded out from the canyon walls. After the end of the Pleistocene some 10,000 years ago, the North American ice sheet retreated and the fluctuating levels of precipitation eventually settled into the desert climate we find today. A land that used to support scimitartoothed cats was now host to mule deer and sage grouse. The remaining sagebrush steppe of the Owyhee, an austere and handsome regime, is only a remnant of an ecosystem that used to cover most of the Columbia Plateau. The end of the Pleistocene also brought increasing numbers of people into North America, and by at least 12,000 years ago the ancestors of the Shoshone and Paiute tribes were 10

hunting and gathering across the region. Bighorn sheep and pronghorn figure prominently in petroglyphs, and it is evident that local sites were held sacred by these earliest inhabitants, but the region would not have supported large settlements. The major buffalo herds were farther north and east, the larger fishing grounds north and west, both resources dense enough in protein to support more substantial populations and regional trading centers along the Snake River. The Snake is the largest tributary of the Columbia River, and Euro-Americans explored it in search of furs, Spanish traders working its banks as early as the 1770s. Lewis and Clark followed part of its lower length during their 1804-1806 journey, but didn’t follow the tributaries to the south. Most of the early nineteenth-century exploratory forays avoided heading into the Owyhee--except, of course, for the one from which the region derives its name. The intrepid fur trader Donald Mackenzie left St. Louis in 1810 and reached Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1812. Trappers by that year were working the Owyhee, and the next year a small trading post was established on the Snake across from where the Owyhee emptied into the larger river. A band of Bannock Indians wiped it out soon thereafter. Mackenzie was instrumental in opening up the fur trade in much of Oregon, eastern Washington, and central Idaho during that decade, and in the fall of 1818, at the start of a two-year journey around the lower Snake River Basin, sent three of his expedition members, natives from the Hawaiian Islands, up an unnamed tributary in the southwestern part of what is now Idaho. The three “Owyhees” failed to return the following spring, apparently after tangling with the Bannocks, and he named the region for them, the only geography in the world that bears the eccentric phonetic spelling of their home islands. Subsequent waves of emigration during the mid-19th River Runners, enjoy the solitude of the rugged canyons in all of the major forks of the Owyhee. Much of the rafting requires miles of impassible dirt roads and portages through difficult rapids.

century either took the California Trail to the south of the Owyhee, or the Oregon Trail to the north. The canyonlands were just too complicated to try and negotiate, the deep gorges at best a trial, at worse impassable. Jarbidge, in fact, takes its name from Shoshone for “weird beastly creature,” which tells you something of how both Native and early Euro-Americans viewed the terrain.

stunning image or two. Even a writer from time to time. To understand the pressures on the BLM and landowners, it’s important to remember the following. Public visitation to our national parks--those aforementioned scenic climaxes--is declining by double digits, while visitation to

The rolling hills of the Owyhee uplands, however, are superb sheep and cattle country, at least when there’s not a drought, or too much cold and snow, which is much of the time. When gold and silver were discovered in the Jordan Creek area to the northwest in 1862-63, the consequent boom produced a demand for beef. By 1869 drives from Texas were bringing up herds of range cattle as large as 1400 head. The Basque sheepherders, who had been successful with their flocks in California and Nevada, came into the area in the late 1880s, and the petroglyphs of the Native Americans vie for wall space beside Basque graffiti from the early twentieth century. At the height of the cattle ranching, as many as 100,000 head were housed in Owyhee County, which covers the southwestern corner of Idaho and includes a large portion of the canyonlands. Today the approximately 11,000 residents of the county are far outnumbered by the remaining 45,000 head of cattle. And this is where things get interesting, conditions in Owyhee County being similar to those in the Owyhee canyonlands of Oregon and Nevada. Three-quarters of the five million acres in the county are public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency charged with promoting, yet protecting access for multiple land users, many of whom have competing desires. Those public lands include most of the Owyhee canyonlands, which means the families who have lived on the Owyhee raising cattle since the 1870s have to share their leased lands with environmentalists who want to protect the 26 endangered or threatened species found therein, and with the off-road vehicle crowd, and with river rafting companies, and photographers looking for a

Young cowgirl enjoys a warm spring day, branding at the Hanley Ranch along Jordan Creek.



