Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Three Forks of the Owyhee River

Guest post by Jason Talbot, from his recent hiking and birding adventures in eastern Oregon...

What a magical place! The area is named Three Forks because the north fork and middle forks of the Owyhee come together and flow into the main fork of the Owyhee River. It is used mostly as an access point for floaters but also sees a few fishermen. It is also known for one of the best hot springs in the northwest. The hike to the hot springs on the Owyhee River the first evening combined with the hike along the middle fork and through its slot canyon the next day is one of my favorites. The scenery is spectacular!

Three Forks is well known to desert rats but the middle fork seems to be more of a secret. I've never read about it in any hiking guide and I just happened to stumble across it while researching the area. This might be due to the fact that most of the area is private with parcels of BLM scattered throughout. The hot springs are on unposted private property and within the Wild and Scenic River corridor. The middle fork is also on private property and I saw one “no trespassing” sign on a gate three miles from the entrance to the slot but nowhere else so I'd check before you go.
Three Forks Hot Springs
Three Forks is about 30 miles south of Jordan Valley, Oregon. I traveled south from Jordan Valley on the Owyhee Backcountry Byway until I came to Fenwick Ranch Road. The last 14 miles on this decent road is fine as long as it’s dry. The last 1.5 miles into the canyon is steep and would have to be dry for me to attempt coming back up out of the canyon. BLM recommends four-wheel drive but I was comfortable in my two-wheel drive truck. I would not take a car.

There are several places to camp near three forks even though there are no designated campsites. There is a pit toilet but bring your own drinking water. Notice the old road coming down the opposite side of the canyon. It is amazing what our forefathers accomplished. Can you imagine taking a team of horses down that thing?

On the drive out I saw a Loggerhead Shrike which is always a treat. It is known as the “Butcher Bird” because it impales its prey such as lizards and insects on thorns or barbed wire before eating it. It doesn't have talons of the larger birds of prey. I also saw Sage Thrashers,Willet, Lark Sparrows, and a Swainson’s Hawk which I don't see very often along with a Coyote.
Loggerhead Shrike – I took this photo with my camera through a pair of binoculars
The view of Three Forks launch site from the rim before descending into the canyon (above)
The view of the north fork (foreground) and middle fork from the rim – notice the beginning of the middle fork slot.
I left my office in Boise, ID around 2:00pm and arrived close to 6:00pm. It’s about a three hour drive but I took my time checking out the new country. My plan that evening was to check out the hot springs. There is a jeep trail from Three Forks to the hot spring which is 3 miles but I drove a portion of that and parked just before crossing the middle fork because I like my truck. There is a bridge over the north fork but not the middle fork which rarely needs one.

I followed the jeep trail over to the hot springs to find a delightful setting. Several hot springs on both sides of the river but one really stood out. I was amazed by how awesome it was. You first have to cross the river when the river is low enough. This is a low water year so I was able to cross in May in waist deep slow moving water. You are then greeted by a rope to help you climb up to two very nice clear, clean flowing pools. One of the pools is three feet deep and about 95 degrees. It is a quaint setting overlooking the Owyhee river canyon and its waterfalls. There is an old road that comes down to the spring lined by stacked boulders in the steep sections - another masterful feat of architecture that added to the experience. I had the company of an American Dipper that took a dip in the hot spring not ten feet away.

A view of the Owyhee River on my hike to the hot springs.
Three Forks Hot Springs
Views from the hot spring including this American Dipper that kept me company while diving for aquatic insects.
I hiked back to the truck on a beautiful evening and decided to hike 100 yards down the road to the north fork with the remaining half hour of light that I had. I hiked up as far as I could without getting my feet wet. I sat on a cliff above the water and soaked it all in.

Speaking of being soaked, while I was sitting there I noticed some ripples in the water below me. I looked up stream and soon found the source. A Beaver made its way downstream just below me not having the faintest idea that I was ten feet above it. If it would have smacked its tail like they do as a distress signal, I’d be soaked. I continued on the rock until it got dark wondering what creatures were making many of the sounds in the canyon. I recognized the swallows, bats and a very large toad but many sounds escaped me.

The north fork Owyhee River as seen from the bridge.
I rolled out my sleeping bag on the mattress when I got back to the truck. As it got dark, and I mean real dark away from any city lights, I gazed into the heavens seeing ten times the amount of stars I see from my backyard. The Milky Way showed bright as I fell asleep to the loud chorus of frogs and the hoot of a Long-eared Owl in the thicket next to the stream.

