The Owyhee River System
Boater Skill Requirements: Upper Owyhee River | Middle Owyhee River | Lower Owyhee River
Spring Float Season | River Flow Information
In 1984, Congress designated 120 miles of the Owyhee River in Oregon as a wild river component of the National Wild and Scenic River System. The Owyhee National Wild River extends from the Oregon-Idaho border to the Owyhee Reservoir, excluding 14 miles near Rome, Oregon. A wild river designation is intended to protect the free-flowing character of the river, along with its outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, wildlife, and cultural values.
On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act (the Act), which designated 317 miles of Wild and Scenic River in Owyhee County, Idaho, that consists of 16 different river segments. Twelve of the 16 river segments are located within the Owyhee River system, and various of these segments flow through the Big Jacks Creek, Little Jacks Creek, North Fork Owyhee, and Owyhee River Wilderness Areas, which were also designated by the Act. The 12 segments in the Owyhee River system include:
- Battle Creek (wild) - 23.4 miles
- Big Jacks Creek (wild) - 35.0 miles
- Cottonwood Creek (wild) - 2.6 miles
- Deep Creek (wild) - 13.1 miles
- Dickshooter Creek (wild) - 9.25 miles
- Duncan Creek (wild) - 0.9 miles
- Little Jacks Creek (wild) - 12.4 miles
- North Fork Owyhee River (recreational) - 5.7 miles; (wild) - 15.1 miles
- Owyhee River (wild) - 67.3 miles
- Red Canyon Creek (wild) - 4.6 miles
- South Fork Owyhee River (wild) - 31.4 miles; (recreational) - 1.2 miles
- Wickahoney Creek (wild) - 1.5 miles
Boater Skill Requirements
Upper Owyhee River
The upper Owyhee River system consists of the East, South and North forks, and several major tributaries. Due to the area’s remoteness, the upper Owyhee River is not recommended for beginners. Although most of the upper Owyhee River is Class I, II and III, and whitewater and hazards can be seen well ahead of time, the upper Owyhee can be dangerous for those who are improperly equipped, inexperienced or careless. On the upper Owyhee, downstream from the confluence of the East Fork and South Fork, two Class IV/V rapids may require portages or lining depending on the water level, type of equipment and boater skill.
The East Fork is recommended for kayaks and whitewater canoes only, due to two difficult portages located about seven and nine miles above the confluence with the South Fork. In any flow other than high water, portaging will be required on the upper East Fork if a launch is made at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. The Rome, Oregon USGS gauge is NOT an indication of the water level in the East Fork. Floating is not recommended unless water is near bank-full or higher on the Reservation.
One of the East Fork’s major tributary streams, Deep Creek, is boatable by kayak or open canoe early in the float season. Although this stream has no difficult rapids, it demands a high level of skill to negotiate its narrow width and braided channels while avoiding thick, overhanging vegetation and frequent strikes against gravel bars, streamside cliffs and fences.
The South Fork does not have portages for rafts or kayaks. Depending on the water level, some portaging may be necessary at Class III rapids. Rafts under 15’ are ideal for this section.
On the upper Main Owyhee, downstream from the confluence of the South Fork and East Fork, two Class IV/V rapids may require portages or lining depending on the water level, type of equipment, and boater skill.
The North Fork Owyhee River joins the Owyhee River at Three Forks, Oregon. This section is recommended for expert boaters in kayaks and small catarafts. It is highly technical with a steep gradient, narrow channel and frequent obstacles. After warming up on a few Class II-III rapids, boaters will navigate consistent Class III-IV rapids (depending on flow). The run is about 18 miles from the North Fork Campground to Three Forks, and has plenty of nice places to camp. Trips can be launched early in the float season from the North Fork Campground in Idaho.
Middle Owyhee River
The 39-mile middle section of the main Owyhee River, from Three Forks to Rome, is very challenging , and the middle section of the river is recommended only for highly skilled whitewater boaters with medium-sized rafts (14-15 foot), kayaks, catarafts or covered full-flotation canoes. This section has a pool-and-drop character, where long sections of flat water are interrupted by difficult Class III, IV and V+ rapids, including long boulder gardens, heavy hydraulics and some very steep drops. These conditions combine to preclude the use of small rafts, drift boats and open canoes. Constricted channels and the possible need for portages make the use of large rafts difficult.
Lower Owyhee River
Numerous Class II, III and IV rapids on the 50- to 67-mile lower section of the Owyhee River below Rome challenge the skills of boaters in rafts, kayaks, and catarafts, making this the most popular section of the river. The lower section also has a pool-and-drop character, where pools of quiet water extend to the lip of rapids before falling sharply over Class II to IV rapids into other pools. Most rapids are relatively short.
Spring Float Season
The primary float season for the entire Owyhee River system is from March through early to mid-June. During this season, changing weather conditions can cause rapid fluctuations in the water level, with flows ranging from 1,000 to over 50,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Be prepared for severe weather, including strong winds, rain and snow.
There is no water-level gauge on the upper Owyhee River in Idaho or Nevada. Generally, the best time to float the upper river is when the water level at the Rome, Oregon United States Geological Survey (USGS) gauge is between 1,000 and 6,000 cfs. Water levels can be found at the Rome USGS gauge.
April and May are usually the best months for trips on the North Fork and Deep Creek. The Rome USGS gauge cannot be used to accurately predict floatable levels on these two waterways. For optimal conditions, boat the Three Forks-to-Rome section when the Rome gauge is between 1,500 and 3,000 cfs. Below Rome, the recommended float levels are between 800 and 10,000 cfs.
Low water runs on the Owyhee River are possible in canoes or kayaks at flows under 800 cfs. Dragging boats over gravel bars and lining around rapids can be expected. These low water runs are usually possible from early June to mid-July, depending on snowpack and runoff.
River Forecast Center: (503) 261-9246
Idaho Department of Water Resources: (208) 327-7865
Rome Launch Site Ranger Station: (541) 586-2612
USGS gauge is at Rome