BLM lands is climbing. The reasons are many, but among them is that people perceive the parks to be overcrowded environments that are neither true wilderness nor trailer parks able to accommodate upsized recreational vehicles. Places such as the Owyhee are less restricted, less crowded, and often considered as being somehow more authentic. Then there’s the increase in the number of All-Terrain vehicle riders. ATVs were first developed by Honda in the 1960s for farmers to use in muddy conditions, but once they started marketing them in the U.S., they became a popular recreational vehicle, as well. By 1995 America hosted more than 350,000 of them. Ten years later there were 7 million in the backcountry. This has resulted in increased wear and tear on BLM lands, and never more visibly than in arid environments such as the Owyhee. As a result, the conversation over how best to use the land can be heated at times. The Shoshones, who suffered depredations during colonization, weren’t pleased to find fur trappers wandering into their territory, hunters who in turn were displaced by the miners and ranchers. Today, the ranchers don’t appreciate the ATV riders and hunters fooling around with their gates, and the environmentalists veer between wanting everyone off the land to actually buying ranches and working out compromises with users. Many of the local Native Americans remain understandably concerned about too many visitors, and then there’s the U.S. Air Force, which would still like to use the relatively empty lands for a live bombing range, having been forced to settle in 1998 for electronic simulations overhead. Land usage in the Owyhee has always been complicated and going to remain so, despite efforts by politicians to negotiate frameworks such as the Owyhee Initiative, which seeks to Kayakers break camp in a picturesque section of the Owyhee River system. The confluence of the middle fork, north fork, and the main Owyhee come together in a rock garden known as Three Forks.


balance multiple uses with conservation and wilderness areas based on peer science reviews of environmental impacts. How we use the Owyhee Canyonlands is shaped by what we see, a region formed equally by catastrophic volcanism and steady erosion, by aridity and water, by the fact that the canyons formed by those processes contain miniature gardens of great intimacy while the uplands above are as wide as the sky. We should not be surprised or dismayed that we don’t exactly know how best to behave toward a place where the viewshed of a watercourse for an urbanite in a carbon composite kayak may be only a few yards wide and three hundred feet deep, while atop the rim a Shoshone cowboy looks out over a five hundred square miles from under his flat-brimmed hat--which owes its design to the eighteen-century vaqueros of California. In order to comprehend the relationships among plateau and canyons, and to understand how the past shapes the present and informs the future, we rely on scientists to take a broad view of the scene. That’s what it takes to comprehend any environment, much less one as complex and subtle as the Owyhee. To understand what it is that they are studying, we rely on artists who can take a similarly expanded view. That’s why in the work of Mark Lisk we find him deploying the panorama as a way to simultaneously encompass the depth and breadth of the region. And why he juxtaposes those sweeps with a tight focus on a single boulder or a pool of water, why he takes pictures in low light and high, from morning to night, winter to summer. And it’s why the stillness of a moonrise over a state park is by necessity seen with 14

a stagecoach reenactment in a cloud of dust, and with a contemporary Shoshone brave in ceremonial regalia. The past and present are in motion here, even as we look around at what we at first consider to be wilderness. Wilderness does exist from time to time and place to place. But mostly in the North America of the twenty-first century, it’s a state of mind. You can die of cold and hunger and hurt in the Owyhee and it could be that no one would ever find the body. It’s that big and corners of it that obscure, but you’d have to work at it. And you can ignore the contrails overhead and the whine of an ATV and the cattle tracks--all the signs of humankind going about its business--but not for too long. What’s to learn by being there and walking through the photographs is that it doesn’t matter. The

Owyhee is still there, still being changed by both nature and culture, including by the very fact of Mark Lisk sharing his photographs of it with us. William L. Fox

Subtle Clouds float over the high plateau of the Little Jacks and Big Jackes Creek drainages which flow into the Snake River near Grandview.

Bunch Grass (opposite) springs to life in the uplands after the Murphy Complex fire near Cougar Creek. Water rings (opposite) mark the smooth grey river rocks that are in direct contrast to the weathered cliffs above.


