Owyhee River

The Owyhee River is a tributary of the Snake River located in northern Nevada, southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon in the United States. It is 280 miles (450 km) long.[2][5] The river's drainage basin is 11,049 square miles (28,620 km2) in area, one of the largest subbasins of the Columbia Basin.[6] The mean annual discharge is 995 cubic feet per second (28.2 m3/s), with a maximum of 50,000 cu ft/s (1,400 m3/s) recorded in 1993 and a minimum of 42 cu ft/s (1.2 m3/s) in 1954.[7]

Owyhee River
The Owyhee River
Map of the Owyhee River watershed
CountryUnited States
StateNevada, Idaho, Oregon
CityRome, Oregon
Physical characteristics
SourceNear Wild Horse
  locationElko County, Nevada
  coordinates41°30′17″N 115°44′30″W[1]
  elevation6,860 ft (2,090 m)
MouthSnake River
Canyon County, Idaho/Malheur County, Oregon
43°48′46″N 117°01′32″W[1]
2,185 ft (666 m)[1]
Length280 mi (450 km)[2]
Basin size11,049 sq mi (28,620 km2)
  locationOwyhee, OR, 1 mi (1.6 km) from the mouth[3]
  average1,146 cu ft/s (32.5 m3/s)[4]
  minimum3.2 cu ft/s (0.091 m3/s)
  maximum29,000 cu ft/s (820 m3/s)
DesignatedMarch 30, 2009

The Owyhee drains a remote area of the arid plateau region immediately north of the Great Basin, rising in northeastern Nevada and flowing generally northward near the Oregon-Idaho border to the Snake River. Its watershed is very sparsely populated. The Owyhee River and its tributaries flow through the Owyhee Plateau, cutting deep canyons, often with vertical walls and in some places over 1,000 feet (300 m) deep.[7]


The source of the Owyhee River is in northeastern Nevada, in northern Elko County, approximately 50 miles (80 km) north of the city of Elko. It flows north along the east side of the Independence Mountains of Nevada, passing through Wild Horse Reservoir and then cutting northeast past the north end of the range. The river runs through the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and then past the communities of Mountain City and Owyhee in the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. It then enters southwestern Idaho, flowing northwest for approximately 50 miles (80 km) across the southwest corner of the state through Owyhee County. It is then joined by the South Fork Owyhee River from the south, approximately 10 miles (16 km) east of the Oregon border. The main tributary of the South Fork is the Little Owyhee River.[8]

The Owyhee River then enters extreme southeast Oregon in southern Malheur County, generally flowing north in a zigzag course west of the Idaho border. It merges with the West Little Owyhee River[9] from the south, then receives the Middle Fork Owyhee River[10] and North Fork Owyhee River[11] from the east at a location known as "Three Forks." It then passes through the Owyhee Canyon between Big Grassy Mountain and Whitehouse Butte, then turns north, flowing east of Burns Junction and then west of Mahogany Mountain. In this area the Owyhee River receives the tributaries of Jordan Creek, Rattlesnake Creek, and Crooked Creek.

The Owyhee River enters the Snake River from the west on the Oregon–Idaho border approximately 5 miles (8 km) south of Nyssa, Oregon, and 2 miles (3 km) south of the mouth of the Boise River. The final stretch of the river, below Owyhee Dam, emerges from the Owyhee Plateau and enters the Snake River Plain.

River modifications

In northern Malheur County, approximately 20 miles (32 km) upstream from its mouth on the Snake, the Owyhee River is impounded by the Owyhee Dam, creating the serpentine Lake Owyhee, approximately 52 miles (84 km) long. The dam was constructed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation primarily to provide irrigation for the agricultural region in southeast Oregon and southwest Idaho, onions and hops are the staple crops in this region. Lake Owyhee State Park and scenic Leslie Gulch are along the eastern shore of the reservoir. Owyhee Dam was built in 1933 and eliminated anadromous fish such as salmon from the Owyhee River basin.[7]



