Owyhee Canyon — Boise to Jordan Valley

Owyhee Country

Owyhee Country

The Basque Hotel, not to be missed. You simply haven’t lived, until you have been at the Basque Hotel. And I lay here late at night, so happy to be in a comfortable bed.  Where is the Basque Hotel you ask? France or Spain, in the Pyrenees?  No actually, it’s in the town of Jordan Valley (JV), in the most eastern part of Oregon, just a few miles from the Idaho border. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Dan and I had decided last month to explore this part of Oregon. He had been here briefly a few years back, and I have never been here. We are both explorers and adventurers, in much the same style, or spirit, if you will. And having an awesome time together was a foregone conclusion.

Oregon is such a big state, it is actually easier to access the eastern side of Oregon from Boise, Idaho. So we took a 9 am flight and set foot in Boise an hour later. We picked up our rental car, which was actually a pick-up truck, which we named Big Red. Some of the terrain we anticipated traveling on is pretty rugged, and a high clearance vehicle was going to give us access we wanted to these remote regions.

Off we went in Big Red to Whole Foods to stock up for a few days’ worth of ingredients. As you would expect rural Oregon has little in the way of great food, and we decided we would do a version of upscale camping. I was cognizant of not getting too much, as we would not be able to bring it back on the plane.

It’s 1 pm (local time) and we are ready to hit the road. In his research Dan discovered Owyhee Uplands National Back Country Byway (we will just call it the Byway from here on out!) that goes south of Boise and travels for about 100 miles to Jordan Valley, mostly in Idaho and mostly unpaved. Furthermore, about an hour before JV the Byway hits the turn-off to the Three Forks of the Owyhee River, which was a place we wanted to explore. So, at the expense of a more efficient drive to JV, we opted for the Byway. And honestly, I am SO happy we did. While it could all be classified as high desert, there was tremendous variation in terrain and mineralization and vegetation. Traveling the Byway turned out to be an amazing journey from the bed of ancient Lake Idaho; through the Mountain Mahogany upland forest; across rolling prairies that could have easily been somewhere in Africa if there had been a few giraffes strolling around; over the crest into Juniper forests and the Owyhee drainage; and down to the rivers.

Me and Big Red

Me and Big Red

The first place we stopped was Oolite Interpretive Trail, which is on the shores of ancient Lake Idaho. Sand that became calcified formed what looked like large sand granules and through sedimentation, and formed solid rock. With changes in the lake beds and wind erosion, the result was these limestone and oolite formations in unusual forms on the higher ground. We could look at the forms and see skulls or animals or mushrooms, and I bet if you looked hard enough, you could find whatever you want. It was hot, we trekked around for a while and got up close and personal with the oolite sculptures and then moseyed on back to the truck.

Of course today Idaho Lake is long gone. In its day it covered parts of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, and California. At some point thousands of years ago there were geological movements and it burst out of its bounds and drained through a notch that made what is today called Hells Canyon of the Snake River.

Jordan Valley

Oolite Formations on the Scenic Byway

The hours ticked by, and we seemed to be both making progress driving, but also stopping to smell the roses, or desert wildflowers, if you will. There were streams, large cottonwood trees, plants related to sunflowers, a patch of purple and white wild irises, cattle, animal tracks, cloud formations, views into watersheds, and canyon vistas- that all warranted stopping and wandering. We had seen only a few other vehicles since we hit the Byway and we realized that we were definitely off the beaten track.

Shortly before entering Oregon, we arrived at the turnoff for Three Forks so we took this detour. The road was OK but rutted and Dan commented about wanting to be back to the Byway by dark. The last 1.4 miles was really tough, and the road was curvy and completely rutted, not to mention descending steeply from the high prairie to the river canyon. As in, using the word “road” is a liberal use of the term. But hey, this is what the pick-up was for. We parked and walked to see “Three Forks” which is the confluence of the North Fork, Middle Fork and the Owyhee River. The scenery that surrounded the place was dramatic — rust colored canyons, with interesting columnar shapes, and in some spots, moss was growing so the rocks had shades of green and white on them. The weather was turning grey and there was an almost ethereal feeling in the air. The confluence itself was a bit anticlimactic, as 2 of the forks are very small. Had it been more dramatic, we may have taken it in more fully, and strolled around for a bit and headed back uphill.

Jordan Valley

Owyhee River Canyon — Three Forks Confluence

Ironically, since it wasn’t, we wanted to get the most from our visit and decided to walk 2.1 miles to the hot springs upriver. This involved crossing the river, and climbing the bank through some willows to get into the tall grasses. The grasses and reeds were almost as tall as we were, and we simply had to whack our way through. At some point, we found a trail, but the entire trail, through sagebrush and craggily rocks required paying attention at every moment. It would have been easy to get off the trail. The weather got a bit stormy but we forged ahead. We discussed that neither of us brought a flashlight because we weren’t camping. This is humorous, since we are such well-prepared people and we actually discussed our packing lists prior to the trip. We weren’t sure what time it was going to get dark, since we jumped 1 time zone ahead. My best guess was that it would be dark by 10pm.

The short story is, starting the hike at 7:15pm, with no flashlight, in blustery weather was incredibly adventurous or stupid, depending on your perspective. In any case, the inclement weather actually passed quickly though and it was after 8:30 when we reached the end of the trail, which required forging the river again, to get the waterfalls, which the hot springs fed. We saw the waterfall and it rushed freely and strongly and we were determined to have a hot soak after our bushwhacking trip.

