Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Lower Owyhee National Conservation Area (Proposed)

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 204-208.

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A forgotten wild wonderland.

Location: Malheur County, 20 miles southeast of Adrian

Size: 1,706 square miles (1,091,721 acres)

Terrain: Rugged river canyons, vast plateaus, and geologic wonders

Elevation Range: 2,320-6,522 feet

Managing Agency: Vale District BLM

Recreation Map: South Half Malheur Resource Area, North Half Jordan Resource Area, Vale District BLM

A national conservation area is needed to protect outstanding natural features, restore degraded landscapes, and manage increasing numbers of people. The Lower Owyhee National Conservation Area would include Birch Creek Ranch, Dry Creek watershed, Honeycombs, Leslie Gulch, Lower Owyhee Canyon, Mahogany Moun- tain, Middle Owyhee Canyon, Owyhee Reservoir, Owyhee Wilderness, Rome Cliffs, Succor Creek State Recreation Area and vicinity, and Twin Springs.

Much of the area is threatened by cyanide heap leach mining for gold, in- cluding at Grassy Mountain, the Honeycombs, and several other sites. Livestock are also a serious ecological irritant and an increasing recreational conflict.

Establishment of a national conservation area would be an important step in defining a new mission for the BLM. Livestock use would be fairly phased out, and a priority of the BLM would be to restore degraded ecosystems.

Birch Creek Ranch

BLM acquired this historic ranch and is now managing it as a river take-out point, campground, nascent resort, and historic site. Besides the impropriety of using too much fossil fuel to pump too much river water to keep too many acres of lawns green in the middle of August, the incessant droning of the pumps de- feats the intended relaxing effect.

Dry Creek Watershed

"The Dry Creek watershed is recognized by the American Fisheries Society for its importance both as a reference watershed (highest ecological integrity) and a genetic refuge," says the Oregon Biodiversity Project. [1]


Visiting the Honeycombs is like a trip to southern Utah. The geologic splendor is not surpassed in Oregon.

Leslie Gulch

Home to several rare plant species, including at least two found here and no- where else, Leslie Gulch is strikingly scenic. It is also a take-out for river trips and a boat ramp for motorized use of the reservoir. Increasing human use re- quires special management. The highly inappropriate cabin on a highly inap- propriate inholding of private land should be acquired by the BLM and then burned to the ground.

Lower Owyhee Canyon

Including 14 miles of the Owyhee River (below the dam), the area is a popular wildlife-viewing area and includes Snively Hot Spring.

Mahogany Mountain

The highest point in the Owyhee Uplands supports several of the ecoregion's largest blocks of mountain mahogany woodland, while Mahogany Creek to the south is a genetic refuge for numerous aquatic species. Unfortunately, many of these public values are presently in private ownership. Private holdings should be acquired.

Middle Owyhee Canyon

The unit includes about 66 miles of the free-flowing Owyhee River, including the incomparable The Hole in the Ground and unforgettable canyons.

Owyhee Reservoir

This area gets a great deal of recreational use, which could be better managed within a national conservation area under the management of the BLM. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation currently manages the reservoir shoreline.

Owyhee Wilderness

The national conservation area would add an additional layer of protection to a good portion of the proposed Owyhee Wilderness, including the Mahogany Moun- tain, Honeycombs, Dry Creek, Quartz Mountain, and Middle Owyhee units.

Rome Cliffs

Fantastic white chalky cliffs rise in the Rome Valley. Highly scenic, only half are in public ownership, and in a 1-mile-square checkerboard ownership at that. BLM plans to divest of these holdings.

Succor Creek State Recreation Area and Vicinity

The Succor Creek Canyon includes canyon walls the color of slate gray with min- eralized splotches of greens, yellows, oranges, and reds. Rock spires rise hun- dreds of feet in the air.

There is not a more forgotten and forlorn state park in Oregon. Far from the beaten path and receiving relatively little use, the 1,900-acre park suffers from a serious lack of maintenance and management. Additionally, the current boundaries do not include much of the geologic features in the Succor Creek water- shed. Two decades ago, a similar situation existed for three other Oregon Desert state parks. They are now the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Twin Springs

An oasis in some of the most remote country in Oregon, Twin Springs is the gateway to Dry Creek, which is even more remote.

The ecological values of the proposed national conservation area are well documented. The Oregon Biodiversity Project has recognized two conservation opportunity areas that overlap much of the proposed national conservation area (Middle Owyhee River and Dry Creek).

What to Do

There are six gateways to the proposed national conservation area.

Succor Creek Canyon

From Adrian, drive south on OR 201 and follow the signs to Succor Creek State Recreation Area.

Leslie Gulch

A high-quality graded road makes this trip almost too easy. Continue southerly through Succor Creek State Recreation Area to the turnoff to Leslie Gulch (21 miles after leaving OR 201). Continue westerly 13 miles to the end of the road.

Several short hikes are available, including Juniper Canyon to the north and Dago Gulch to the south. The latter has a relic stand of four-hundred-year-old ponderosa pines. If you want to see bighorn sheep close up, Leslie Gulch is the place, especially in winter.

Birch Creek Ranch

Returning to the intersection that would take you back through Succor Creek Canyon, instead turn southerly toward US 95. At US 95 drive south 10 miles (to a point approximately 8 miles north of Jordan Valley) and turn west on a good (when dry) county road. This is the same road that takes you to Coffeepot Crater (see Jordan Craters National Monument). Follow the signs to Birch Creek Ranch, which is roughly 30 miles from US 95.

The intersection at which you must choose to go to Birch Creek or Coffeepot Crater is near where about 6 miles of very steep road take you to Birch Creek Ranch. Drive very slowly and carefully going down in a low gear to prevent brake overheating. Going up, watch your engine temperature indicator and a keep a nose out for overheating. If you do start to overheat, park and let it cool. Ru ning with the heater at full blast helps keep the engine—though not you—cool. Don't run air-conditioning.

After Birch Creek, continue to Coffeepot Crater (Jordon Craters National Monument).

Coming back to the main road from having done Coffeepot Crater, go not east- erly but first continue westerly for 4.1 miles to an intersection. Turn north and proceed 0.4 mile to the canyon rim to take in one of the most incredible views in Oregon. The Hole in the Ground is where the Middle Owyhee Canyon widens to expose an exquisite palette of geologic color. In the right light it is incomparable.

Lower Owyhee Canyon

From Nyssa, go south on OR 201 and follow signs to Owyhee Reservoir and/or Lake [sicl Owyhee State Park. As you drive the scenic river canyon before reaching the dam, stop off for a dip in the Snively Hot Spring and watch some wildlife.

Continuing past the dam, the road ends at a boat ramp. If you do have a motorboat, it is the easiest way to see the Honeycombs.

Rome Cliffs

From downtown Rome, drive northwesterly to view the Rome Cliffs.

Twin Springs Vicinity

The entire proposed national conservation area west of the Owyhee River is much harder to get to. The easiest is the Twin Springs area. It has a very nice primitive campground, both because of the time it takes to reach it and because it has running water in an area where little water ever runs. It qualifies as Oregon's most remote campground.

From downtown Vale, drive westerly about 5 miles to an intersection. Turn south on the county road, which turns into BLM Road 7320. Follow 7320 to Twin Springs Campground in approximately 30 miles (the Vale District's Malheur Resource Area recreation map is almost required to find it). This road is better in summer and fall.

1 Oregon Biodiversity Project. Oregon's Living Landscape. Portland, Ore.: Defenders of Wildlife, 1998, 146.