Coordinate[12]USGS Map
43.8126614°N 117.0254361°W / 43.8126614; -117.0254361 (Owyhee River gnis point 1 (mouth))Owyhee
43.7865487°N 117.1262750°W / 43.7865487; -117.1262750 (Owyhee River gnis point 2)Mitchell Butte
43.7496036°N 117.1434973°W / 43.7496036; -117.1434973 (Owyhee River gnis point 3)Owyhee Dam
43.6743252°N 117.2512786°W / 43.6743252; -117.2512786 (Owyhee River gnis point 4)Grassy Mountain
43.6246036°N 117.2568323°W / 43.6246036; -117.2568323 (Owyhee River gnis point 5)The Elbow
43.4996051°N 117.3423867°W / 43.4996051; -117.3423867 (Owyhee River gnis point 6)Pelican Point
43.3746025°N 117.3146048°W / 43.3746025; -117.3146048 (Owyhee River gnis point 7)Rooster Comb
43.3004347°N 117.3762727°W / 43.3004347; -117.3762727 (Owyhee River gnis point 8)Diamond Butte
43.2496012°N 117.4884989°W / 43.2496012; -117.4884989 (Owyhee River gnis point 9)Jordan Craters North
43.2151566°N 117.5012757°W / 43.2151566; -117.5012757 (Owyhee River gnis point 10)The Hole in the Ground
43.1246008°N 117.7046115°W / 43.1246008; -117.7046115 (Owyhee River gnis point 11)Lambert Rocks
42.9996001°N 117.7315520°W / 42.9996001; -117.7315520 (Owyhee River gnis point 12)Owyhee Butte
42.8748786°N 117.6818245°W / 42.8748786; -117.6818245 (Owyhee River gnis point 13)Rome
42.8440452°N 117.6257109°W / 42.8440452; -117.6257109 (Owyhee River gnis point 14)Scott Reservoir
42.7496000°N 117.4101478°W / 42.7496000; -117.4101478 (Owyhee River gnis point 15)Indian Fort
42.7493221°N 117.3757025°W / 42.7493221; -117.3757025 (Owyhee River gnis point 16)Skull Creek
42.6490446°N 117.2506988°W / 42.6490446; -117.2506988 (Owyhee River gnis point 17)Whitehorse Butte
42.6248782°N 117.2315315°W / 42.6248782; -117.2315315 (Owyhee River gnis point 18)Three Forks
42.4996015°N 117.2140303°W / 42.4996015; -117.2140303 (Owyhee River gnis point 19)Drummond Basin
42.4034926°N 117.1256921°W / 42.4034926; -117.1256921 (Owyhee River gnis point 20)Deacon Crossing
42.3748825°N 117.0718011°W / 42.3748825; -117.0718011 (Owyhee River gnis point 21)Beaver Charlie Breaks
42.3126624°N 117.0004087°W / 42.3126624; -117.0004087 (Owyhee River gnis point 22)Beaver Charlie Breaks
42.2548880°N 116.8751257°W / 42.2548880; -116.8751257 (Owyhee River gnis point 23)Bull Basin Camp
42.2493344°N 116.7476217°W / 42.2493344; -116.7476217 (Owyhee River gnis point 24)Piute Basin West
42.2504473°N 116.6253968°W / 42.2504473; -116.6253968 (Owyhee River gnis point 25)Brace Flat
41.5046318°N 115.7417442°W / 41.5046318; -115.7417442 (Owyhee River gnis point 26 (source))Wagon Springs

The watershed of the river was part of region inhabited by the Shoshone and Bannock Indians. The name of the river is from the older spelling of "Hawaii."[13] It was named for three Hawaiian trappers, in the employ of the North West Company, who were sent to explore the uncharted river. They failed to return to the rendezvous near the Boise River and were never seen again. Due to this the river and its region were named "Owyhee."[7]