Plateau Light


ight dances from the branches of mountain mahogany and junipers that cover the high desert plateau just off Mud Flat Road, accentuating and isolating their shapes against the warm cloud-filled sky giving a feeling of an African savannah. I can smell the aroma of rabbit brush; its harsh sweetness permeates the desert air and serves as a reminder of the bittersweet country that stretches out endlessly before me. Mud Flat Road climbs up and out across the high desert plateau that connects Idaho to Oregon. This is one of the more accessible passageways through the dramatic landscape of the Owyhee Desert. It is from this dirt road that several smaller dirt roads crisscross and take one deeper into the desert, revealing some of the Owyhee’s unimaginable vistas and reinforcing the old adage,“ you can’t get there from here.” It is this inaccessibility that has kept the Owyhee Desert pristine and true to its natural state. There is a mystical quality about the Owyhee Canyon Lands. One can see exactly how it was hundreds of years ago – very little has changed. It is a classic western landscape with pockets of beauty that have seen little or no human contact. Large grasslands extending across volcanic buttes suddenly plummet hundreds of feet to rivers below. Steams and creeks seemingly come from nowhere and cut through the giant basalt layers laid down by ancient lava flows. Petrified piles of ash tuft rise above deep pools of water that fill odd shaped canyons wall to wall. Much of this country is so rugged, there have to be areas that have not yet been seen by human eyes. This small desert region within the Great Basin is a place that part of me wants to keep only for myself and share with no one. Even so, the awesome beauty and unforgiving truth of this wild land compel me to capture it in photographic form, imparting what I feel appropriate. In that sharing, these questions are constant . Have I betrayed an unspoken oath to those who already know the intricacy of this special place? Do I want to be part of the revelation of its secrets? Mark William Lisk-Photographer Cottonwood trees shimmer in fall light along Birch Creek in the lower canyon. Aspen leaves freeze to the ground in the Bull Run Mountains of Nevada. Skeletons of Mountain Mahogany trees, broken and twisted, give a glimps of the constant hardships in the Owyhee desert.


Yatahoney Creek pours into small emerald green pools on its way to the East Fork of the Owyhee, this is one of many natural springs that thread throughout the canyonlands.

Mahogany groves (right) thrive on the upper plateaus above the canyons. This hardy species can withstand the huge temperature swings of this harsh sub desert of the Great Basin.



Storm clouds fill the sky over Steamboat Ridge, a typical basin and range valley near the Owyhee reservoir.

A Lone Juniper (opposite) on the ridge above the confluence of Deep Creek and the East Fork marks a classic camp for river runners. Battle Creek (opposite)runs through a open valley at the lower crossing eighteen miles from the East Fork.



Big Jacks Creek cuts into the basalt cap running to the eastern edge of the canyonlands just below the Wickahoney Creek confluence.



The high plateau provides the perfect elevation for mountain mahogany.


Quaking Aspen near the Wild Horse Reservoir, in Nevada’s Bull Run Mountains.


Moss and lichen (below) covers rock in a wetland along the East Fork.

Spring rains (above) bring saturated color to new growth of willow and aspen. The northern slope of the Blue Table provides shelter for animals and a wide variety of foliage.




Magenta clouds accentuate the vibrant color of desert phlox near Malhuer county on the northern edge of the canyonlands.

Sun rays (left) pour through a gapping hole in storm clouds above Steamboat Ridge.

Winter (overleaf) touches the rim of the Avery table in early October.




Collection pools fill with rain in deep sections of Black Canyon, providing vital sources of water for abundant wildlife.


Yellow stagnant pools of water sit on the hard rock shelves of Porcupine Creek.


Golden grasses grow on the basalt table above Big Jacks Creek. This table sheds water from Wickahoney, Duncan, and Little Jacks Creek into the Snake River on the eastern edge of the canyonlands.

Bunch grass and juniper lined ridges are typical high desert scenes above Leslie Gulch and the Owyhee Reservoir.



Hicks Springs pours out from the desert creating prime habitat for aspen and cottonwood groves deep in Zeno Canyon.


Petrified Dunes (opposite) roll across the desert floor near Poison Creek. Long basalt ridges stretch across wide golden valleys of bunch grass and sage near Squaw Creek. Winter blankets (overleaf) Juniper Mountain.





Lost Frontier


ome say they’d like to go to Hawaii but I’d just as soon stay here in Owyhee County, “ I responded to the TV reporter when he asked me if I would like to live somewhere else. He was doing a segment on the newly coined Owyhee Canyon Lands, which are known locally as the Junipers. Canyons and Juniper trees are an accepted part of the landscape where I run cattle with my neighbors. This doesn’t mean it’s less important and that we don’t enjoy the rugged beauty. In the local vernacular it’s our home range and has become the foundation of our custom and culture as it did the Indians before us. As a mater of fact the Shoshone and Paiute have sacred locations, as there are places special to us. The Grasshopper Trail for example is a shared feature. The tribes used it as access to the buffalo hunting grounds in Montana and fisheries on the Snake River. I had just driven cattle over it on the way back to our home ranch in Jordan Valley when I visited with the reporter. A force shared with the tribes is that of change and ultimately it will decide what happens not only in the Owyhees but everywhere else. I’ve often wondered what went through the old chief ’s minds when they witnessed the endless stream of wagons crossing their lands. Now that I’m in that age range I too wonder about increasing traffic bound for the Junipers. However we inhabitants of the Owyhees are resilient and face the future with the same determination we did in the past. When informed of a proposed plan to relocate the people of the Owyhees, life long resident Asuncion Arritola spoke of the rest of us, “I like it here…I’m not leaving. Michael Hanley IV-Rancher