Day 2 – Middle Fork of the Owyhee River

Today is the day that I stepped inside a different world seldom visited or known by man. A place that I found while researching a photo I had seen on the internet. A place so beautiful, that it even caught me off-guard even after seeing a couple of my favorite photos that I found to be from this area. This is a section of river that is so spectacular that it will rival the best in any national park plus you get the solitude. Welcome to the Middle Fork of the Owyhee River – the Owyhee Canyonlands at their best!
I began my journey by hiking on the same jeep trail I took to the hot springs. When I got to the saddle I hiked cross-country to the top of the plateau and then upriver three miles to the start of the canyon. The next mile of canyon from the mouth to just past Pole Creek is one of the most breathtaking areas I’ve been. The Rhyolite hoodoos lined the canyon forever. Flowers were blooming, the desert was greening and Violet-green Swallows were everywhere, including a Golden Eagle that lit nearby. A lone Antelope watched as I made my way along the rim as I peered down into the chasm trying to see the river. The pictures speak for themselves.

The confluence of Pole Creek with the Middle Fork Owyhee River
Near the location where I plummeted into the canyon (below)
As I made my way to the first major side canyon I found a way to penetrate the river below. You'll find a grassy steep side hill hat will take you all the way to the bottom through the spires. You'll notice a path at the bottom of the canyon that will take ou to the middle fork and the first place I entered the underworld.
Words cannot express how it feels to be alone in such a remote pristine canyon wading through water and looking up at the spires. The water was very cold but my body soon adapted as I made my way down through the canyon. American Dippers flew up and down the canyon whizzing by my head echoing their loud calls at this rare intruder. I hoped to get to Pole Creek but I knew that was a longshot because I wasn't going to wade through anything over my waist and I knew there were deep pools that I could not get by without swimming. It was just too risky being alone. I soon came to one of those deep pools a few hundred yards in so I turned around for the long journey back to the truck. The canyon really left an impression I will never forget.
By the time I made it back to the truck around 2pm I was worn out and I had an ankle that didn’t feel so well. I had brushed off 3 ticks along my journey including one I found back home. I took off my shoes, ate lunch and packed up with the expectation of driving out a different way to see the Owyhee River Overlook and Pillars of Rome near Rome, OR.

I found one of the photos I was looking for that inspired me to make the trip but the other photo still eluded me - but I knew where it was. It was the entrance into the canyon, three miles away. There were no shortcuts to get into the canyon on the return trip back to the truck like I had hoped. The thought kept crossing my mind that I didn’t finish what I set out to do. Six miles seemed like a long way under my current condition but that thought kept repeating itself that I wasn’t finished. It would make a twenty mile weekend if I decided to pursue the last leg.

I soon found myself lacing up my boots and shaking my head at what a fool I was. The hard work paid off and I was rewarded with the best photo of the trip. I entered through what I called the “guardian pillars” – a dramatic entrance into the canyon and photo I sought. The best photo of all, however, lie just upriver around the corner. All I can say is hard work pays off!

The “Guardian Pillars” as I called them and dramatic entrance into the slot canyon.
My favorite photo of the trip just past the entrance.
The pool that ended my journey!
It was a great end to an awesome trip! Maybe someday I'll return with somebody in the fall and try to make it to the Pole Creek confluence.

Here is a list of birds: May 2-3, 2013 (from Owyhee Backcountry byway to/around Three Forks):

Sage Thrasher Bushtit Say’s Phoebe Golden Eagle Kestrel Swainson’s Hawk Canyon Wren American Dipper Willet (reservoir) Western Kingbird Lark Sparrow Chipping Sparrow Savannah Sparrow Song Sparrow Cassin’s Vireo Black-billed Magpie Lazuli Bunting Yellow- Rumped Warbler Nashville Warbler Meadow Lark Horned Lark Mourning Dove Violet-green Swallows Belted Kingfisher Chukar Long-eared Owl Loggerhead Shrike Violet-green Swallows


  1. I loved this post - well written, nice photos and the Owyhee is a region I've long wanted to visit. I just did so, vicariously...

  2. Robert, this place is amazing! I loved your pictures and your story. You've made me wish I could go hiking someplace like this! I am green with envy and so happy for you. What an experience!

    1. Sorry Jason! I just realized that you were the one who wrote this post. I still loved it and you still made me jealous!

  3. Loved the post! Magical scenery - rock Shangri La!

  4. Fantastic post filled with great storytelling and awesome photographs!

  5. How cool to see the story of others visiting the Middle Fork and experience the same feeling as I had. I suspect it was my images that inspired him? I did wade the entire canyon and there is just one pool that's typically chest-deep and another couple that are about waist deep. My first trips out here took place in 2006. There's even some pretty large trout and crayfish in some of the pools!

  6. How cool to see others writing about this area and especially the Middle Fork! I first visited this canyon in 2006 and back then there was NOTHING on the internet about it, beta or photos. Perhaps it was my images that inspired Jason to make the journey? Special place indeed, there are others out there, waiting to be discovered...

  7. How cool to see the story of others visiting the Middle Fork and experience the same feeling as I had. I suspect it was my images that inspired him? I did wade the entire canyon and there is just one pool that's typically chest-deep and another couple that are about waist deep. My first trips out here took place in 2006. There's even some pretty large trout and crayfish in some of the pools!