Lower Owyhee Canyon: History, Recreation, & Conservation


Even if you haven’t been to the Owyhee yourself and have just heard about it, you’ve likely heard of the Lower Owyhee Canyon. Its name alone seems descriptive, but when you get actually looking at a map, you may find yourself scratching your head and thinking, “where exactly is this?” I asked myself the same thing, so you’re not alone. (If you don’t know anything about it, check out this cool video on YouTube. You’ll see for yourself how gorgeous it is.)


Luckily for us, FOTO’s founder Tim is something of a cartographer. In his spare time, he loves poring over Google Maps and delineating certain areas of the Owyhee for a variety of purposes. Not only does it help him get a better sense of what the landscape is like and what it’s experiencing, but it also supports his efforts to further protect the Owyhee by providing substantial, physical materials that he can point to in meetings with people like Senators Wyden and Merkley. That, and it’s really, really fun.


One of the Owyhee areas that he’s mapped extensively is the Lower Owyhee Canyon. Check it out below. Please keep in mind that these maps are works in progress and the original work of Tim Davis.

In this map, the blue line delineates the Owyhee River and serves as our main guide for where the Lower Canyon area starts and ends. The red overlay you see around the river is the area of critical environmental concern (ACEC). As BLM defines it, these are “areas within existing public lands that require special management to protect important and relevant values.” This will come into play later, so hold that thought.


History of the Lower Owyhee Canyon

Now that we know where we are in space, let’s chat a bit about the history of this area.


In 1928, the Bureau of Reclamation began construction of a dam on the Owyhee River. A short four years later, the Owyhee Dam stood over 400 feet tall and stretched more than 800 feet wide. You may have heard of the Hoover Dam, but what you may not have heard is this: the Owyhee Dam served as the prototype for the Hoover Dam. That should give you an idea of the importance of this dam and how successful its design was. To build the Owyhee Dam, a railroad was created to snake through the Lower Canyon area. That way, the transportation of supplies and workers through this rugged area was much smoother. That railroad is sure enough still there to this day, only now it’s a road for standard vehicles. The construction of the dam unfortunately sacrificed several small-scale ranch operations that took place in the area and even a small community known as Watson, though it did bring a lot of benefits to the nearby eastern Oregon communities.


This gargantuan structure—which was the tallest of its type at the time, though the record was broken two years later by the Lac du Chambon dam in France—is designed to contain nearly 1.2 million acre-feet (1.3 km3) of water. Let’s put that in terms that you and I as folks outside the dam-building and irrigation industry can understand: that is 391,021,712,400 gallons of water. You read that right—almost 400 billion gallons. So what do we do with this seemingly endless supply of water? Well, it’s primarily used to generate electricity and provide water for several irrigation districts in Oregon and our neighbors in Idaho. Hydropower is a mighty thing indeed, friends.


Recreation in the Lower Canyon

The Owyhee Dam injected money into the communities that surrounded it. And, with the Owyhee as beautiful as it is, you can probably imagine that the Lower Canyon became a key recreation area in the region since it had a lot more traffic heading its way. With Snively Hot Springs and a Watchable Wildlife Area at the northern end of it, it’s already off to a good start. You can camp, too; see the map below for Tim’s depiction of popular camping areas around the Owyhee River. Please note that none of these campgrounds are official campsites, just places that people like to set up shop (or tent, as it were).

In 1990, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) introduced a species of German brown trout into the river just below the dam, which really sparked recreation in the area (although most biologists like myself are not fans of invasive species like this one or the cheatgrass that we discussed in our blog post on sagebrush). The late 1990s brought sportsman magazines, fishing shows, and other praise to the area, thanks to ODFW’s efforts. There are places to hike throughout, though many of them are social trails, meaning that hikers like you and me have established them, not the BLM. One such trail heads up to Deer Butte, which we visited this past weekend (see the photos below). We’re hosting an Earth Day hike up to Pinnacle Point, so head over to our Eventbrite to sign up if you haven’t already, and you can see the Lower Owyhee Canyon’s glory for yourself.

The Lower Canyon has tons of recreational options beyond those mentioned here, too. Our friends at the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) put together an entire website, Owyhee Canyonlands, on recreation options in the Oregon Owyhee, many of which are available in this particular area. You can fish and hike like I mentioned before, but you can also do rafting and more. The Owyhee Canyonlands site even gives you directions on how to get to specific places, since a lot of them are remote and therefore not available via search on Google Maps.


Conservation of the Lower Owyhee Canyon

Where does FOTO come in, you ask? Well, our main goal is to get people out into the Owyhee and enjoying their own backyard. After all, public lands like the Owyhee are for us all to enjoy. It’s also our responsibility as a community to take care of them as best we can.


Remember the concept of ACEC that I mentioned earlier? With more recreation comes more traffic, and with more traffic comes more environmental impact. Following leave no trace ethics and respecting the landscape by staying on the roads and paths as best you can certainly helps, and you should always use these practices on any public land you’re on. That being said, a high amount of foot and vehicle traffic means that more concrete regulations could give the Lower Canyon a better chance of staying wild like the rest of the Owyhee. That’s why Friends of the Owyhee has plans to help maintain and protect the Lower Canyon in the near future... so stay tuned for new developments.


Is the Lower Owyhee Canyon one of your recreation spots? If so, I’d love to hear more about your experience. You can get in touch with me at katalinp@owyheefriends.org.

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