William Sullivan Urges Owyhee Protection

Long considered a sage of Oregon's outdoors, William Sullivan has authored 18 books and regularly writes for newspapers about hiking throughout the state. Here, he shares his thoughts on a treasured Owyhee Canyonlands locale -- Chalk Basin -- including directions on how to get there and why he thinks it deserves more protection.

Oregon’s Bryce Canyon: Chalk Basin in the forgotten Owyhee Canyonlands

The colored pinnacles of Chalk Basin may be the most beautiful treasure hidden in eastern Oregon’s remote high desert. This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it’s worth wondering why such a spectacular, fragile place remains unprotected.

Chalk Basin is part of the Owyhee Canyonlands east of Burns. The trailhead I’m going to suggest is for most no day trip.

It’s not for the faint of heart, either, because there are no official paths. But the landscape you’ll discover will make you think you’ve taken a flight to the Australian outback. Or Tibet. Or Mars.

Or Utah. In Utah’s Bryce Canyon, a similarly colorful badlands of spires and rock “goblins” has been protected as a national park. Oregon’s Chalk Basin has been shelved by the Bureau of Land Management as a Wilderness Study Area since the 1980s. This year, a renewed effort is drawing attention to the area, urging Oregonians to support permanent protection.

Four percent of Oregon is currently protected as federally designated wilderness. This may seem like a lot until you consider that 15 percent of California is wilderness. Even Idaho has set aside 9 percent of its land.

The proposed Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness is seven times the size of the Three Sisters Wilderness. The proposal would add 2 percent to Oregon’s wilderness total in one whack.

The Owyhee River was named for Hawaii, although it bears little resemblance to that tropical isle. In the early 1800s the Hudson’s Bay Company was desperately trying to supply beaver pelts from remote parts of the West to make top hats for Londoners. The local Indians weren’t interested in killing beavers, so in 1819 the English company hired natives from what was then the Sandwich Islands.

After training Hawaiians in the art of trapping, the Hudson’s Bay officials sent two men to this desert river in far southeastern Oregon. Here they were promptly killed. In their memory the English dubbed the river “Owyhee,” using a nineteenth century spelling for “Hawaii.”

The badlands at Chalk Basin may look like the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Central Oregon. But the Painted Hills are made of ash from Cascade volcanoes. The geologic story at Chalk Basin is quite different.

The Snake River once flowed across southern Oregon to join the Klamath River. As mountains rose along that route to block the river, a huge “Lake Idaho” formed between Boise and Steens Mountain 5 million years ago. Another 3 million years passed before the lake finally spilled north to the Columbia River, carving Hells Canyon along the way. In the meantime, the shells of microscopic animals had built up layers of diatomaceous earth -- chalk -- in the lake. Since then, weathering and minerals have turned the soft, chalky deposits into a rainbow of yellows, reds, and whites.

You’ll also notice black basalt lava in this part of the Owyhee basin. Researchers from a university in Ohio have determined that the Jordan Craters lava erupted 150,000 years ago. But the rock looks so fresh you can almost believe the locals who say there are cowboy bootprints in it.

For those who live in central and western Oregon, start your trip to this remote corner of the state by driving Highway 20 east of Bend for 134 miles to Burns. Fill up your gas tank here.

Then continue east toward Jordan Valley on Highway 78 for 93 lonely miles to Burns Junction, where tumbleweeds blow through the windows of an erstwhile gas station and restaurant. You might also set your watch ahead an hour, because you have entered Mountain Time Zone.

From Burns Junction, take Highway 95 left for exactly 8 miles to a gravel side road on the left marked only by a stop sign. Follow this excellent gravel road left for 3.4 miles. Along the way you’ll pass through an open ranch gate marked “No Hunting or Trespassing,” but you’re still on a public road.

Beside a telephone pole at the 3.4-mile mark, fork to the right on a smaller, bumpier dirt road that goes through a green metal gate (leave it as you found it). Then you’ll cross Crooked Creek to a BLM sign, “Welcome to the Owyhee High Desert.”

This BLM road, traversing a treeless Martian landscape, is drivable by ordinary street vehicles unless there has been rain. In the unlikely event that the road becomes wet, your car will sink to its hubs in mud and you will camp for a day or two until the ground hardens.

Beyond the fork by the telephone pole 12.5 miles, you’ll reach a second fork in the road. Veer to the right.

In another 1.6 miles you’ll reach a third fork. This time go left, although this branch of the road is fainter.

Continue straight for 3.4 miles to a faint four-way X-shaped junction. Park here, because the road ahead becomes undrivable. If you have a global positioning system (GPS) device, the location here is N43 04.626” W117 44.131”.

From the X-junction, hike to the right on an old roadbed that descends 1.2 miles into Chalk Basin. Expect sweeping views of the canyon. Amid 3-foot-tall sagebrush you’ll find red paintbrush, yellow balsamroot, purple vetch, purple sage, and some cow pies.

After 1.2 miles, veer right at a fork and follow the old road across a wash with a homestead ruin (GPS N43 05.321’ W117 44.025’). Here you’ll see painted cliffs of banded chalk half a mile to the left. You can bushwhack up to these cliffs if you like, but for the recommended hike, turn right down the dry wash.

Don’t attempt this part of the hike if rain threatens. Flash floods are an infrequent but real threat. In dry weather the creek bed becomes an easy, scenic hiking route for 0.7 mile. Then a dry waterfall blocks the route (GPS location N43 05.393’ W117 43.407’).

Do not attempt scramble down the 15-foot drop ahead. Instead, backtrack 100 feet to a corner and go up a slope to the south. This detour takes you past a viewpoint for 0.3 mile to a side canyon with another big, hikable wash.

From here it is possible to follow a faint, very rough deer trail 0.7 mile east to the Owyhee River, but that’s another side trip for adventurers. For the recommended loop back to your car, turn right up the dry wash. Follow the creekbed 0.7 mile, keeping left at junctions, until you reach the head of the wash.

This is where you really need pathfinding experience, because there is no obvious route. You simply have to continue uphill to the left, heading southeast, for 0.2 mile until you suddenly reach the edge of an amazing canyon rim. Before you is the national park that is not yet crowded with tourists -- the wilderness that is not yet designated.

Pinnacles and flutes and ridges and hoodoos of colored chalk stand like armies in a forgotten valley below you. Explore to the left 0.4 mile to a viewpoint atop a yellow knoll and an even more spectacular yellow dome. Views here extend across the Owyhee River to the lava lands of the east.

To return to your car, head west along the canyon rim (to the right) for 0.3 mile up to a viewpoint that includes a distant glimpse of Steens Mountain. At this point you should also be able to see your car, on a tiny stripe of road to the west. Head directly there, cross country, for 0.7 mile to complete your tour.

A narrow strip of land along the Owyhee River has been covered by the modest protections of Wild and Scenic River status. But nothing is stopping companies from Russia or Bolivia from using America’s ancient mining laws to strip places like Chalk Basin for kitty litter. Why have Oregonians not risen in outrage to protect the vast Owyhee Canyonlands?

Probably because most people don’t know it is there.

For more information: Contact the BLM’s Vale District Office at 541-473-3144 or http://www.blm.gov/or/districts/vale/index.ph

-- William Sullivan

For more information on William Sullivan's work, visit www.oregonhiking.com.