Soft sunlight (left) silhouettes Jessie White a local cowboy from Rome Oregon. Morning light falls on a cattle dog at the Hanley Ranch, Jordan Valley Oregon.



Towering rhyolite reaches for open sky just below the old homestead at Cruchers Crossing on the East Fork of the Owyhee.

The East Fork of the Owyhee meanders through a tranquil sage brush valley at Crucher’s Crossing, one of only a few areas that is open enough for a river crossing.



Mike Hanley collects and rebuilds old stage coaches, frequently reenacting the overland stage runs to the historic mining town of Silver City.



Neighbors and friends (left) gather on warm spring days to brand and inoculate cattle, bringing a sense of community to the grass land ranches of the ION country.

Branding cattle with traditional technique is a way of life that many Owyhee cowboys feel slipping away.

The road less traveled (at least by trucks) . Many of the Owyhee roads are better suited for horses and cows.


The dust settles on a cowboy watching horses near the Rome Cliffs.


Much of the canyonlands are accessible only by foot or horseback, This isolated desert is one of the most harsh landscapes in the west.



Open rangeland spreads out across the never ending horizon of sage and mahogany on the upper plateaus.


Sticks and grass are visible in the rammed earth walls of the Buncel Place along Duncan Creek.

Willow walls line the tack barns and sod covered buildings at the Brace Ranch deep in the heart of the desert.

Iron door detail at the homestead at the Black Creek crossing along the upper Bruneau River.

Intricate stone work (right) at the Black Rock Crossing homestead. There are few places to cross the Bruneau River. At each crossing there seems to be evidence of people who have working the land. Back breaking work at best.



Sod roofs and willow walls at the Brace ranch near the Lambert Table. This is a typical way of building in the historic ION country.


Evidence of passing through. This inscription seems to be referring to a Basque cowboy in his 21st year?



Old poplar trees sit on the hillsides near the Dunning family homestead .The near by spring provided water for trees and was piped into the Wickahoney stage stop.

A well used saddle from years if running cattle across the hot Owyhee desert plateaus. Thick clouds (overleaf) move past the remains of the once bustling Wickahoney stage stop. This stage stop serviced the route between Mountain City Nevada and Mountain Home Idaho.




The roads are tuff enough to travel, It may be best to not pay attention to the signs.

Evening falls on a hay wagon in Grandview Idaho. Ranching (right) along Jordan Creek in Oregon’s Jordan Valley.



Bareback riding at the Big Loop Rodeo in Jordan Valley. This big event brings riders and ranchers from all corners of the county.


The Harvey cabin (right) sits above the springs that lead into Cottonwood Canyon. One of a hand full of old homesteads that remain in the Owyhee Canyonlands. A sage and mahogany ocean (overleaf) covers the desert floor above upper Battle Creek just off the Mud Flat road.





River of Life


he sun breached steep canyon walls and was on the river, welcome warmth to paddling hands on a cold spring morning. Shimmering lace-like light bounced up the wall of basalt highlighting lichen. As the near-still Owyhee slowly spins me in Lambert Gorge I try to soak it all in, to etch every detail in memory.

