Trip Report: Spring Rafting the Owyhee River

  back to blog

For tranquility and adventure, raft eastern Oregon’s Owyhee River in the early season to catch the spring runoff and beat the crowds.

Embarking on an early-season rafting trip down the Owyhee River in Oregon is not just an adventure; it’s an experience that bonds you with nature, history, and the thrill of navigating one of the most beautiful and remote rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Located in the remote high desert of eastern Oregon, the Owyhee promises a unique wilderness experience, especially during the spring months, when you’ll have the opportunity to catch the limited snowmelt flows and beat the rush of warm-weather boaters.

Our crew headed into the first canyon of the trip, Rhyolite Canyon, named for its rhyolite igneous rock formations.


In March, a few members of our team at Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe in Bend, Oregon, made the journey. Here’s a glimpse into our adventure and why you should consider making this trip your next white water boating adventure.

A River Steeped in History

Before diving in, it’s worth noting the rich history of the Owyhee River. Its name originates from a poignant episode involving a group of fur trappers in the early 19th century. In 1819, a party, possibly led by three Hawaiian men working under Donald Mackenzie for the North West Company, set out to explore the river and tap into its fur resources. These individuals, referred to as “Owyhee” men—a historical rendition of “Hawaiian”—met tragic fates, either disappearing or being killed in the area. This incident led to the river being named the “Owyhee” River in their memory, a tribute to these early Hawaiian trappers whose stories became entwined with the river’s history.

The spelling “Owyhee” has persisted, though it originally referred to the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii. The region also has a profound Native American heritage, with tribes such as the Shoshone, Paiute, and Bannock inhabiting the area for millennia. The 19th century saw the Oregon Trail passing through, leaving a legacy of wagon ruts and historic landmarks. The Lower Owyhee River played a role in the routes used by early explorers and fur trappers, like Peter Skene Ogden from the Hudson’s Bay Company, highlighting the area’s significance in the westward expansion. Additionally, the region has a storied ranching history, with operations dating back to the 19th century that still persist, underlining ranching’s enduring cultural significance in the area.

Solitude and Serenity on the Water

Our journey began with the striking solitude of the Owyhee. Surrounded by the untouched beauty of the high desert and the sheer cliffs of the Owyhee Canyon, we didn’t see a footprint or any other signs of recent use. Despite the quiet, the river was teeming with life! Wildlife sightings were abundant. During this time of year Sandhill Cranes fly through the area bellowing their unique call down the river and each river bend revealed another sighting of the vibrant ecosystems thriving in this rugged environment.

A view of the Owyhee River exiting Green Dragon Canyon in white water rafts.

Exiting Green Dragon Canyon as we head into the more open areas of the Lower Owyhee, you can see the low snowline level.


Camping along the Owyhee River was a trip highlight! Setting camp along the riverbanks, we were spoiled for choice with prime spots offering breathtaking views under the starlit sky and the best groover locations. The evenings were spent around campfires sharing stories and soaking in the hot springs found along the river, rejuvenating our spirits and bodies for the days of paddling ahead.

Navigating the Challenges

The adventure wasn’t without its trials. From the unpredictable weather, requiring us to adapt quickly to changing conditions, to the challenging drive out with its muddy roads and creek crossings, each obstacle was a testament to the wildness of the early season on the Owyhee.

The weather this time of year is variable to say the least. We experienced hot mornings while packing boats shirtless, then layering with down jackets and rain gear during a hail storm on the same day. It pays to come prepared for everything on the Owyhee, so pack it all! Consider bringing swim suits for the hot springs, shorts and sun hoodies for warmer days, down jackets and thick boots for cooler nights, and immersion equipment for the extremely cold water. On late season Owyhee trips it’s not uncommon to swim in the river all day. However, dressing for cold-water immersion in the spring, despite the air temperature, is highly recommended.

Birch Creek Ranch Road from the Owyhee River take out.

You can always count on a rough ride from the Birch Creek Ranch takeout. We made it safely this time, but we’ve broken axles and trailers on multiple trips!


The road from Birch Creek leading out of the Owyhee was rough and muddy with multiple deep creek crossings. This requires a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle and ideally a buddy to pull you out of the mud, which is almost guaranteed.

Gear Up at Tumalo Creek to Embark on Your Own Owyhee Adventure

Our early season rafting trip was more than just a journey; it was a profound experience that reconnected us with nature and each other. The Owyhee River, with its historical echoes and natural wonders, waits to offer you the same unforgettable adventure. Whether you’re looking for solitude, thrill, or simply a break from the ordinary, the Owyhee and Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe have everything you need for an extraordinary river rafting experience. We offer a wide selection of rafting equipment and early-season rentals, ensuring you’re fully equipped to tackle the river’s challenges and enjoy its offerings before the crowds set in.

Contact Tumalo Creek for more info.

Rafting Oregon's Owyhee River with a dog.

Tumalo Creek has all the gear you need for your river adventures, but it’s BYO dog!