Off The Grid: Exploring Oregon's Owyhee Canyonlands

By Stio Mountain on

Photos by Tyler Roemer

Words by Conor McElyea

The GPS instructed me to make a right turn off the pavement and onto a gravel road. We were still 75 miles from our "final destination" and it already felt like the middle of nowhere. Cows grazed in open fields on either side of the dirt road. An hour later, the road dropped from a rolling high desert expanse into a steep, rock-walled canyon. The eastern Oregon country radio station crackled a few times then fully dropped out of transmission as we descended deeper into the canyon. My heart fluttered with anticipation as we closed in on our home base for the next few days.

Like many Oregonians, I often heard about the unique and raw beauty of the Owyhee Canyonlands, but due to its remote location in the eastern Oregon desert, it has always been more than just a weekend getaway, and I had never planned the time to take a longer trip. That was no excuse anymore. We had penciled this one in months ago could not wait to get off the grid in Oregon’s most remote region.

The road narrowed to the width of a single lane as we rock crawled through another creek crossing. Surrounded by massive rock formations the terrain made you feel both calm and uneasy at the same time. Our group of four welcomed each other with hugs and a cold beer before we set up camp. Once our set up was dialed we ventured out to explore the high hills overlooking the canyon below. There are few established trails in the Owyhee, so most of the hiking consisted of scrambling around large, loose rocks in rattle snake territory. The path is driven by what the canyons and vegetation allow. With the nearest hospital hours away, we were at the mercy of the land and felt a new sense of vulnerability. On the other hand, knowing there was a very low chance of crossing paths with another human put us at ease. There was no interference or distractions from technology, zero light pollution, and outside of the river or wildlife, very few sounds. I took a deep breath of clean, open air; I was right where I needed to be.

Located in the southeastern corner of Oregon, far closer to Boise, Idaho than to Portland, Oregon, the Owyhee Canyonlands is the largest, unprotected natural area in the lower 48. Often described as Oregon’s Grand Canyon, its deep, red-rock canyons, rolling plains and wild rivers are home to rugged desert beauty, sacred sites, abundant wildlife, ample recreational opportunities and vast, wild expanses. This place is truly remote – so remote that in ten years scientists predict it will be one of the last remaining places in the west to see the Milky Way without light pollution. 

Over the course of a few days we spent time hiking through the great-wide-open sagebrush, fishing riffles and pools within the multi-hued canyon walls and basking in the beauty of the environment. At times, you could see miles in every direction, but home base was nestled beside the river in a world apart from the day-to-day we had removed ourselves from. The surprise of the environment made you consider generations that had walked this land before us or the types of people who had found refuge here. While anyone could appreciate this place, only a certain type of person would truly embrace its remoteness.

For a modern-day adventure seeker, the options were limitless. The geographical diversity of this landscape offers a rich variety of ways to connect with the wild. In the rolling uplands, hikers and wildlife enthusiasts could encounter over 200 species as they hike up and down the draws in search of a high perch. Backcountry aficionados can follow the rim of the canyons, scoping their next adventure, which could include angling, horseback riding, rafting, biking, canoeing or pack-rafting. The fascinating geology, rich ancient history and unique ecology come alive in this natural treasure - so whatever activity fills your day, it will undoubtedly be a one-of-a-kind, “only in the Owyhee” experience. 

As rugged and vast as this landscape is, it is also fragile and under threat. While remoteness has long protected the Owyhee, development pressure – including gold, uranium and lithium mining and natural gas development – is now clawing at its edges. One of the fastest growing urban areas in the country – Boise, Idaho – is within a couple of hours of the Owyhee’s outer limits. A new transmission line and major freeway route have also been proposed for the area. With these development pressures and changes comes an increased urgency to ensure the most important ecological, recreational and cultural places in Oregon’s Owyhee are protected for future generations.

Right now, we have a unique opportunity to do just that. 

The Oregon Natural Desert Association, a passionate, effective conservation non-profit whose mission is to protect, defend and restore Oregon’s high desert public lands, has been working to protect the Owyhee for decades. They were part of an unprecedented dialogue in 2019 that brought together conservation organizations, local residents, ranchers, tribes, and other stakeholders that resulted in a rare chance to secure permanent protection for these public lands. 

The Owyhee proposal - S.2828 – would protect an incredible 1.1 million acres of wilderness and create 15 additional miles of Wild and Scenic River to ensure there will always be places to explore and discover. Oregon’s Owyhee is on the brink of change–and the right actions will tilt that change in the right direction.

Our socks were laced with grass shrubs as we reluctantly began the process of packing camp and embarking on the long journey back to the “real world.” There is a pure satisfaction in exploring the remote corners of our peripheries, and we felt fortunate the Owyhee could provide that for us. Our bodies felt tired, minds inspired and hearts full. Lucky for us, the joyous moments of forging our own path across miles of wild terrain, casting to fish in the depths of a colorful canyon, and connecting with friends without the distraction of technology would fuel the journey back to our daily routines and fill the stories of our future camp fires.

If you're interested in learning more about the Owyhee Canyonlands and helping protect this Oregon treasure, then visit The Oregon Natural Desert Association.

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