A golden eagle silently passes over, close. I gasp as sudden proximity to a predator touches something deep in genetic code. An explosive splash and the eagle nails a fuzzy gosling right before us and gracelessly hobbles from the river edge to dry shore. It rips the little bird apart while watching us pass. Mother goose calls to the remaining brood reverberate through the canyon. From far, far above a scattering sound of rock. There they are, bighorn sheep, one, two, three…. Shielding my eyes from the sun I focus on elusive shapes still in shade. The Owyhee Canyonlands are one of America’s most extraordinary landscapes. I have stood on a canyon rim in open mouth awe of the sudden river’s gash in the expansive sagebrush tablelands at my feet I see an ancient piece of obsidian, a perfect arrowhead, an intimate reminder in this expansive land of those who came before. Last night, climbing through canyon breaks, I looked down on the confluence as two desert canyons become one. Above, a distant juniper on a horizontal plane is jewel-set in vertical basalt cliffs. Further still, sagebrush hills roll on like the sea. Pronghorn pause on a distant rise and as stiff wind pulls at my hat the scent of sage and coming rain envelops me. This is not a perfect landscape. Weather can be hostile and raw, roads rough and a gumbo of mud, maps often poor. While ranching created a rich culture and history, native vegetation and creek-side habitats bear the heavy burden of cows on a fragile land. This trip ends with a cougar sighting, a mountain lion drinking from the river, and then like a ghost gone. From the kayak I place my hand over fresh track, my thumb in a just-left depression in wet sand. What a place, what a marvelous place. Rick Johnson-Idaho Conservation League Hoodoos tower above a bend along the Owyhee River. An Owyhee River vantage point from above the Bomb Shelter river camp in the Three Forks to Rome section of the canyon.



The spectacular view of the Deep Creek and East Fork of the Owyhee is worth the hike up to the rim rock. There is not a more beautiful place in the canyons. It is classic canyonlands.

Deep green pools settle in the freshly scoured river bottom of the twisted, ragged canyon of Dickshooter Creek.


Deep Creek widens and creates beautiful reflection pools shortly below the lower crossing at Brace Flat. This small creek is only float able in wet years and then only for a two to three week period. But it is in those wet years that road access is sometimes impossible.

Water gathers (overleaf) in eroded pockets of basalt worn smooth by the rushing water of the North Fork of the Owyhee.


Alder groves line Jump Creek one of the many small wetland ecosystems that make the Owyhee Canyonlands such a unique desert.




Brilliant reflections fall across the slow moving pools in the deep canyons of the Owyhee.

Basalt cliff reflect into a calm pool at Three Forks Crossing.

Green moss in the Black Canyon of Dickshooter Creek. Spring (right) brings the desert alive. Rolling green hillsides come down to the scoured high water mark on river left.




Stagnate pools (left) line the bottom of Black Canyon.

Yatahoney Creek drops over basalt rock rounding and smoothing the contures of the native rock that hold and directs it downstream to the Owyhee.

Bruneau River ( overleaf) drops into the deep canyon just below the camp at Indian Bath Tub. Rafter and kayakers camp here before trips down canyon into a magic world few people have ever seen.




A large delta from years of sediments gathers at the bottom of Battle Creek.

The North Fork narrows up just before it hits the open valley of Three Forks.


Succor Creek State Park on the edge Idaho and Oregon.


Low water (left) runs along the cliff side in the Deep Creek canyon just below the Pedro Morales camp.

Cool fall temperatures, (right) brings a warm glow to the clear running North Fork of the Owyhee.




High water (left) builds up river banks leaving reflection pools and tangled grass in willows on the shore.

Buck wheat blooms in the cracks of basalt, overlooking the Owyhee River near Rickards Crossing.


Hoodoos mark the end of the South Fork corridor and the beginning of the main Owyhee. Much of the river is marked with it own unique dramatic character.


The Bruneau River (above) winds past juniper in the canyon bottom near Cave Draw.

Chalk Basin sits along the left bank of the lower Owyhee River. This unique formation directly across from the Lambert Rocks is a popular camp among spring boaters.



Steep cliffs rise above the many meanders of Deep Creek. Most of the creek corridors are only accessible by boat, horseback, or foot and require many miles of travel.



The gentle South Fork (left) canyon meets the main Owyhee in an abrupt landscape of twisted Hoodoos.

The Butte separating the main Owyhee and the North-Middle fork is illuminated by the rise of the morning sun at Three Fork Crossing.



Ancient Form


n the Owyhee Canyonlands, the grandeur of the landscape always seems to dominate my mind. It doesn’t matter if I’m out there on a hike, a mountain bike ride, a bird-hunting trip or a white water adventure. At the end of the day, I always find myself staring at the rocks, wondering with incredulity and humility how the hand of nature could have created something so utterly beautiful and magnificent.

