A Remote River Odyssey - Rafting the Owyhee or Bruneau 

Why should I go rafting on the Owyhee or Bruneau Rivers you might ask?

To which I might respond, “Are you really up for the adventure?

The deserts of Southwestern Idaho and South Eastern Oregon are vast and uninhabited. Full of sand and sagebrush one might wonder what the allure is. All you need to do is look closer. These deserts hide endless wonders. From geologic marvels, to hidden oases, to spectacular sand dunes, one could spend a lifetime exploring these hidden secrets. 


Person rowing a red raft down the Bruneau River in Southwestern Idaho


As an avid rafter and kayaker, I have explored well over 100 sections of river all around the world. From New Zealand, to China, to Mexico, to the Western United States, I have explored countless beautiful river canyons. And yet, the Owyhee and Bruneau still intrigue me and stand apart as some of the most spectacular river canyons I have ever experienced. Furthermore, they offer a level of adventure that is lacking in many of the more popular western rivers. So here are my top 3 reasons for considering a trip on the Owyhee or Bruneau rivers. 


Drone shot of the Bruneau River canyon in Idaho at sunset



There are few places in the United States that capture a sense of adventure experienced by explorers of days past. Those of the likes of John Wesley Powell or Lewis and Clark. While we certainly have more technology and modern conveniences than they did, these deserts provide a place so rugged and remote, we start to understand the intrepid attitude of these great adventure seekers. 

The Bruneau for one provides an adventure just to access the river. We must choose one of two routes to get there. The first is the challenge of rafting the Jarbidge River, the headwaters of the Bruneau. This is typically done in 2-3 days. The Jarbidge is narrow and technical, to the point where some would call it a creek. It requires using small lightly loaded rafts, and expert maneuvering. Furthermore, there are 2 class V-V+ rapids that require a combination of portaging and lining boats to navigate. They are too dangerous and technical for most people to consider rafting or kayaking them. So we must take all the gear we bring, and either carry it around these rapids, or in some cases, we can use ropes tied to the rafts to float the rafts carefully among the boulders and steep drops, while all of our guests walk around the rapids. After successful navigation, we reach the start of the Bruneau river, where we face a new style of adventure. 


Off-roading truck going over large rocks on the way to the Bruneau River launch site


The second option to access the Bruneau is an adventurous off-road overlanding adventure. We often hire local transport with lifted vehicles made to handle the rugged conditions of these “roads.” This is both an adventure and a cultural experience, as for most of us, our lifestyles have greatly diverged from the people who live in this area. After hours of bumping down dirt roads less traveled and navigating mud and rocks through terrain reminiscent of the wild west, we reach the rim of the Bruneau Canyon.  At this point, we often choose to walk down to the river as the vehicles navigate the steep and narrow road down to the launch site. We rig our boats, and are ready to set off. 

While the Lower Owyhee has easy access, the rest of the sections require an equal amount of daring adventure to reach them. A key reason these rivers see few annual descents. 

The rivers themselves, the reason we came, aren’t short of adventure either. Every turn takes our breath away with a stunning gorge, a geologic unconformity, or wildlife, unaccustomed to seeing people. Desert environments are often described as harsh, and yet, these areas lend themselves to some incredible hiking. The explorations of various grottos and side canyons gets us imagining that we are the first people to ever visit these places. Occasionally, we can access a canyon overlook, and peer down into the proverbial crack in the earth. A canyon of mystery, that is invisible to all but those who explore their depths. 


Downstream shot of people floating the Owyhee River



The second reason to explore the Owyhee and Bruneau Canyonlands is for the spectacular geology. I will mostly let the photos do the talking here, but looking up at sheer walls of golden red rhyolite, or trying to decrypt the mysterious layers of the Lambert dome is something best experienced in person. The light dancing on the walls reveals new secrets and patterns at every hour of the day. Floating through calm stretches of river never bores here, where geologic intricacies capture the imagination in every nook, cranny, whirl, and fold. Float past sheer walls that dive down into the depths of the river like a castle wall into a moat. The depths and magnitude of these desert canyons is truly unimaginable until you are amongst them. 


Whitewater rafters posing for a photo on the Owyhee River in front of unique canyon geology


The geology is also largely responsible for the exciting whitewater in these areas. Hard rocks form gorges where the river is constricted. Combine this with rock fall, or washes, and you get exciting rapids such as Whistling Bird, Five Mile Rapids, or Montgomery. 


Rowing down the Owyhee River

ROW Adventures guide rowing through a Class IV rapid on the Owyhee River.


ROW Adventures guests smiling through the rapids of the Bruneau River

ROW Adventures guests experiencing the thrill of the rapids on the Bruneau River.


Aerial view of the Owyhee River

Expansive Owyhee River Canyon.


People (or lack thereof)

Like Edward Abbey, we come to these desert landscapes seeking solitude. The upper stretches of the Owyhee, like the E or S Forks especially, are some of the least trafficked multi-day rivers in the west. It is truly something special in today's world, to not only turn off your phone for a week, but to not even see another group of people except the ones you have chosen to adventure with. 


People camping gathered around a table laughing together


By getting away from the bustle and noise of the everyday world, we forge deeper connections with our fellow explorers. Many of the moments I cherish in my life are those spent with friends, new and old, in the depths of a river canyon that I have never experienced before. Setting into the unknown, opens our mind to new experiences and stronger bonds. We leave behind mechanical noise, and enjoy the quietude of trickling water and crackling camp fires. We share both silence and laughter, and they are equally important in creating friendships. 

Every section of the Owyhee, and the Bruneau offers something unique. Some have more intense whitewater, some have better hiking, others offer remoteness and a greater chance of solitude. Whatever kind of adventure you are looking for, it is sure to be found in this often overlooked wild area. These adventures are for the river connoisseur, the adamant adventurer, the seeker of paths less taken. They are truly unique river canyons, and should you be in need of a true old fashioned adventure, look no further.


Explore the Bruneau River

Explore the Owyhee River

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