I went in the water first to scope out a path. I didn’t realize it would be so deep and when I couldn’t stand any longer, I swam with one arm, holding my purse out of the water with my other arm, since it had my guidebook and my phone in it. Dan followed a few minutes later. We didn’t see the trail and so we simply made our own trail across two other smaller hot waterfalls- it was fun!

Hot Waterfall as Seen from across the Owyhee River

Hot Waterfall as Seen from across the Owyhee River

When we arrived at the pool, we knew it was totally worth it. I know Dan is as level headed as they come, and I was inwardly concerned that he might have been just going along with this craziness just to keep up with me. In the hot springs, I asked him if he really wanted to do this, or was he just trying to impress me. With a horrid expression on his face, he started to back away from me and said he would only do this because he wanted to. I said “OK, well, only a crazy person would do this, and I didn’t think you were crazy, but I am so relieved to find out you actually are.”

We floated around in the pool, which is an active pool, with a river of hot water running through it, taking in all the scenery. The carved canyons above and around us, the birds singing their evening songs, and the waterfall that cascaded out of our pool, to feed the river were nothing short of magnificent. It simply couldn’t get much better than this. Unfortunately at the same time we were both keenly aware that it was starting to get dark and that it had taken us 75 minutes to get there. We reluctantly pulled ourselves out of the springs, acknowledging that to see the world from unusual vantage points, we need to sometimes get uncomfortable (this is my motto and mantra).

The Magical Tubs and Accompanying Vista

The Magical Tubs and Accompanying Vista

We agreed to book it on the way back and expected we could shave 15 minutes off the hike this way. The trek back was truly a race against the clock. It quickly went from light, to dusk to twilight. It became harder to see where we were placing our feet, which at some points was dangerous because the ground was craggily. And once we hit the tall grass, it became almost impossible to even find the path. I never did worry about not making it back to the car, but the degree of the adventure was still an unknown. The last sliver of light was in the sky and Dan saw the truck in the distance. We picked up the pace even more and in doing so, I went right through a patch of stinging nettles. Nettles is a great teacher about paying attention and I heard her message loud and clear. We looked for a clearing in the willow trees that lined the bank, and climbed down the steep bank and crossed the river our final time. A sense of relief washed over me as I knew we could make it back to the truck and back home with ease.

We hopped in the truck and headed up the 1.4 mile hill. About a mile up, the Big Red got stuck and simply wouldn’t move forward. Pressing on the gas only made it spin its wheels. A handful of attempts were made and whatever we were caught on or in, simply wouldn’t give. At this point, I truly was scared and I could feel Dan’s fear as well. Both of us are smart enough to not mention that we were shitting bricks inside, but I knew we were independently thinking “I don’t want to end life by turning over in a truck on a cliff.”

I suggested he put the emergency brake on and we get out and evaluate the situation. I saw that the rear passenger tire was caught on a rock and raised up, didn’t have enough ground around it to gain traction. Since I knew moving forward wasn’t going to work, I suggested going in reverse far enough to cut the sharp corner a bit wider. I will admit, I was too scared to get back in the truck and so I offered to “direct traffic.” Like a good supervisor, I stood a distance away from the scene, and waved my arms and called out instructions. Dan was masterful and kept his cool, and slowly and expertly maneuvered the truck off the rock, and get it in the position I felt we were safe to proceed.

Once he cut the turn and built up some momentum, I just called to him to keep going and I would follow on foot. I chased the truck up the hill a bit, and this reminded me of when I was in Baja on a hippie bus with 20 people. The bus driver was carrying too much weight to get up the rocky hill and some of us offered to get out and get the rest of the way on foot. At some safer point, Dan stopped, let me in, and we both let out a big sigh of relief, and acknowledged how freaked out we really were. The next hour or so was relatively uneventful, although we clearly missed our target of getting back to the main road by dark. Nevertheless, by 11:45, we had reached JV and The Basque Hotel.

The hotel was owned by and right next to Jim’s Shell, an all-purpose Shell station for gas, tires, parts, and car repair. Dan had called them earlier just to let them know we would arrive late, and inquire about what time they closed- and the staff of the hotel picks up the phone and proudly states with a country cowboy twang “Shell.” I walked in and found the mechanic fixing cars and found it humorous that in a town so small you could blink an eye and miss it, that the mechanic shop was open 24/7.

He was checking us in and I let him know “We almost died getting here, seriously. Our truck got stuck leaving Three Forks, and we were afraid of flipping it, heading over a cliff. But we had heard and read so many incredible things about The Basque Hotel, that we weren’t willing to die before experiencing it for ourselves.” I think the attendant thought we were rather strange- 2 bedraggled folks showing up at midnight talking nonsense- but on the other hand, perhaps he’s seen his fair share of our types through the years.

In reality, on TripAdvisor, all the reviews said something to the effect of “1970’s decor for 2015 prices- that’s what happens when there’s no competition.” Honestly the room wasn’t as cheesy or funky as I had anticipated. Sure, the flooring resembles something I grew up with, but it was clean and spacious and the shower pressure was very good.

Key to Our Gas Station-Hotel-General Store (all in one)

Key to Our Gas Station-Hotel-General Store (all in one)

It was after midnight, and I got cracking on dinner. In what seemed like no time, we were sitting down at the table with our refreshing iced lemon water, sautéed veggies, and Copper River salmon in a lemon dill sauce. The dinner was relaxing, engaging, and highly nourishing. Since it was after 1am, we promised to do the dishes in the morning and took a few minutes to simply sit and absorb all that we had done for the day.

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