It all began about 15 million years ago, with powerful eruptions in the deepest corner of the Owyhee Plateau, in the nexus where the boundaries of Oregon, Idaho and Nevada meet, sending molten rhyolite and ash more than 25,000 feet into the air. Repeated eruptions laid down extensive layers of rhyolite lava rock throughout the Owyhee Plateau. Later, the bright rouge and orange rhyolite layers were covered with oozing, less-explosive eruptions of brown basalt lava. Then, about 1 million years ago, Lake Idaho drained the Owyhee Plateau and allowed the down-cutting action of the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge rivers to create the spectacular incised canyons we see today. This is roughly how the geologists explain the many wonders that we observe in the Owyhee Canyonlands. But the rocks tell you, as you stare at them after a great day exploring the Owyhees, that it’s really not that simple. The complexity of the rock cliffs, formations, spires and caves speak of powerful, inexplicable forces that defy the imagination. Ultimately, it makes me feel about as significant as a single nugget of sand sifting through my toes. That kind of medicine is always good for the soul. Steve Stuebner-Outdoor Adventurist Shifting sand (top) piles up against a basalt cap near the Bruneau Dunes. Petrified Dunes (above) near Poisson Creek. Fossils (Left) from accient seas lie in the granular remains of Lake Idaho.



Petrified sand dunes from an ancient sea bed sit on the rim above Poison Creek

Double rainbow over the Erie formations of Pruett’s Castle in Chalk Basin along the lower canyon of the Owyhee River.


An ocean of ancient sand spreads out across the open desert floor at the base of the Owyhee Mountain Range.


Ash deposits known as tuff, forms the volatile surface of Leslie Gulch in the southeast corner of Oregon.


Snow pack from the peaks of the Jarbidge Wilderness Area in northern Nevada, feeds the Jarbidge river, the largest tributary to the Bruneau River.



Honeycomb shaped rock formations from ash tuff deposits in Leslie Gulch.

Indian Paintbrush bloom in the course soil of Leslie Gulch.

A fragile sandstone (above) column holds up an eroding shelf near Poison Creek. A natural arch (right) forms on the ridgeline above Chalk Basin on the lower Owyhee.

Morning sun (overleaf) skims across golden grass striking the rim above Wickahoney Creek at it’s deepest point,






Jump Creek Falls (above) flows year round spilling into a deep pool at its base. Egg shaped rock (left) rest on one another in the Salmon Falls Creek area on the eastern edge of the Owyhee Desert bear Jackpot Nevada.

Tall rhyolite cliffs span three hundred feet above the Owyhee River above the South Fork confluence.



Land in Balance


he rocks on the basalt cap are still warm radiating energy well after the sun has set in the western sky. The spirit of the rock is evident, almost pulsating to the beat of an ancient song. These Owyhee Canyonlands are well fed with this force. The heartbeat of the ancient Western Shoshone-Paiute spills from this landscape, and fills the hearts of the inclined ear. This presence radiates from canyon walls, and springs from sacred ground flowing through deep gorges toward the river that gives its name to the Canyonlands.

This is a landscape brimming with history and hidden meaning. A high desert thick with passion and significance, and because of it remote location has been tucked away from much of America. The ShoshonePaiutes have roamed this unique land for tens of thousands of years. Put here by the creator, the ancient footprints of the elders cross the open plateaus and rock tables that reach from sky to sky. Thousands of years later, under a petroglyph inscribed slab of basalt, one can feel the struggle and deep connection to the land. A connection understood by few. warm, and still radiating life well after the sun sets in the western sky. Anonymous Author

Shoshone Brave (above) in full regalia Chief (above) with full headdress watches over his homeland. Petroglyphs mark a sacred spot for the Western Shoshone and Paiute of the area.


Sun rays peak through the cloud shrouded sky giving a spiritual feel to the desert expanse below.



Chiseled into the rim rock of a basalt table petroglyph give glimpse of the significant native American presents hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Shoshone Brave in full dress .



Looking south across fields of Biter Brush, Battle Creek wanders in route to the Owyhee River 23 miles away.

Rye grass and aspen seem to grow well in the rich volcanic soils on the Turner Table. This table is the dividing line between the Owyhee and the Snake water sheds.


Lichen and minerals are ripped away, exposing black dense volcanic basalt along many of the high plateau creeks on the Avery Table.



Petroglyphs (left) (right) (overleaf) are chipped high in many of the basalt tables that cover much of the Owyhee-Bruneau Canyonlands. The Owyhee country speads from the Jarbidge wilderness Area in northern Nevada into southern Idaho and Oregon, and covers a region twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.




Bird like figures chipped into smooth basalt cap rock.

Three Fingers gulch served as a passage way for Indians to travel from the rim to the lower Owyhee. A small rapid ( right) forms with the low water typical of the fall season at the Birch Creek confluence.




Owyhee Canyonlands  

Distributed by the University of Nebraska Press for Caxton Press About 10,000 people inhabit this high desert area, geographically larger t...