About one-third of the men with Donald MacKenzie's Snake Country Expeditions of 1819–20 were Hawaiians, commonly called "Kanakas" or "Sandwich Islanders" in those days, with "Owyhee" being a standard period spelling of the proper Hawaiian language name for the islands, hawai'i, which then was otherwise unused in English. The three Kanakas were detached to trap on the river in 1819 and were probably killed by Indians that year. It was not until the spring or early summer of 1820 that MacKenzie learned the news of their deaths (probably at the hands of men belonging to a band of Bannocks led by a chief named The Horse). Indians led other trappers to the site, but only one skeleton was located. The earliest surviving record of the name is found on a map dating to 1825, drawn by William Kittson (who was previously with Mackenzie in 1819-1820, and then with Peter Skene Ogden in 1825), on which he notes "Owhyhee River" [his spelling]. Journal entries in 1826 by Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trapper who led subsequent Snake Country Expeditions for the Hudson's Bay Company refer to the river primarily as the "Sandwich Island River," but also as "S.I. River," "River Owyhee" and "Owyhee River."[14]


The discovery of gold and silver in the region in 1863 resulted in a temporary influx of miners and the establishment of mining camps, most of which have long since disappeared. The initial discovery was along Jordan Creek, and mining activity rapidly spread through the Owyhee watershed. This activity involved not only placer operations, but also underground mines and mills, resulting in a prolonged history of mining in the region.[7] This invasion of Native American territory set off the 1864–68 Snake War.

Death of Sacagawea's son

In 1866 the son of Sacagawea, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, died near Jordan Valley after catching a chill upon crossing the Owyhee en route from California to new gold strikes in Montana (one of the gold strikes, near Bannack, Montana, was just a few miles from where he had traveled as a toddler with his mother in the company of William Clark). After almost a century of neglect, his grave is now well marked, off Highway 95, near Danner at 42°57′07.1″N 117°20′21.4″W.

Protected areas

In 1984, the United States Congress designated 120 miles (193 km) of the river as Owyhee Wild and Scenic River under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 to preserve the river in its free-flowing condition. Part of the designation includes the section of the river downstream from the Owyhee Dam, where the river flows through a remote section of deeply incised canyons surrounded by high canyon rims that are habitat for mountain lion, bobcat, Mule Deer, California Bighorn Sheep, and a large variety of raptors.

The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 designated 323,274 acres (130,824 ha) on and around the Owyhee River in Idaho as wilderness.[15] The bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama on March 30, 2009.[16] The new wilderness areas are:

After negotiations involving Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, the Owyhee Act introduced in November 2019. It would preserve 1 million acres of Owyhee canyonlands as wilderness, while calling for improvements to loop roads to bring in visitors. It also designated 14.7 miles of the river for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It was supported by both ranchers and conservationists, as well as the Northwest Sport Fishing Association.[17]

See also


  1. "Owyhee River". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. November 28, 1980. Retrieved January 11, 2011.
  2. Owyhee River, accessed November 3, 2019
  3. "USGS Gage #13184000 on the Owyhee River at Owyhee, OR". National Water Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. 1890–1986. Retrieved 2012-11-25.
  4. "USGS Gage #13184000 on the Owyhee River at Owyhee, OR". National Water Information System. U.S. Geological Survey. 1890–1986. Retrieved 2012-11-25.
  5. "Table of Tributary Rivers". snakeriverwaterkeeper.org. Retrieved 3 November 2019.
  6. Willamette Subbasin Plan, Northwest Power and Conservation Council
  7. Owyhee Subbasin Plan, Northwest Power and Conservation Council
  8. U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Little Owyhee River
  9. U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: West Little Owyhee River
  10. U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Middle Fork Owyhee River
  11. U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: North Fork Owyhee River
  12. U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Owyhee River
  13. Reed, Ione (December 25, 1971). "What, Indeed, Is in a Name?". Eugene Register-Guard. p. 8. Retrieved 30 April 2015.
  14. See Alexander Ross's Fur Hunters of the Far West, the Journals of Peter Skene Ogden and the Kittson map published with Ogden's journals by the Hudson's Bay Records Society.
  15. "Resources". Owyhee Initiative. January 24, 2011. Retrieved March 2, 2011.
  16. "Obama signs public lands reform bill". CNN. March 30, 2009. Archived from the original on March 31, 2009. Retrieved March 30, 2009.
  17. https://www.seattlepi.com/local/politics/article/Senators-seek-to-protect-Owyhee-River-Grand-14821069.php
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